Harry van Bommel: The Art of Healing
I asked Bill why he was painting when he had only a few weeks left to live.
"You know, until I started to paint, I was dying," he said. "Now I am living until I die. I am creating cards and small paintings that are beautiful. The art is beautiful because I did it - not because a 'dying guy' did it. I am productive again. I am creating work that will be a legacy for my wife and children. I feel whole again. It feels good."
Bill was living in a hospice near London, England, when I met him in 2000. We would describe him as dying, but he had things he wanted to do before he died. Art gave him that freedom to be himself again.
Art is an Equalizer
We often talk about seeing a patient as a "whole person." Yet the healthcare system often sees and categorizes people by their disease or their long-term disabilities. We don't recognize their gifts and skills; we label them only by their disability or diseased body parts. Using the arts changes our perspective of people. We begin to treat them as people again.
So how do we use the arts more frequently to heal people physically, emotionally, and even spiritually? A number of arts groups across Canada have started to bring the arts to the healing arts. Their goal is simply to match artists of all kinds with people who have healthcare issues that could benefit from drawing, painting, singing, playing an instrument, sculpting, and the other arts. The process is based on a few basic principles:
1. Integrate patients into the arts community rather than segregating them into art groups for the ill, disabled, or dying.
2. Give voice to people's craving to create. This holds true for both the artist and the person in the healthcare system.
3. Provide artists to people where they live: in their homes, in long-term care facilities, in hospitals or best of all, within art classes or artist groups in the community.
4. Understand that the arts are therapeutic; not a therapy. Although there are art therapists, what most people need is the creative outlet of the arts rather than a therapy to deal with personal issues.
5. Art provides the artist with a legacy. Each artist in the community has an opportunity to extend their legacy to give art to those who often thought they could not be artists.
6. Art funding in health care must come from the global budget of any facility or healthcare program rather than from fund-raised dollars for "special" projects. Arts must be integrated with the healing arts - pun intended. Boards of directors within the healthcare community must be helped to understand that the whole patient requires whole funding - not "special" funding that is easily deleted from the budget.
7. Community members need to contribute to the arts in the healthcare sector because all of us will be ill and all of us will benefit from time spent with a passionate and compassionate artist. Community endowments for Arts-care would provide the Arts Council with steady funding to provide this invaluable legacy within the community.
8. Artists can either volunteer their time and skills or receive the going rate for art instruction.
9. Although funders require research to "prove" the effectiveness of any patient intervention, artists should not spend their time doing research. Other people will do that for them.
10. Informal arts are better than organized art. Allow a natural relationship to develop between artists and community members. Do not create lots of policies and procedures. Art is freeing and should not be limited by preconceived notions.
Art is Healing
One only has to see the eyes of an artist to know the healing effects of art. A bass player in a jazz band is in his 80s. He walks very slowly to the bass that is taller than he is. His fingers are arthritic and one wonders if he can still hold his instrument, never mind play it. The wondering stops, however, as soon as he warms up. His fingers begin to move up and down his bass. Within a few moments, his fingers are as nimble as they were decades before. He is a musician. Each time he plays, he heals himself. Each time he plays, he inspires his audience and the healing extends to those who hear him play.
Joe Feldman lives in a long-term care facility. He is in his early 70s. His great loves in life are visiting with friends and smoking. His eyes sparkle best, however, when he draws. He has had only a few lessons in drawing many years ago. He does not usually draw on his own initiative but when coaxed, he focuses with the energy of a much younger man. When he finishes a portrait, his eyes light up and he smiles the smile of complete joy - he has created a gift of immeasurable value and he knows it. One of his drawings hangs in our kitchen for all to see. We show it off with great pride.
Art is a Gift
What of the artists who provide their services to patients? What do they get out of it?
One of the nicest gifts ever given to me was a request from a friend to sing to her in her hospital room. It created quite a scene as this tall bearded man approached her room with a guitar case. Once settled into her cramped quarters I began to play my guitar and sing. She closed her eyes, hummed along for a bit, and then fell asleep. What a compliment to know that one's music can provide entertainment and also comfort and sleep. She would wake up every so often to see if I was still there. I continued to play and sing quietly and we shared moments of genuine human contact and affection. This sharing of passions and time together is just one of many gifts received by artists.
Art knows no age. From a young child in an acute-care ward using crayons to distract from painful treatments, to Joe drawing for pure enjoyment, and Bill painting as a legacy - we can all be artists. When you see, touch or hear someone's art, you are blessed with the gift of someone's soul. That is the art of healing - a shared passion to give voice to those who are often voiceless.
Harry van Bommel presented his inspirational "The Gift of Care" workshop to healthcare workers in Kelowna in October 2006, as part of a nationwide tour promoting hospice and home care. He is a songwriter and performer, and the author of over 30 books, with a specialty in caregiving. Some of his books are available for free reading at www.legacies.ca.