by John Stoehr
From a May report I wrote called "An artful way to heal," exploring a Savannah hospital's use of art to promote healing. . . . —J.S.
. . .
Elegant, mystical, exuding grace and light.
That's how you might describe "Rainfall," a life-size sculpture by Midori Harima of a gray-and-white copy-paper pony suspended by dozens of thin black threads.
It hangs alone in an isolated alcove. It reflects the light of the late-morning sun. It evokes stillness and strength and peace-of-mind. And it resides not in a museum or gallery or school for the arts, but in the most unexpected of places: the William and Iffath Hoskins Center for Biomedical Research.
Part of Memorial Health, the center holds numerous works, including a bevy of paintings by Leonor Fini.
Ana Skibska's huge mobile, made of small purple-and-green tubes of hand-blown glass, hangs from the ceiling. It refracts the light beaming through the building's glass facade and looks like a twisting strand of DNA, which is appropriate. Researchers at the center are looking into ways to customize cancer treatment according to a patient's genetic code.
The art is part of a collection of more than 1,000 works amassed over the past six years. It contains original works in an array of styles from local and regional artists.
Why has Memorial Health bothered to collect all this art? For the same reason hospitals across the nation are collecting art, installing gardens, building rooms for meditation: to promote healing.
"We wanted to put one piece of original art in each of the rooms, the halls and the treatment areas to help people forget they are in a hospital," said Amy Hughes, who continues to amass the collection while serving as the hospital's Congressional lobbyist.
On a recent tour of the hospital, an obviously fascinated toddler was observed looking at the fish painted on one of the walls, and several patients said the art really perks up their rooms' atmosphere.
'Pain is a funny thing'
Health professionals have known intuitively that art has a lot to offer medical science. Recent studies are providing evidence to lend greater credence to that intuition, said Cathy Malchiodi, spokesperson for the American Art Therapy Association.
Two studies, one from Northwestern University in Chicago and one from Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia, found that cancer patients expressed fewer perceptions of pain and fatigue after experiencing visual art.
Note the word "perceptions." Art therapy has shown to help patients with the depression associated with fatigue. Although it doesn't treat the cause of pain, Malchiodi said, it can "influence the mind."
"Pain is a funny thing," Malchiodi said. "Some people suffer tremendously during cancer treatment while others suffer little. Anything that reduces pain is helpful. Even if we don't know how it works, we are now able to measure the results of its effects."
The arts are also being used to help treat trauma victims. Patients may have difficulty talking about their trauma using language. This is when images, shapes and symbols can be a way of channeling unspeakable memories.
"It's a bridge to talking about it," said Susan Anderson, executive director of Atlanta's ArtReach Foundation, which dispatched art therapists to help children in Bosnia and post-Katrina New Orleans.
"It's a process of healing. By letting it come out on a piece of paper or clay, it's as healing as if you were able to use words."
'Science in motion'
Walk into the Curtis and Elizabeth Anderson Cancer Institute and the first thing you'll see is a large oil painting depicting a scene you'd find anywhere in the rural lowcountry.
"It's full of peaceful marshes and nature scenes," Hughes said. "These people don't feel well. These are images that can give them hope, comfort and peace."
In deciding what kinds of art to add to the collection - most of which was donated by artists and hospital supporters - she kept in mind an aesthetic vision you'd expect from an interior decorator.
For the cancer ward, where patients are weary from treatment, she selected peaceful works. For the main entrance to the hospital, which contains a bustling cafe, she chose flashier fare, such as a three-dimensional sculpture of a wading bird in a marsh. For the biomedical center, a place of deep thinking and innovation where patients do not go, she stretched in terms of sensibility, aiming for the spectral quality of Fini's painting (each of a face with different, sometimes, disconcerting expressions) and for the grandeur of Skibska's huge mobile, which Hughes calls "science in motion."
One area of the hospital complex has the feeling of "a Southern resort," Hughes said, while another, with images of palm trees and waterfalls, feels like a Hawaiian hotel.
The healing benefits of art are not restricted to the visual, however. Hughes hires a harpist to play in the neo-natal ward, where premature babies are cared for.
"You can see the effect of the music," Hughes said. "You can see the heart-rate monitors on the babies calm way down."
(Image courtesy of the Savannah Morning News)