Program that uses art to help cancer patients will have art show at the Morris
As part of the new synergy between GRU’s Summerville campus and its medical campus, Dr. Alan MacTaggart, chair of the Art Department, has developed an internship to send art students to work with patients at the GRU Cancer Center to help make the long, difficult cancer journey a little more tolerable and the treatments perhaps a little more effective.
“It can’t just all be about drugs and poisons to kill the cancer,” MacTaggart says. “Sometimes, it’s also your attitude.”
Increasingly, scientific evidence supports the value of art therapy, particularly with cancer patients.
“It all comes down to mind over matter and your personal will actually helping you to fight better against these things rather than being in a neutral space watching TV or being drugged all the time,” he says.
The program — a three-credit course which requires students to spend six hours a week working with patients — is part of the cancer center’s whole-patient approach to care.
“Our philosophy is to treat the patient as a whole, which means that we don’t only treat the cancer, we literally treat the patient,” says Dr. Samir Khleif, director of the GRU Cancer Center. “We address all aspects of the patient’s care and all aspects of the patient’s life.”
Part of that comes through standard cancer therapies like chemotherapy, radiation and surgery. Then comes addressing the patient’s environment, psychology, spirituality and the patient’s integration into the community. Art therapy, Khleif says, is part of this comprehensive approach to treating the disease.
He admits it’s a departure from the way the disease used to be treated.
“It’s a kind of non-traditional approach,” he says. “This is something that I integrated into the philosophy of patient care because we really want to approach the patient from all aspects.”
Because of the nature of the disease and its treatment, Khleif says cancer patients are unique. A cardiac patient, for example, might undergo a surgery and then go home, but cancer patients often suffer severely from the different treatments, which in the case of chemotherapy can mean long hours connected to an IV that is delivering toxic substances intended to kill the disease, but which often cause extremely negative side effects.
Besides that, the treatments are frequently boring, with nothing to do but watch TV and contemplate unpleasant things, which is why patients and caregivers alike find art therapy so encouraging.
“Art therapy is part of that comprehensive approach because it takes the patient’s mind off of things, it enhances the patient’s worth, it enhances the patient’s well being and it gives the patient an expressive medium to be able to think about where they are,” Khleif says.
MacTaggart says he was excited by the chance to give his students the opportunity to use their talents in such an uplifting way, but he knew that, because of the circumstances, it was important that only the most mature students be allowed to participate, which is why he personally screened each of the 10 students taking part in the program.
“I only wanted upperclassmen that were pretty well-grounded and mature enough to deal with the issues of working with cancer patients,” he says. “The last thing you want is for somebody who is working with a number of different people down at the cancer center not to be able to handle it if, say, one of the patients dies. You don’t want them to drop off and disappoint the other people they’ve been working with.”
Also, he says he wanted to make sure that they were in the program for the right reasons.
“They can’t be selfish,” he says. “They have to be selfless if they’re going to be involved in something like this.”
Leila Toatley is just one of those students. A nurse who works in the neonatal intensive care unit, she is uniquely qualified to understand the sensitivity required when dealing with patients and their families, and, as an art student, she is well schooled in the therapeutic power of art.
“It’s a powerful thing and we see it all the time in our art classes,” she says. “And here — it’s great to see what people come up with. I always tell them they don’t have to draw perfectly — if they just want to put down color, it’s still their experience and it’s coming from them and it has a meaning to them.”
MacTaggart says that while many of the patients who agree to participate in the program have no art experience whatsoever, they can still gain a lot from working with the students.
“Many people haven’t picked up a pencil to draw with in 30 or 60 years,” he says. “Basically, they’re going to start where they left off, or they have forgotten how to do a lot, so having an art student around who’s not judgmental but is just there to help and enjoy them is kind of a special gift. It’s alright for them to be primitive, but it’s also alright for the students to sort of demonstrate on another pad how to make something look like it’s in front of something else or some very simple perspective. They can get all the help they want.”
And the results are almost instant.
“All of a sudden, their head is in a place that is full of love and happiness and just the opposite of sitting there worrying about death,” MacTaggart says.
Even if a patient doesn’t want to draw — younger males, for example, tend to be a harder sell when it comes to art therapy — the students are still encouraged to engage the patients.
“I’ve told my people if they don’t really want to draw but they’re happy to be with you, then talk to them about their lives and what they loved to do and what their happiest memories are,” MacTaggart says. “For one thing, it’s taking their minds off things, and it’s at least putting their head in a happier place. And I tell them — you’re art students: draw them.”
