The Da Vinci Mode
How Art’s Versatile
Brush Strokes Comfort Us

What we take in with our eyes contributes to our capacity to
understand the world and discover a place within that helps us cope
and heal. From painting to photography, here’s how creating
and consuming the visual arts can help bring us to that higher
ground and place of peace.

by Claire Sykes

February 2009

When Phil Kelley was undergoing intensive radiation and chemotherapy for esophagus cancer, his wife Mary bought him a painting by one of their favorite Seattle artists. The painting by mathematician-turned-artist Michael Schultheis, entitled “Convergence Sequence 3,” was replete with subtle mathematical imagery and “really connected to his analytical mind,” Mary Kelley said of her husband, a Chiloquin, Oregon cartographer.

Artist Michael Schultheis“Convergence Sequence 3” comforted Phil and Mary Kelley of Oregon.

Phil Kelley died last spring, but not before he and his wife were able to draw some comfort from the Schultheis artwork. “Even though he didn’t survive, I think he was in a healing place, mentally,” says Mary Kelley, who was inspired to take up painting by the artwork. Inherent in the painting’s mathematical equations, she says, are “a kind of absolute truth that connects me with all of creation, and to me that’s very healing.

Phil was interested in astronomy, and this painting gives me a feeling of looking at the universe. I think he’s out there somewhere in the universe, and that’s comforting to me.”

From prehistoric cave paintings and sacred masked rituals to digital pictures, for thousands of years we humans have been making our creative mark on the world.

Across cultures and time, our renderings have communicated and decorated, invoked and inspired—and healed.

A Reel Approach To Therapy

John W. Hesley, PhD, used to recommend novels to patients in his psychology practice.

Hesley figured the books would help spark discussion about relevant issues or conflicts in his patients’ lives. “Most of the time I recommended novels to people it would take them up to four weeks to read it, and by then we had long since gone past the point we were trying to make,” Hesley recalls.

So he switched from librarian mode to film critic, recommending more quickly consumable movies that might unlock emotional roadblocks or touch a nerve during therapy.

Hesley, who with his wife Jan, a clinical social worker, wrote Rent Two Films and Let’s Talk in the Morning (Wiley), has used the 1980 film “Ordinary People,” about a family’s strained relationships, to treat a parent who was overbearing and “vicariously living through her children.” His wife often employs the 1996 movie “Matilda,” about a sweet girl with mean parents and a cruel school principal, to help patients work through memories of a difficult childhood.

Movie story lines, Hesley says, do not have to mirror a patient’s life for film therapy to work; patients need only relate to a film character’s emotions. “Sometimes you need a diferent perspective, so you say, ‘No, you’re not exactly like this, but there may be some elements there,’ and hopefully you get someone breaking through that.” —Allan Richter

Art as a tool for healing is as ancient as natural medicine itself. Originally, these were one and the same, with tribal shamans who entered an intense space of image-
making and other art forms to free the healing spirit within themselves and others.

Creating and consuming art has always felt good. It can also help people grieve, cope and rebuild, as post-9/11 sidewalk shrines and the AIDS quilt, with panels memorializing the lives of people who have died of the disease, have shown.

Researchers at the University of Bari in Italy recently found that looking at beautiful art could not only heal emotional wounds but may even help people overcome physical pain (Consciousness and Cognition 7/08). In the study, people selected 20 paintings they considered most ugly and beautiful from among 300 works by artists such as Leonardo da Vinci and Botticelli. As they looked at the beautiful paintings, the subjects rated the pain from a quick laser pulse on their hands as a third less intense than with the other paintings or a blank canvas. The researchers pointed to the study to underscore the role that hospital aesthetics play in recovery.

Whether you need to mourn a loss, calm down after an argument or feel more positive about your medical treatment, or you simply want to deepen your connection to yourself and the world, art can help you get there. “Creativity is so powerful because it taps into our source of wisdom, power, healing and joy,” says Laura Elliott, an artist and holistic therapist in Naples, Florida. “Our culture breeds an incessant need to create barriers of protection, which tends to be a form of fear, often unconscious. If you look at it energetically, we’re often blocking the life force from flowing freely through us, and that can cause stress and disease. Creativity releases whatever needs to be released and breaks through those barriers. This helps us uncover ourselves, and get back to that true, core place of being.”

Unlike art therapy, which involves psychoanalysis with a trained therapist, art as a vehicle for healing—commonly referred to as the expressive arts—requires only you. Of course, an instructor or facilitator can help, as you work together to ferret out insights and free yourself of limiting thoughts, feelings or patterns that keep you from where you want to be physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually.

Peace Through a Lens

In the space of 18 months, professional photographer Ginny Felch endured the loss of her 15-year-old son Zachary in a car accident, her mother to heart disease and her father to suicide. Then her Oakland, California home went up in flames.

Felch hadn’t picked up her camera for months when her shock and grief gave way to creativity. She began aiming her lens at the world again. “Once I decided that I wanted to be here,” she says, “I started to really appreciate again the tiniest things that before I had taken for granted.” And she let her camera capture it all, in her color close-ups of roses and photo collages.

“Just recently, I’ve been dealing with post-traumatic stress,” she says. “Grief is still a very familiar place to go to, and I’ll probably always have to deal with it.” Felch does so by turning her camera on it. The photo resonates strongly with her if she shoots something that has a connection to her son, like the pomegranates that the two used to enjoy together.

“For me,” Felch says, “photography is about focus. That relaxes me, and brings me into the absolute moment, truly observing things, which takes me away from the past—and the future. It gets me away from suffering. If I can bring myself back to the very moment, the sounds, the smells, the heart of what is happening right now, it just becomes peaceful. To me, that’s what healing is.”—C.S.

Drawing Strength
As of 2004, more than 2,000 hospitals have offered arts programming, reports the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations. Scripps Memorial Hospital’s Arts for Healing Program, in La Jolla, California, is one of them. Working with Studio Vivace, a San Diego consulting firm that brings healing visual art to people facing an illness, the hospital displays art created to heal. “The art beautifies the hospital, making it lovelier, and more patient-friendly and therapeutic,” says Naimeh Tanha, executive director at Studio Vivace, whose artists also work with brain-injured Iraq vets at Scripps Memorial Hospital Encinitas.

Nearly every patient’s room flaunts an original painting or print at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, in Nashville, Tennessee. “Viewing art can take a patient into another world, away from the stress and anxiety of illness and feelings of discomfort,” says Donna Glassford, the hospital’s director of Cultural Enrichment.

Having the right art before your eyes can also reduce your systolic blood pressure and your pulse, as discovered in a study by Roger Ulrich, PhD, director and professor of the Center of Health Systems and Design in the College of Architecture at Texas A&M University.

“Art can express what words can’t, especially if there’s been trauma,” says Cathy Malchiodi, PhD, art therapist in Louisville, Kentucky, and author of The Art Therapy Sourcebook (McGraw-Hill). “Our brains can actually shut down the language part if we’ve been really traumatized.” That’s because the brain stores those memories as images. The famous Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, who was severely injured in a bus accident when a rod impaled her lower body, conveyed her physical and emotional pain through her paintings, many of which were created while lying in bed. “It really helps to get something that’s painful outside of you. Once you see it, you can start to work with it and change it,” Malchiodi explains.

It helps to relax before painting, as Daniel A. Monti, MD, director of the Jefferson-Myrna Brind Center of Integrative Medicine, at Thomas Jefferson University and Hospital, in Philadelphia, found in his studies with cancer patients. He calls it Mindfulness-based Art Therapy (MBAT), which integrates basic mindfulness meditation skills with creative arts tasks. He says, “This combined intervention significantly reduces stress and stress-related symptoms, and increases health-related quality of life, by objective measures.” How so? “The mindfulness meditation skills allow people to get into a relaxed state, to utilize the right side of the brain. Then they’re more able to express the stressors and traumas that they’re coping with, enhancing the art therapy process.”

Artist and holistic therapist Laura Elliott’s “expressive art” aims to release buried feelings and create
a sense of inner peace.

 

The Power of Color
Painting is one of the most effective healing art forms because it’s familiar to most of us, and because of its colors and fluidity. As Elliott puts it, “Everything is energy and every color has a different vibration. But red to one person might mean something else to another, and it can vary from day to day.” With each brush stroke, your paint engages with the movement of your body, allowing you to immediately express and reveal a visual translation of your emotions and thoughts. “It’s moving energy. It all helps in releasing.”

As a holistic therapist, Elliott says her goal is to help people move “from their head to their heart. I often refer to the process as painting from the heart. Before I enter a workshop, I first try to get myself in a heart-centered place, with poetry and body movement. Then I fill the room with love and speak from my heart. To help others come from a heart-centered place, they pick quotes from a bowl, or do qi gong or tai chi movements. Depending on the group, we may even do some singing.” She then explains the basics of working with brush, water and paint. “I may suggest that they paint their fear, or if they have an injured knee, paint their knee. It can help reveal whatever emotional issue they might have with that.”

One day, alone with her watercolors, Elliott started with a circle of yellow, then added black hatchings. “For me, the black was what I allowed to get in the way of stepping into my power, my true self, because of the fear of being truly who I am,” she says. When she framed the whole thing in black paint, “I realized that by inhibiting myself with my own fears, I boxed myself in. My fear made me feel angry, and that’s when I lashed out in red.”

No experience is needed for what Elliott calls expressive painting. And since such art is totally subjective and never deemed incorrect, “there’s no pressure to perform,” she adds. “Allow a color to pick you, and let your hand move across the paper and see where it goes.”

Your deeper self knows what it wants to say, in the colors that fill your brush or the clay that forms in your hands. And if you don’t feel
like being creative, then gaze at your favorite painting or photograph as if you’ve never looked at it before. Notice the art where you hadn’t before, like in the bare branches of trees or the way sunlight crosses the floor. When you let art into your life, whether you make it or just take it in, you enter your own innate capacity—through healing—to recreate yourself again and again.

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