Friday, April 20, 2007


Using the arts to heal and grow

“Place to escape, way express self, paintbrush be voice”…these are the words my daughter Sarah typed in response to the question: “What is it about painting and writing that make a difference in your life?”

Fifteen years ago, when Sarah was introduced to a communication system and computer, her “voice” and creative spirit emerged in writing, painting and poetry.

When words fail, whether due to challenging physical limitations like Sarah’s or because we have no words for the depth of our experience, the expressive arts can be powerful tools for personal growth and healing. The seeds of much of our creativity come from the deep well of the unconscious. Most of us have put a lid over that well since we were young and creativity was a natural part of play.

On Thursday evenings in May and June, Backus Hospital will offer an eight-week Expressive Arts series “Healing from the Inside Out,” pooling the talents of artists and teachers in the areas of writing, sound, music, poetry, drawing, and sculpting. Creating with the expressive arts helps to bypass our minds and access a deeper wisdom and intuition that can support our healing.

Kelly, a young woman with a difficult and challenging cancer diagnosis, uses art to help her cope. “When you’re sick it’s very lonely. A lot of my feelings are too difficult to express and even be aware of.” Kelly uses painting and sculpture to artistically recreate the physical and emotional impact of cancer and chemotherapy. “Primarily it’s a relief for me to express the experience from a deeper place than words can say.”

As well as gaining insight into our internal experience, our awareness can sometimes help us make transforming changes.

Sandi, an artist and teacher whose story was featured on the television program 20/20, will be teaching one of the expressive arts workshops on June 28. Twenty years ago Sandi was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor and told she had six months to live. “When I looked at my art I had been painting very dark images over the year; my grandmother who had died, flowers that were wilted, a cemetery…some part of me knew what was going on, so I decided I could use my art to help me heal.” Sandi spent the next three months painting a 60-foot mural on the wall of the Westerly library, which she entitled “Sacred Temple”(see her website at

She began a journey of healing by looking deeply at core beliefs that she felt may be contributing to her illness. After completing the mural masterpiece, Sandi whitewashed the wall to come to peace with the impermanence of life. The painting and erasing served as powerful tools in her learning and recovery.

Three people, three powerful uses of the expressive arts to enrich their lives. As Kelly added, “we all have a need to create and when that part is blocked because we are busy or sick, we feel bad. It’s an essential part of who we are”.

Fortunately we don’t need to be artists to use the arts to help us with uncertainty, grief, transition in our lives and personal growth. No talent of any kind is needed. There is no way to fail. In the words of poet Bob Holm, “Above me, wind does its best to blow leaves off the Aspen tree a month too soon. No use wind. All you succeed in doing is making music; the noise of failure growing beautiful.”
-- Amy Dunion, a registered nurse and massage therapist, is Coordinator of The William W. Backus Hospital’s Center for Healthcare Integration. This column should not replace advice or instruction from your personal physician. E-mail Dunion and all of the Healthy Living columnists at

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