Art as a tool for healing
July 3, 2008 · Updated 7:46 PM
"Elizabeth Foor took a few pastel crayons from a box and began sketching colorful lines and shapes on the blank page in front of her. Suddenly, a patch of dark orange-red she had scribbled in the lower, right-hand corner caught her attention.Oh! she said, as if startled by her own design. There's definitely something there. I need to get that toned down a bit. Foor has never claimed to be an artist, but art is helping her through a difficult time in her life.As she completes chemotherapy and moves on to radiation treatment for cancer, Foor is working with creative arts therapist Carol Theodore Lambias to turn her emotions, hopes and fears into pieces of art.You do not have to have art skills ... to use art for your own healing practices, Lambias said. In art therapy, art is not a product, it's a process to learn about ourselves.Foor has learned enough about herself so far that she recognizes the orange-red patch on her paper for what it is - pent-up anger. She shifts her attention to elsewhere on the page, to the hopeful, blue, cloud-like images she started the design with. And to the positive, almost festive, golden-yellow circle at the center. Things are not all bad. It's just that they're not all good either.That's they way things are for Foor right now, and it shows in her art. Lambias has been using art therapy with cancer patients, their families and caregivers for about 3 years. She brought her program to Whidbey General Hospital in March. The hospital itself has encouraged the use of art as a recovery aid since 1997 and hosts an annual show of art produced by cancer survivors and those around them.Art, in all its forms, has been used off and on as a healing tool since the 1930s, said Lambias. But it wasn't until the 1970s that art therapy became popular as a way of helping cancer patients by supporting and potentially assisting the body's natural immune system. Today, art therapy is considered to be a form of complementary medicine recognized by agencies such as the National Institutes of Health and the American Cancer Society.A field of study with the imposing name of psychoneurolimmunology explores how emotions affect healing. Studies have shown direct links between physical health and emotional health, and that recovery can sometimes be enhanced by improving the emotional state of the patient through the use of creative arts such as painting, music, writing and dance.Lambias said the art she sees from her students is often filled with feelings that might otherwise go unexpressed - feelings that could lead to increased stress and anxiety. Though art therapy can work for many different illnesses, it seems particularly valuable to cancer patients and their supporters because the disease often takes a huge emotional toll.Your life is taken over, said Foor. It certainly does change your perspective. A diagnosis of cancer can leave a person questioning their past life, their future and their faith. It can raise long-forgotten memories and new fears.Lambias likes to quote another cancer survivor who used art therapy for emotional release.The more of it that is on the paper the less of it you have to carry inside, she said.At the same time, though, Lambias added that pain and suffering are not what her art sessions are all about.We look at discouragement to see what it looks like, but we also look at hope, she said. We concentrate not on the cancer but on the things that make life worth living.Many art therapy participants can't tell you why they created what they did, but they usually know the emotions their art represents. Sometimes the art features a collage of images trimmed from magazines. The artists are given stacks of periodicals and told to use whatever feels right.I just turn a page and say 'That's it, I can identify with that,' said Foor. Working with collage is a good place to start, Lambias said, because many people lack confidence in their drawing skills. In the final analysis, though, Lambias said skill doesn't matter.Art created this way has a lot of soul. That tends to carry an impact even if it lacks technical skill, she said. If I ask you to create a picture that symbolizes your hope, you're the only person in the world who can do it.Cancer caregiver Paula Rounds of Coupeville said she didn't consider herself an artist when she first sat in on one of Lambias' sessions. But she found the work created by she and her husband Gordy, a cancer survivor for about 2 1/2 years, had great meaning.It brings things right to the surface that you didn't know were there, she said. People would find it a great benefit to attend.The art can also stir the emotions of people who see it.(The artists) are surprised about the power of their work and the effect it can have on other people, said Lambias. Renee Yanke, cancer program manager at Whidbey General, said that people viewing the works at the hospital's annual art show are often moved to tears of both sadness and joy.The artwork is very powerful, she said. We always make sure boxes of Kleenex are around.By the end of her session, Foor was satisfied with her work. And she decided to leave the orange-red blob in the corner unchanged.I don't know about a title, she said as she and Lambias took a minute or two to study the finished page.That's OK, Lambias said after a thoughtful pause. Some pictures have words and others do not.-----------------Art therapy infoFor more information on art therapy support groups call Carol Theodore Lambias at (360) 221-7420 or the Whidbey General Hospital Oncology Clinic at 678-7624 or (360) 321-5173. The hospital's annual art show will take place Oct. 21 and 22 at the Bayview Gallery. Here are some upcoming themes for Carol Lambias' art therapy sessions. Friday, July 21: Drawing strength from sources of support. Friday, Aug. 4: Drawing strength from nature. Friday, Aug. 18: Drawing strength from spiritual experiences. Sessions are held from 1-3 p.m. in the annex trailer next to Whidbey General Hospital. All art materials are provided."