Healing Through the Arts

Healing Through the Arts

The arts have power.

Films and plays can bring us to tears – whether through comedy or tragedy. Photographs and paintings can hold us transfixed by their colors, composition, even their subjects. And playwright William Congreve knew that “Musick has Charms to sooth a savage Breast, To soften Rocks, or bend a knotted Oak.”

… a place where those who are healing find strength, hope and inspiration through the arts.

The arts also have power to help with one’s healing process – and that’s exemplified by Heather Rodale, founder of Healing Through the Arts, a not-for-profit organization based in Allentown.

Bad news

About 10 years ago, Rodale was diagnosed with intermediate melanoma. Therapeutic surgery had left physical scars on her face and neck – but her psyche was also scarred, by a jumble of depressing thoughts. Will the cancer come back? If it does, will it spread? How long will I live? Will I ever be normal again? Mix in the pressures of being a single mother of four, the necessity of frequent medical tests and the tension of waiting for results, and it’s easy to understand why Rodale slid into deep depression.

She hired a life coach to help her get through the experience, and a simple question – “What brings you joy?” – was the catalyst for Rodale’s healing process.

(It’s important to distinguish between curing and healing. “Curing” involves medication, treatment and external intervention; “healing” is an internal process, one that brings harmony to mind, body and spirit.)

Healing Through the Arts
Healing Through the Arts
Healing through the Arts


Fighting back

Rodale’s answer was just as simple: she found joy in expressive art. “I realized that, although I could not control the cancer, I could control the art I created, and my interactions with it.”

For Rodale, some of those art forms were music, photography, and poetry. There are other modes, of course, but the key is to find something that appeals to you.

The effects of expressive art can be increased optimism; less boredom and anxiety; reduced stress; better communication; and better response to treatment.

And while that may sound like a bit of New Age woo-woo, Dr. Lee B. Riley, MD, network chairman, Department of Oncology, St. Luke’s University Health Network, says, “Available data supports the concept,” he said. “Exploring the arts can be therapeutic for cancer patients.”

He added that expressive art can benefit doctors, too. The amateur jewelry maker produced over 500 glass pendants for cancer survivors who participated in last year’s Women’s 5K Classic in Allentown.

“[Jewelry-making] is a way for me to re-energize after a stressful day,” he said. “When I’m being creative, it gets my mind off other things.”

Spreading the word

Rodale took a sabbatical from her job as vice president, community outreach – arts, education, and wellness at Rodale, Inc. to pursue her journey of healing through art. She found that there was an enormous amount of relevant techniques and ideas on the Internet, but not in one place.

“That inspired me to found Healing Through the Arts,” she said, “a place where those who are healing find strength, hope and inspiration through the arts.”

Its companion website, www.htta.org, provides links to dozens of facilities throughout the Lehigh Valley arts community, including everything from radio and theater to music and crafts classes – even an across-the-curriculum syllabus for exploring
the concept.

Art shows and more

HTTA’s key project is the “Hope and Healing” art show, a juried event for high school and college students. Held each year since 2011, the program showcases original, inspirational art that is later donated to over 15 local healthcare facilities.

This year’s winners included:

• Hazel Ferguson, Lehigh Valley Charter Arts High School

• Olivia King, Salisbury High School

• Gwendolyn Stark, Lehigh Valley Charter Arts High School

• Alyssa Tauber, Maryland Institute College of Art

• Second Place – Jessica Marzari, Kutztown University

“In addition, there were 17 Community Award winners,” Rodale said. While the main winners are selected by professionals, “Community Awards are selected by anyone who wants to sponsor the $200 prize,” she explained. “Half of the money goes to the winning artist; the other half goes toward funding our event. Sponsors can also name their awards to honor someone.”

Healthcare professionals attend the exhibition and create “wish lists” of the art they want. After the event, the selected pieces are mounted in various healthcare facilities. “You won’t find them in hospital lobbies,” Rodale said. “Instead, they’re hung in waiting rooms and other locations where patients spend time.”

Rodale added that those images are generally of nature scenes, or other themes to evoke hope and inspiration.

Do they help? Dr. Riley offers some anecdotal evidence. “Last year, I met with one of my surgical patients in the OR’s staging area, and she started discussing the art that was hanging there. She could have asked me many questions about the procedure, but the art seemed to make her a bit calmer.”

More to come

HTTA has another exciting project on deck. “Meditations for Healthcare and Beyond” will combine student artwork with the music of Jim Brickman to create 10 three-minute video segments (and a 30-minute continuous loop) for use in 160 doctors’ offices.

“They’ll be played on waiting room TVs,” Rodale said, “instead of news programs or other daytime shows” to help reduce patients’ stress levels.

“A clinic in Cleveland uses Brickman’s music with no visuals,” she added. “But when our meditations are finished, Brickman will present them to that clinic.”

Using the arts for personal healing isn’t limited just to cancer patients. Anyone with a chronic condition – one that can be only managed, not cured – might benefit from it.

“Whenever you’re creating something – even if it’s just working on an adult coloring book – it will take your mind off your worries for a while, so you can focus on something else,” she concluded.

How to Help

Healing Through the Arts is a 501 (c) (3) organization that relies on tax deductible donations for funding, and on volunteers to support its programs. Contact HTTA president Heather Rodale at heather@htta.org for more information.

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