Some of those pictures will accompany the artwork of patients (about 50 pieces in all) at a special exhibition called “An Exhibit of GRU Cancer Patient Art,” which opens with a special reception on Thursday, March 21, at 5 p.m. at the Morris Museum of Art’s Education Gallery. The exhibit will show until April 21.
Though the new program has only been in effect for a couple of months, MacTaggart has observed that patient satisfaction has been high.
“Whether it’s been life changing for my students, we’ll wait and see,” he says. “I know that at least one of my students has basically changed where she wants to go as an artist. She really wants to do the masters degree in art therapy and make this her career.
That student is Heather Romig. A tall, energetic woman with a quick smile and an infectious laugh, she started out wanting to be in the medical illustration program, but discovered her interaction with the patients had impacted her in ways she wasn’t necessarily prepared for.
“I found that I enjoy working one-on-one with people or in groups of people much more than I prefer the isolation that medical illustration can sometimes result in,” she says. “The nice thing about it for me is that it marries the two interests I have, which is medicine and art. I’m pretty passionate about both, so this gives me another sort of career path other than medical illustration, which had seemed like one of the only career fields I could get into that married science and art.”
One of the patients she works with is Roel Wielinga. A professional artist, he’s certainly not representative of the skill level of the patients seen by the students in the program, but if ever there was an advocate for the therapeutic power of art, it’s him. He is articulate, persuasive and full of praise.
“I wouldn’t be here right now if I hadn’t done that,” he says of his art. “If I had sat back in my bed and just watched TV like a lot of people and had nothing to do, I wouldn’t be here.”
Wielinga, who spent 20 years as an artist in the Air Force before working as an illustrator for magazines and comic books, has used art both as a distraction from the pain and uncertainty that goes along with his leukemia treatments as well as a way to make sense of what he’s going through.
“I made characters that represent me and my wife,” he says. “Then, I started doing illustrations that represented the sequences I went though the two years I was in and out of the hospital.”
The characters are firmly rooted in the fantasy genre — a bare-chested warrior and his voluptuous female guardian existing in a dangerous world filled with monsters and spirits. Though he drew the characters with a lot of strength and power, the drawings are complex. Never is it just the strong characters beating back the monstrous disease. Sometimes the hero is on the offensive, but other times he is wounded. Or succumbing. Or simply very small.
He points to one drawing, where the hero’s body looks resigned to defeat.
“When I was in a really bad state, I almost gave up, but my guardian pulls me back,” he says, moving his finger to his beaconing guardian. “I’m already in the spirit halo.”
The guardian, his wife, is always somewhere in these drawings, sometimes offering support, sometimes searching or sometimes, like in the picture he’s describing, the reason he has not given himself to the abyss.
What is especially fascinating about the pictures is that they’re not his way of looking back on the tough times, they are a representation of what he was feeling at the time it was all happening.
He compares one especially detailed drawing to one with fewer details. The more intense the time, he says, the more intense the concentration and the more intense the attention to detail and technique.
“You look at this one — I was drawing, but I wasn’t really there,” he says. “But when you look at the detail of this one when I knew that the end was here — I had to overcome.”
Not only does the art help him express the powerful emotions that are inside, but his wife, Marian, says it also helps him in practical ways.
“He has fought with what is called chemo brain,” she says. “He says his sequential thought process gets messed up, but when he was doing this, it helped him refocus.”
Romig, who credits working with Wielinga for helping her overcome an artist’s block, believes along with him that the art is responsible for results beyond mere distraction, which certainly has value in itself.
“I think when people have a tendency to internalize a lot of their illness, it actually causes the medicine to not be quite as effective,” she says. “Obviously, that’s all theoretical, but studies tend to show that when you have positive feedback and positive outlets in things like art therapy and music therapy, it just has a tendency to help the individual get through the struggle on a mental and emotional level.”
For a long time, Wielinga didn’t go back and look at his drawings. They were too raw and the scars from the treatments and the bone marrow transplant and the infections and the recurrences were just too fresh. And it’s because of that that he believes so strongly in the therapeutic properties of art.
“It’s a very good mental outlet and it’s something that will encourage the patients, whether they realize it or not, to get the strength and hope to battle whatever affliction they have,” he says. “It can be very positive.”
That’s just the reaction MacTaggart wants to hear, and though he is unsure whether or not art therapy is a program that will expand beyond its current form — Romig will have to find her masters in art therapy somewhere else — he too has no doubt about its worth.
“The fact is, visual art is an art of creation,” he says. “It’s the opposite of dying from a cancer.” You Might Also Like: