Art Heals

In a small conference room located at the Samaritan Pastega Regional Cancer Center in Corvallis, 16 people—patients dealing with varying stages of cancer and their caregivers—gathered for an art workshop. Each patient entered the room with trepidation. Under their breath, some protested they weren’t artists. Others muttered, “I can’t draw.” But soon, under the guidance of Lisa Abia-Smith, Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art (JSMA) director of educational outreach, the grumblings ceased as she gently instructed the group to ask questions of themselves—Who was I before my illness? Who am I now? Who will I be in the future?—and had them explore their answers by painting or drawing whatever came into their heads. Voices quieted as hands became busy assembling collages.

The patients at the cancer center are among 3,500 people being helped by Art Heals, the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art’s health-care initiative. The initiative offers arts-based activities to help people cope with illness and recovery and to teach the value of personal expression and reflection.

At the Samaritan Pastega Center, Abia-Smith was assisted by art therapist Sara McDonough, who guided patients and caregivers through an artistic exploration of their identities and experiences, encouraging them to reflect on words and symbols as metaphors for new growth in their lives.

“During times of uncertainty and transition, we often rush into the future, making goals, plans, and resolutions,” Abia-Smith explains. “This workshop allows participants time to explore their feelings and learn that the process of creating is just as important, if not more so, than the product.”

Participants find the process valuable. “One patient said that doing the self-portrait helped her understand that her cancer doesn’t define her. In fact, it is a very small part of who she is,” says Holly Almond, a nurse practitioner with the Corvallis cancer center. “Another patient was grateful for the opportunity for one of the sessions to travel to the JSMA. She loved seeing the works on display and working in the studio, and she was proud to have her work on display at the exhibition.”

Art Heals participants include oncology patients, parents of infants in the neonatal intensive care unit at Sacred Heart Medical Center at RiverBend, young adults coping with trauma, and children who have recently lost a parent or guardian to illness.

“Each program begins with a needs assessment with the health-care partner,” Abia-Smith says. “Then we align the art expression activities with the needs and abilities of the participants.”

For members of Courageous Kids, a grief-support program for youth and their families, the program uses writing and visual prompts. The instructor guides children and teens through age-appropriate activities, including art, drama, discussion, and writing. Before they create art, the youth are asked four questions: Where were you when you found out about the person you lost? What happened? What was it like? How are you now?

“Grandma’s color was purple. Her death was very sudden. Like a storm, everyone got caught in it,” wrote 17-year-old Joslyn in an artist statement that accompanied her painting.

Museum educators also work with mothers whose infants are hospitalized at the neonatal intensive care unit at RiverBend. The workshops they lead include lessons on watercolor techniques and illustration that focus on the connection between mother and infant. Participants construct mandalas as a symbol of their womb and the interconnectedness of life.

“The JSMA education staff is fortunate to witness the beauty and emotion that transpires in each workshop,” Abia-Smith says. “The work created illustrates the power art can play in healing and recovery.”

Another program provides experiences in the arts for children with disabilities. The VSA (Vision, Strength, and Artistic Expression) ArtAccess workshops, supported by the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, encourage participants to come to the JSMA with their family and friends for free sessions, which are held throughout the year. Each explores different mediums and tactile experiences to help students practice motor skills and self-expression. Activities are adaptable to allow the students their own interpretations of the art projects.

The Kennedy Center also supported the JSMA’s creation of a series of how-to videos demonstrating art lessons for children with developmental disabilities, physical disabilities, and autism.

The fastest-growing program in the museum’s education department, Art Heals recently expanded to include the Visual Thinking Strategies pilot program with six cohorts of medical students from Oregon Health and Science University (OHSU). Abia-Smith is a principal investigator in the project along with Patricia Dewey Lambert, associate professor in the UO Arts and Administration Program, director of the UO Center for Community Arts and Cultural Policy, and director of the Oregon Arts in Health Care Research Consortium.

The lessons begin with the students writing down observations both of a patient’s diagnostic imagery and of a work of art from the JSMA collection, Artur Von Ferraris’ unfinished painting The Last Audience of the Hapsburgs. Abia-Smith then trains them in visual thinking strategies by exploring and interpreting art in the museum’s galleries and in the Northwest Surgical Specialists building in Springfield. The medical students will then observe the medical imagery again.

Abia-Smith is hopeful the research will show that visual thinking strategies improve medical students’ and residents’ visual acuity and their ability to communicate their visual observations.

“This ultimately will translate into better patient care,” she says.

—By Debbie Williamson-Smith

Debbie Williamson-Smith is the communications manager at the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art

Art Heals is aligned with the teaching mission of the University of Oregon Arts in Health Care Research Consortium within the Arts and Administration Program in the School of Architecture and Allied Arts. Its partner organizations include:

  • Courageous Kids
  • Samaritan Pastega Regional Cancer Center
  • Holly Residential Art for Adults with Brain and Spinal Injuries
  • Oregon Supported Living Program
  • Neonatal intensive care unit at PeaceHealth Sacred Heart Medical Center at RiverBend
  • University of Oregon Arts in Health Care Research Consortium
  • University of Oregon Collegiate Recovery Center
  • University of Oregon Counseling and Testing Center
  • VSA ArtAccess (art courses for children with disabilities)

The accessible art videos can be viewed at