Creativity heals

Patients temper the world of blood tests, bone scans and cancer treatments with the therapeutic power of artistic expression.

Arts as Healing
Arts as Healing
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BY Diane Duke Williams

A group of adults meets regularly in a room at the Center for Advanced Medicine (CAM) at Washington University Medical Center to learn how to shade with charcoals, master watercolor strokes, and mold and shape clay. These students may be rediscovering art after many years or learning techniques for the first time. But they also share another common bond — battling cancer.

“I teach participants simple techniques and move them forward through different media,” says Vicki L. Friedman, a cancer survivor and the facilitator of Arts as Healing, a program designed to help cancer patients use art as a tool in healing and expressing themselves. “I don’t do crafts; this is not a craft class,” says Friedman. “This is college-level Art 101.”

Six years ago, Friedman and colleagues from the School of Medicine’s Medical Photography, Illustration and Computer Graphics (MedPIC) group decided they wanted to find a way to reach out to cancer patients and their caregivers. Thus began Arts as Healing, an initiative implemented at the Alvin J. Siteman Cancer Center at Barnes-Jewish Hospital and Washington University School of Medicine.

Rolling a dolly loaded with acrylic paints and a mannequin to the Infusion Center on the 7th floor of the CAM, Friedman, along with the MedPIC group, including manager Marcy H. Hartstein and senior graphic designer Andrea J. Myles, set out to change the tone of the area where cancer patients receive chemotherapy.

“It can be a pretty somber place,” says Friedman. “When people asked us why we were there, we told them we wanted to create a permanent piece of art and asked them if they would like to help.”

Arts as Healing eventually recruited 200 patients, family members, friends, nurses, doctors and other caregivers to paint squares on the mannequin, which is now displayed at the Barnard Health and Cancer Information Center located in the CAM.

Today, MedPIC has expanded the Arts as Healing program to include studio classes, large group art projects, wellness fairs and support groups. Since its inception in 2005, the program has benefitted more than 5,000 people.

John F. DiPersio, MD, PhD, the Virginia A. and Sam J. Golman Professor of Medicine and director of the Division of Oncology, says Arts as Healing has been a transformative program for many of his patients. “One former patient told me that being in the Arts as Healing program was the only time she wasn’t reminded that she was sick and in a hospital,” DiPersio says. “It was the only time she felt free.”

That’s certainly been the case for breast cancer survivor Antoinette Crayton. After her diagnosis in July 2009, Crayton underwent a lumpectomy, follow-up surgery for a major infection in her breast and radiation. One day while walking through the CAM, Crayton saw a sign advertising Friedman’s art class.

“I decided I needed to do this,” says Crayton, 58, who worked at Southwestern Bell for 32 years and now is a creative writer. “And I’m so glad I did. Coming here and feeling the energy and support of this class is such a wonderful gift.”

Kaye Quentin, a 75-year-old who has volunteered at the Saint Louis Zoo for many years, has never thought of herself as an artist. But each time she attends an art class, she is reminded she’s not alone in her fight against lung cancer.

“I enjoy talking to everyone,” says Quentin. “It’s nice knowing that we’re all in this together and are all hoping for remission. You constantly live with the possibility that your cancer will return.”

George Watson, 58, learned to draw in high school and always felt he would get back to his art some day. A diagnosis of colon cancer in March 2005 brought him to the Arts as Healing program. “This class has inspired me,” says Watson. “It also lifts up your spirits and keeps your mind occupied.”

On September 24, more than 40 patients in the Arts as Healing program displayed some of the art they have created at the Hope Grows Art Show at the Duane Reed Gallery in St. Louis. Along with their work, the artists posted biographies that described their individual journeys with cancer.

“This was their night,” Friedman says. “We wanted them to enjoy being artists and bask in the moment.”

To learn more about the Arts as Healing program and to view additional patient art, please visit

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