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Art (as) Therapy

Eric Meythaler

Artist Gaile Lyn Beizavi shares the therapeutic effect of art by offering free lessons to “the younger generation,” the elderly, and people with terminal illnesses.


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.

Try It

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.

Liking It

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.

A Release

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.


Oley is and will remain a marvelous source of support and caring, a place to vent and get answers. But how else can we deal with all these feelings? How do we get them out so they don’t eat holes in us both mentally and physically? Arts, crafts, or a more organized formal art therapy can help. As you are creating your work, you get the joy of the tactile and kinesthetic aspect, as well as touching a hidden creative part.

Have you ever gardened? The peace of mind of simply feeling the soil is astounding. Remember the pottery scene in the movie Ghost? If that’s not a release of feelings, nothing is.


Formal Art Therapy

Kaye Shaddock is an art therapist in the Chicago area who has her master’s degree in this form of helping people cope. I was lucky to have her answer my questions about art therapy via an interview through our computers. She is personally a fiber artist who “dabbles in painting.” Her training, like all art therapy professionals, includes art therapy theory and practice, counseling and psychotherapy skills, and dealing with the dynamics and varieties of family and cultural issues.


Art therapy uses visual arts—as opposed to music or writing—as a conduit. The American Art Therapy Association has as a primary goal “to improve emotional well-being.” A recent newsletter from the Mayo Clinic reports that their art therapy studies have also shown a marked reduction in physical pain for the clients. Although art therapy addresses both physical and mental concerns, however, the main focus is on the thoughts and emotions of the client.


The art itself is not the main thrust of an art therapy program. It is the means to an end. Clients choose their own art form—be it painting, sculpture, or found-item collages. What the client creates is completely up to that individual. Indeed, what you create is generally considered a direct expression of how you are feeling inside. It may be slashes of red and black marker if anger is welling up, or a serene place where you would like to be in your head.


This is where the therapist earns her keep. Her job now is to have you explain and analyze your art and describe the emotions expressed in it. You are taking your inner world and creating a physical outward expression of it. Not only is this cathartic, but it allows you and the therapist to then deal with the emotional issues of your situation. As nutrition support consumers, we have our fair share of those emotions.

When I first had my PEG I was struck by how much of our family and social lives revolve around food. Holiday gatherings, parties, playing cards at a friend’s house…they all involve the kitchen or a restaurant. Eating with a plastic plunger or bag and dripline certainly sets us apart. As Kaye so eloquently stated, “People who are tube [or IV] fed can process the loss that they experience by no longer eating by mouth…they can learn to reframe their situation, through art, gathering a deeper understanding of the feelings that are behind this loss. Like any emotion, gaining greater insight is so helpful in understanding and moving forward.”


Art therapists are most commonly found in private practice or in hospital and clinic settings. Sessions are invariably less expensive than the classic fifty-minute hour spent with a psychologist. What’s better is that art therapy is a lot more fun.


As much as my longstitch is therapeutic to me, it is not true art therapy. I might idly think about my art and why I do the pictures I do, but I don’t have a guide, a person trained to help me sort out how the art and associated emotions relate to my diseases and having a PEG tube. Like Kaye says, if you “are looking for more insight/help from an outside party,” you need a trained art therapist. But whatever direction you choose, a creative outlet is another possible and important way to deal with our lot in life.

Art Therapy

Robin Lang

This watercolor of pears was photographed during an exhibit
of Robin’s works (the bit of glare on the left side is from light
reflected off the glass).


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.

Get Involved

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

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This website is an educational resource. It is not intended to provide medical advice or recommend a course of treatment. You should discuss all issues, ideas, suggestions, etc. with your clinician prior to use. Clinicians in a relevant field have reviewed the medical information; however, the Oley Foundation does not guarantee the accuracy of the information presented, and is not liable if information is incorrect or incomplete. If you have questions please contact Oley staff.


Updated in 2015 with a generous grant from Shire, Inc. 


This website was updated in 2015 with a generous grant from Shire, Inc. This website is an educational resource. It is not intended to provide medical advice or recommend a course of treatment. You should discuss all issues, ideas, suggestions, etc. with your clinician prior to use. Clinicians in a relevant field have reviewed the medical information; however, the Oley Foundation does not guarantee the accuracy of the information presented, and is not liable if information is incorrect or incomplete. If you have questions please contact Oley staff.
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