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Art (as) Therapy
All of us who have joined the Oley Foundation have many worldly cares as a patient, caregiver, or friend. Much is written about the need of breaks for caregivers. And patients would certainly love to escape the pains of disease and treatment. But where do we go if no one can spell us, or we are confined by a body that betrays us? This sounds like a job for art or a craft, or maybe formal art therapy.
Children and adults alike often enjoy being alone while surrounded by family, home, and familiar activity. We may want complete mental involvement while leaving behind homework and chores, and a way to retreat from the cares of the world while outwardly expressing ourselves. Again, arts or crafts can be the answer.
Focus on Process, Not Product
Many of you will remember Robin Lang, a very active, long-time Oley member. During her life, Robin was a watercolor artist who used her creative energy as her own personal art therapy. She was working on an article about art therapy for this newsletter when she died [see below] . I am privileged to be able to pick up from where Robin left off writing.
Like Robin, I, too, am an artist. My medium is 16-count canvas on which I create landscapes, bird and flower studies, even portraits, using a needle and wool yarn. This process is called longstitch. It’s a form of needlepoint popular in England.
Robin says she sometimes didn’t like what she’d painted. I can relate to that. I had four rather nice pieces in a local gallery’s fabric art show. Even as people oohed and aahed, I would comment on all the mistakes of tautness or line. You know, it’s okay to criticize your own products. But what is important is the process—dive in and just DO something creative. Enjoy the warm feel of clay or the delight of making bead ornaments to give away.
Robin would even take her supplies along for extended hospital stays. My yarns and tools are light. They don’t take up much space and travel well, which is an advantage.
Robin’s powerful statement about using art to deal with her poor physical condition rings a bell with all of us. I know when I’m working away I am concentrating so much that for a couple of hours I forget I hurt. I get to use both sides of my brain—the creative side for the picture and use of colors, and the mathematical side counting squares on both the graph paper and canvas (and hoping against hope that east will meet west when I’m done).
The absolutely hardest part, like with many adventures, is taking that first step. We’re tired and just don’t want to do anything. One of the recent discussions on Oley’s online forum was about the connection between fatigue and autoimmune diseases. Half a dozen people chimed in that fatigue was a major component of just about all of the ailments that necessitate getting food through a tube or via IV. Many days it’s hard enough for me to just get my legs shuffling across the floor and open a couple of cans of formula.
I can hear people saying, “It’s not just fatigue that stops me. I don’t have an artistic bone in my body.” I thought the same thing for years. During thirty years as an elementary teacher, words and science were my forte. I borrowed craft ideas from colleagues and had parents in to oversee the projects.
Surprisingly, the dam was broken during an outdoor education class for teachers. We learned not to draw a leaf or flower per se, but to draw the lines and shadows and shapes we saw. When we were done, our efforts looked remarkably like what we were trying to draw. Try it. From there, it is a short step to seeing pictures in your mind and creating those. If your fingers are still frozen, though, many hobby stores and catalogues have marvelous projects and kits to put together or draw.
So how is all of this therapeutic? What is “art therapy” anyway? For Robin and me, it means distracting the mind and getting so deeply involved—even lost—in what we are creating that the real world of pain, disability, disease, and depression disappears for a pleasant stretch of time. It gives me something to look forward to even on those days when nausea and pain infuse every joint.
One of the tricks is to always have a couple different things going, so if your hands say, “No clay play today!” (I have very poetic knuckles), you can pull out a paint-by-number, or the cute felt teddy bear you are putting together for a grandchild. And guys—no excuses—you can do this just as well. A majority of famous artists have been men. Remember the fierce football lineman Rosey Grier? He was a knitter.
Longing to Longstitch
I started doing longstitch when I was recovering from cancer and radiation. (The cancer is gone, but the radiation damage is here to stay.) One can only do so many jigsaw puzzles and read so many books. I needed another low-energy but involving activity. My fabulous advocate and caregiver (also known as Gwen, my wife) brought home a kit to stitch a picture of one of our favorite sites, the San Xavier del Bac mission in Tucson.
The kit came complete with yarn and picture preprinted on canvas. I absolutely loved it and wanted more. But this form of stitchery is not big in the U.S. There are no books or magazines devoted to the hobby and precious few kits can be found in any store or U.S. Web site.
My electronic searching took me to England, where longstitch is very popular. I bought and worked some pieces from there, but with taxes and shipping, $30 kits were costing well over $100. Again my advocate saved the day. “Why don’t you just create your own pictures?” she asked. After indulging in all the excuses I mention above, I buckled down and discovered a surprisingly good artistic ability. It’s more cartoon style than trained artist, but pretty good nonetheless.
I have created landscapes, mountain scenes, a dozen different butterflies, and a series of pictures where I have hidden in the stitchery animals and plants relative to the main picture. For example, my saguaro at sunset has a roadrunner, scorpion, and other desert life hidden as part of the background stitching.
The longstitch process involves drawing a picture and deciding on colors; graphing the work onto paper with the same size squares as the canvas I will use (smaller holes equal more detail); and the actual needlework. A typical piece will consume around a hundred hours from start to finish. What I do is not fine art, but it is much more than craft. I’ve had two gallery showings so far, with lots of compliments, but no buyers.
When I read the journal entries and discussion on the Oley forum or in the newsletter, several things stand out. None of us is a one-ailment/one-problem patient. Stress, family issues, and depression are constant companions. The mental and social aspects of tube or IV feeding are powerful enough, then add on everything else and our lives can be overwhelming.
Art TherapyRobin Lang
As a child, do you recall drawing, coloring, and painting as fun activities? Many people do. As we grow older we become involved in other things and leave behind that “kid’s stuff.” Art therapy is a mental health profession that uses the creative process of art-making to improve the physical, mental, and emotional well-being of people of all ages.
Art therapy dates back to the mid 1940s, and about a decade later it became a recognized profession. Art therapy integrates the fields of visual art, such as drawing, painting and sculpture, and the creative art process with counseling and psychotherapy. Art therapy is helpful to people at any stage of life. It treats anxiety, depression, and other mental or emotional problems. People with social and emotional problems related to disabilities and illness, and those who’ve suffered trauma and loss, find art therapy to be beneficial. Art therapy programs can be found in many settings—hospitals, clinics, wellness centers, educational institutions, businesses, and private practice.
Me and Art
“Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder.” I know this to be true, however, as a watercolor artist, oftentimes I do not like what I behold. It takes great concentration to enjoy the experience of painting and turn the critic’s voice “off” in my head.
Sometimes I’m too tired to do house chores, but I am able to paint. When I’ve been hospitalized for long periods, I’ve asked my sister to bring art supplies from home. She brought them and a new tablet of paper from my nephew. I painted away anger, frustration, loneliness, and scary things that kept me awake at night. I gave paintings to other patients. They liked them, which made me feel good. I feel peaceful after painting—no longer like a caged animal. It’s great therapy.
Whether you’re painting or you choose another medium, try something creative. The benefits are immeasurable. For more information about getting involved with arts, crafts, classes, and the like, check with your adult education centers, after-school programs, and local library. Many offer very reasonable classes on all kinds of activities.
LifelineLetter, September/October 2011