• Hazelden Renewal Center

Art Heals

art is healing

“Art is a wound turned into light.” ~ Georges Braque, 20th Century French Artist

I am not surprised that healing and art are connected. I know the calm I feel as I play piano or focus on a favorite painting or indulge in a luscious piece of poetry. Art is an oasis in the hurry of my life, whether it is my art or someone else’s.

Healing is soul work. Our wounds cry out for healing and light. The slow work of healing is a process of making whole, but it does not necessarily return us to what was. Nor is it the same as cure.

People treated for cancer endure chemotherapy and radiation to eradicate dangerous cells. At the end of their treatment they may be cancer free, yet the healing goes on — not just healing from cancer, but also healing from chemotherapy, the shock of the diagnosis and the interruption of life as we have come to expect it. Healing goes on long after the cure happens. Healing also continues when the cure fails.

Even with the so-called common cold, we are contagious with the acute part of the virus for only a short time, but symptoms linger days or even weeks longer. While healing may rebuild what was lost, often it is about finding new ways of being.

Why and how can art be a part of that process?

One way art aids healing is by slowing me down. That is true for both creating something and enjoying art made by another. For instance, look at the visual arts. It takes time to create something. All the while I am drawing or painting or quilting, my mind is focused. I am present and in the moment, less distracted by fear or restlessness. Healing happens in the here and now.

Ansel Adams lugged his cumbersome camera equipment up mountain paths to wait hours for the perfect arrangement of light, moon, and emptiness before he pressed the button.

Local poet Robert Bly speaks of drafting a poem and waiting for the right phrase, line, or word to make itself known. It can take weeks or longer. The poem will not be rushed.

Observing art takes time and attention as well. It’s hard to race through a museum, a poem or a play. While we might fast-forward through a website, a Netflix film, or the daily newspaper, it is much harder to fast-forward through an experience. Walking into a museum, my steps automatically slow as I study an abstract painting, circle a life-like sculpture, or admire a hand woven tapestry.

The healing process for the artist overflows to us as participants. We connect with something larger.

Minnesota photographer Jim Brandenburg challenged himself with a daily single picture during the 90 days he followed autumn from its equinox to the winter solstice. He called it a “haiku on film.” He describes it as a “personal struggle, a project designed to restore my soul.” It was a transition time for him, moving from an adventurous life as a National Geographic photographer back to his rural Minnesota home. While not always pleased with each individual picture, the disciplined undertaking helped him find his way through his transition. “The irritating and relentless light in the rearview mirror became an illuminating pathfinder in front of me.”

Art does not have to be excellent to heal. It is the process, not the result that matters. Many have found the book version of Brandenburg’s experience, Chased by the Light, to be part of their own healing journey from summer into winter.

Beloved poet Mary Oliver, who died this last January, described her work in the world as this: pay attention, be astonished, talk about it. For her, the natural world was a place of healing and refuge from deep childhood wounds. It was out of that difficult experience she created heart opening poetry that offers counsel to us, her wounded readers.

Recovering from my own surgery, I decided to write a poem each of my first seven days home. I wanted to capture how I felt. Many feelings are ephemeral. They last a while, then lift. Most feelings pass through us. Now, as I read those poems, I remember how I felt. I relive those memories. I am reminded of where I was and can contrast it to where I am now. I see it anew.

My own art — whatever form it takes — focuses on my feelings in this time and place. When I engage with another’s art, I experience how they may have felt and how their feelings echo mine. Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” leads me to reflect on my own decisions — which road did I take? What difference did it make? I imagine his road into poetry, or recall a friend’s challenging road, or picture the dilemma of someone I admire. I experience the universal, the every-one’s story. I am connected to something bigger than me.

Deep wounds need art’s deep cleansing.

Not all feelings pass quickly. Feelings seared with trauma are carried in our bodies, relived when triggers fire up old memories. Melissa Walker, in her TED Talk “How Art Heals PTSD’s Invisible Wounds,” says that art bypasses the speech part of the brain and engages the feelings — where our trauma lies.

She works with veterans whose trauma invades their life as flashbacks and night terrors. She offers drawing, painting, collage and mask making. The masks are the most likely to break through the trauma by bringing the terrorizing feelings out of the body and into the mask. Those masks carry vivid images. Menacing white eyes protrude from a dark green army face. Flames of fire spill out of a horned mask. Barbed wire wraps a blue and red face with a padlocked mouth. Beauty is not the point.

The Mayo Clinic recognizes the connection between healing and the arts. Their Center for Humanities in Medicine works to enrich the human spirit and enhance the healing process for patients. Via their website I see examples of art spread throughout their Rochester campus. Thirteen Chihuly blown glass sculptures hang from the ceiling. A large Calder mobile floats over a sitting area. Paintings, mosaics, and sculptures are spread about. The campus has 22 pianos available for guests to play. Doctors find that patients who listen to pleasing music need less pain medication, have improved mood and reduced apprehension.

We need art. We need it to slow us down, connect us with something larger, enliven our spirits. We need it to wash “from the soul the dust of everyday life,” per Pablo Picasso. It takes us places where ordinary words fail. “If I could say it in words there would be no reason to paint,” Edward Hopper said. It is a welcome oasis for the weary and wounded.


Mary Lou Logsdon is a Spiritual Director and Retreat Leader in the Twin Cities. She can be reached at logson.marylou@gmail.com. 

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