Healing Through Art

In 1990, American Artist hosted an “Art and Healing” conference in New Harmony, Indiana, in partnership with the Society of Layerists in Multi-Media and the Robert L. Blaffer Foundation. Several hundred artists came together to consider how creating art helped them address serious health issues, the death of family members, or their own mortality. Some participants were cancer survivors, some were grieving over the violent death of a child, others were trying to make it alone after losing a partner, and some were struggling to complete a creative project before they died. The participants were addressed by physicians, psychologists, artists, and scientists who believed that making art can be one of the most effective ways of developing a positive attitude that might help people survive longer than statistics would otherwise indicate.

Although we haven’t dealt with this topic since our report on the New Harmony event, the issue of art and healing continues to be discussed by artists profiled in our magazines. They often point out that finding ways to express pain, anxiety, sadness, or loss in works of art can be an enormously helpful process. Pictures and sculptures can become permanent records of the artists’ life in all its dimensions because the pieces are physical expressions that can be shared with others, thereby helping them. Even when some people have lost physical capacities, they can participate in a creative activity that doesn’t depend on having perfect sight, complete motor skills, or extensive training. If they can push paint around on a sheet of paper or issue commands to a computer, they can express what they are feeling. That is one of the goals of being a creative person.

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Steven Doherty Blog
M. Stephen Doherty

About M. Stephen Doherty

I've been interested in art since I was a child,  and I was fortunate to be able to take Saturday art classes at the Cincinnati Art Museum from the time I was 9 years old until I finished high school. I majored in art at Knox College and graduated summa *** laude, Phi Beta Kappa (proving artists can use both sides of their brain!).  I then earned a Master of Fine Arts degree in printmaking from Cornell University; taught art in public schools, a community college, an adult education program, and a college; worked in the marketing department of a company that manufactured screen printing supplies; and was hired to be editor of American Artist in January, 1979.

Thomas S. Buecher introduced me to plein air painting and it immediately became a passion of mine because it got me outdoors and allowed me to continue learning when I traveled to judge art shows, attend conventions, give lectures, and interview artists. Over the years I've exhibited my paintings at Bryant Galleries in New Orleans, Trees Place Gallery on Cape Cod, and in a traveling exhibition titled From Sea to Shining Sea.

I've written 10 books on artists and art techniques and contibuted articles to magazines, websites, and exhibition catalogs. Now as I prepare for semi-retirement, I'm trying to hone my painting skills -- especially those related to painting portraits.

I've been very fortunate to have met thousands of talented artists who have enriched my life with their art, their friendship, and their advice. I am grateful to Jerry Hobbs and Susan Meyer who hired me in 1979, to the talented people who worked with me on the magazines, and to the artists and advertisers who supported American Artist, Watercolor, Workshop, and Drawing  magazines and the related websites.

I've also been blessed with a supportive, talented wife, Sara; a daughter, Clare, who works for an insurance agency; a son, Michael, who is a computer enginner in Austin; a son-in-law, Shawn, who can fix and carry anything; a granddaughter, Amanda, who has me wrapped around her finger; and my mother, Dotty, who has advised and encouraged me from the beginning.

18 thoughts on “Healing Through Art

  1. Steve, I came to art as a gift of healing from God–I can remember the day and place and it was as if I was lifted by the back of my neck and carried to an art class. I have touched a brush everyday since. Twenty-two years ago my youngest son was killed in a single car accident. I know the depth of healing through the prayer of my creative participation with growing and feeling and seeing through my art process. I am a participant with God’s will in this part of my creative life. http://karlenekayryan@blogspot.com: http://www.karlenekayryan.com: http://www.karleneryan.com

  2. It continually befuddles me that art, especially Music, is the first to go in our school programs when they are faced with economic difficulties. To me that means that at the first sign of trouble we abandon the means by which we are connected to the solutions that could help us through whatever crisis we are facing. Ideas come first, then thoughts, then actions. If we immerse ourselves in the mire of problems, in this case a need of healing, and then do nothing to connect with that within us which can deal with problems beyond ordinary logic, we are asking for a limited response to our troubles. Indeed, we discard our link with the Source of our solutions by ignoring the inner exploration, resources, and re-arrangements art affords.

    Tha artist is an ambassador to the INvisible, briging back the emotional and practical manifestations of larger truths and solutions learned in a greater realm than the limits of a temporal difficulty. Artistic expresions, talented or not, ought be encouraged for everyone, especially those who might have need of healing. Healing is growth in a condition of adversity, equal in importance to growth as an activity of exploration in better circumstances. In any case, it is the exercising of what makes us human, and enying this kind of expression defeats our best interests. Produce and promote Art!

  3. hi Steve!

    Thanks for sharing this e-mail.

    I would like to share with you what has happened to me this year.

    I have been creating most of my life,making jewelry and being a photographer and then supplementing my income being a after school art teacher to various schools in Southern California.

    I had NEVER painted before. I felt that was something that ” Real Artist’s” do.

    I had a grandmother who was a wonderful painter as well as my mother who is an amazing portrait painter..

    I lost a brother to cancer in January of this year and he was my biggest art supporter of everything I had ever created.. He was only 51.

    He had a great attitude about life and never complained about his health and his life in general. He never ceased to encouraged me in my art.

    He past away the day before I was heading back to California to have my monthly visit with him.

    It was devastating. The grief has been enormous. Yet; the very next day as my best friend was driving us back from Arizona to California, we ventured to Joshua Tree where I felt soooo compel to paint.

    I had lived out in that part of the desert before and my friend was concerned that I would not find what I needed to paint with . I knew the area and even though I had never painted before I knew exactly what I wanted to paint and with what.

    I talked him into going to a dollar store and this store had exactly what I needed.
    I wanted to paint on glass, I wanted to paint with acrylics.

    We made it to the park at sunset. I painted the next 24 hours!

    It was an amazing release for me.

    I have been creating all my life and had never had this experience of creating which really has turned into therapy.

    My Brother had given me a parting precious gift, painting. Something I had always shun because I never consider it could be something for me..

    I had sold a few from my “tiny notables” series and have decided in my brother’s memory to donate any paintings for any causes that comes my way. I have donated in the past with jewelry and my hair but this will be a cherished offering..

    I am in”therapy” almost every day and your web site has been my education. I am a starving artist that is a happy one..

    Thanks for your web site and news, keep up the good work and ART!

    Martita M. Foss

  4. I agree with Martita. It is a release with me. Stressful days continue to hammer down on people and unfortunately, these days seem to be filled with deaths ie MJ, Farrah, Dom DeLuise, etc. Often when I’m feelling down, I pick up a pencil and just start scribbling. Maybe it will end up being a finished piece maybe not, that’s not the point. The point is expunging several coats of “stressful paint”. Art won’t end or take away the pain but like a cold beer, it can ease the tension alot!

  5. I too started to take my painting seriously after an illness that lead to a not run of the mill surgery that was a bit scary for me and the medical teams involved. When I came home, things weren’t improving. Basically I was dying. A friend put me together with a naturapath who after long discussions decided my problems all stemmed from my inability to let go of the blame I had accepted and was keeping within myself for things I had no control of from my childhood and even later when I lost a dear, dear friend to Alzheimer’s. Stress can kill and it does. It was killing me.
    About this time, I was asked to paint a portrait of a gentleman, someone who was also a dear friend of my friend’s with Alzheimer’s. He kept at me until finally I did as he asked if just to show him what a bad idea it was. (My early paintings were floorcloths, one of many type of “craft items” I made to make “pin” money.)
    Something happened….that painting, after me fussing with it for near a year, me reading anything/everything I could find at the library, online and on Ebay on portraiture. It was so frustrating. Every attempt was making me either rage or cry. How could I be so stupid as not to be able to capture a simple likeness.
    The day I was ready to throw it out, I threw down my brushes and started to cleanup when, litreraly, an inner ( voice with a Devon accent) voice told me what to look at and I could see what I had to do. Mind you anyone looking at it today would see all the terrible mis -steps but it got done to the point where he recognised what he needed to see in that canvas.
    He wanted his portrait painted with “proper artist paints and on a stretched canvas that could be properly framed”. I shipped it off to him and along with it a big bill. A very big bill. I knew he would give me a blast; it was very expensive……instead I received a call asking where he should wire the money and how much extra for the supplies.
    Painting does heal, it doesn’t cure, in my experience, but it opens pathways within that allow parts of the body to re-energise…..I can feel it. I wish I could have been part of this conference.
    I paint to find that feeling. That voice…….says try it you won’t know if YOU don’t TRY. What matters if something doesn’t work first try, that is the learning process.
    I am so easliy sidetracked but days when I feel really bad, physically or mentally, I make myself go downstairs and pick up a brush and I start. I have certain routines now, the energy starts to flow, not every time but many, and the healing starts. I paint or study articles and other people’s work, at least 4 hours most days. I may have trouble walking and even breathing at times but I can’t wait to get up and get to work. I am looking for that “buzz” and when it appears I let it run. Each time I can see improvement…….a long journey has begun…..and I am going to enjoy every stroke of the brush.

  6. I have been an artist, and instructor for over forty years, I am also a registered nurse and have been a volunteer for hospice for twenty. Yes, art, music and other creative efforts have not only gotten me through many rough times in life, but I know my patients have also gotten much joy and relief of pain through these venues. Thank you for reminding all of us.

  7. I did take up art until I was in my mid thirties after the untimely and sudden death of my beloved first husband. I had grown up with a mom who made art as well as my younger brother who followed that pursuit as well. I had never given it a try before. I was searching for peace at that point in my life and I found it in art and the act of creating. About 10 years ago my younger brother died and I was devastated once again. This is when I truly dove into the art work and now paint just about every day. I feel like I am painting with and for my late brother now. It is very comforting and urges me to go on and keep painting!

  8. In 2005 I injured my back quite badly. I was left with limited mobility, and chronic pain. I was unable to work, nor even leave my house apart from visits to doctors, specialists and physiotherapists. I lost my ability to participate in my favourite sport, surfing, which I had avidly pursued on an almost daily basis for 40 years. I could walk, slowly and with difficulty, and that was about it.

    This injury caused a drastic change to my lifestyle. Virtually all the activities I used to participate in were now denied to me, except for one vital thing, painting.

    I could stand sufficiently long to paint, and then perch on a stool for some relief. I painted every day, and the act of painting was literally life saving. I had been warned that injuries such as mine often lead to deep depression, with all it’s associated often severe problems. However, my art prevented even one day of mental or attitudinal bleakness. I accepted my position as an opportunity to enhance my painting skills, and I took to it with a vengeance. Painting also greatly helped in distracting me from my constant pain, to the extent that it almost became a secondary consideration. I was amazed at the capacity of the human body to adapt and cope with conditions which would normally be completely incapacitating.

    I endured two years of pain, and two operations, before I was virtually pain free, (although it surfaces now and then just to say hello). Gone too unfortunately are many of my pre-injury activities, surfing being the keenest loss. But I still paint, and my art leapt ahead during my times of worst pain. I am now represented by galleries in my home state and interstate with healthy sales even in times of economic hardship. My art still sustains me, and for that I’ll always treasure it.

  9. I paint 30 or so hours a week. It’s what I do. And it’s what I have done for many years. How many years? I think back to my very first memory of when I began doing art. I believe I was 3 years old when my big sister and I were drawing a picture with pencils. My mom looked at mine and said, “Oh Elayne you are an artist”. She didn’t say anything about my big sister’s drawing so I thought, “Gee, I must be an artist. That’s the first time I did anything better than my big sister”.
    When my dad died in 1999 and my mom in 2000 I painted a still life using their things, my moms vases, their books and photographs of them when they were young. I hang that painting in my studio, where I am most of the day. That painting serves as a memorial of them. They taught me so much and even thought they are gone, I very much feel the love and strenght they instilled in me.
    I am currently in an exhibit with a theme of the “American Dream”. I did a painting of my parents sitting on the front porch of their first home holding me when I was 5 weeks old. Can I tell you how much that painting means to me and how much my art means to me. My mom was a big influence and inspiration to me. Thanks so much for letting me share.

  10. Again, another comment. For the past few years I have been a facilitator in a project backed by a local Oncologist who believes strongly in the healing of creative expression for his patients. I developed a “Day of Inspiration” where the three or four selected cancer patients came for prayer, sharing, quiet time, hospitality, and a painting project with all the participants painting on the same canvas. At the end of the day, I know I have witnessed miracles. The doctor then displays the art for a year in his office. Process is process-it is the place where we connect with the Divine Creator in the “Creative Now” to move forward—without words. It is just a knowing from inside.

    I also facilitated a Bereavement Support Group for 14 years and know and understand that place of renewal of energy that needs to find an outlet to allow it to develop a new “person” One is not the same after loss and needs to go to the bottom of their toes to pull that inner strenth into new forms. It is a spiritual path to higher creativity. It is a new relationship as a participating partner with God.

  11. Great article and time appropriate always. I have my own blog with this very healing being the main them. Since I’m dealing with Colorectal Cancer, stage lV advanced and metastasized , it has been a real thing. This was diagnosed in december of 07′ and I am still here between the Grace of God and art healing. I’ve been journaling since about 1982 and never realized between the art and writing over the years just how important it is.
    You can read my first few blogs on my story at my site http://www.journalingthrucancer.blogspot.com Become a follower if so led because it takes all of our ongoing comments to pull each other through. There are many who won’t comment but receive healing through our art downloads and encouragement on journaling. Thanks again for such an article in a magazine. It has just renewed my spirit and confidence in a Magazine I have read for years. I generally get my from the art store but now have taken out a new subscription, not wanting to miss any of this topic.
    God Bless
    Ricky Holtman

  12. re: Healing Through Art
    I have been an Illustrator, Instructor, and Painter for over 45 years.
    Like many artists, I have filled sketchbooks with drawings since my Art School days.
    Since 1974 those sketchbooks have become a history of my life
    with my family and friends, via drawings and writing. I am now 1/2 way through # 46. Sadly, in Dec. of 2007, my dear wife, Louise
    died of colon cancer. During her 2 years of treatment, I documented her many chemo sessions, emergency room treatments, and hospital stays. I drew her in good times, and in the bad. As the wife of an artist (and my agent) she was used to me
    documenting our life together. There were times when I felt uncomfortable in my dual role as “Caregiver/Artist”. (Voyeur?)
    Ultimately I knew, even in her darkest moments, that I had to be there to “bear witness” to record this final experience of a life
    well lived, and that was possibly ending..
    Although I found I could not do any drawings in my journals the first year after Louise’s death, my writing, and now the drawings, sustain me, and give comfort when I think of my partner of 43 years.

  13. Thanks for the blog. I’ve been an artist since my mother put a pencil in my hand at age 1 1/2. Thank goodness I’ve grown over the years. I find that being creative in whatever the medium might be-and I’ve tried a lot of them, helps to steady me and make me happy. I tend toward pastel, colored pencil and oil but have really started to enjoy water media in my retirement also. I cannot live without painting-I become a curmudgeon. I’ve met several people who have seemed to find that art has made there lives bearable under extreme adversity and helped in their healing of one kind or another. It seems that when art is thrown into the mix we become better people who are happier and more relaxed.

  14. I want to thank Steve for starting this inspirational conversation and everyone for sharing their very personal stories of how art has helped them heal. It is a great encouragement to hear!

  15. Thanks Steve & all the previous comments. This subject hits
    home with me as well,and always will. — March 24th 2004 @
    8:20pm one of my twin sons lost his life in a car accident. At 9:20pm
    his brother was the one who called me with this dreadful news. I
    can still hear it from time to time,so helpless,so regressed,like a
    toddler again. His sister and I were so happy and excited just
    before this call, because her(our) basketball team see played on
    and I coached had just beaten “the nemisis team” finally. The time
    of the end of the game… 8:20pm. My emotions fell so fast & so
    low. Our lives had been changed in an instant. I was numb, & in
    complete shock, & began to have so much trouble remembering
    things. Although I tried to work on my artwork, it was nearly
    imposible to acomplish anything. I could not, however let go of
    the thought of being able to “get back to it”. This was because
    my first gallery showing was on the heels of this tragic event
    in Nov. of 2004. My late son so excited for me & looking forward
    to being there. He had also begun to do his own artwork &
    poetry writing,and we had talked about going into business
    together. I believe this to still be true, it’s just that now he is with
    me as one of my guardian angels.

  16. Dear Steve,
    I’m really quite pleased that your post, “Healing Through Art” is opening a dialog on a subject near and dear to my life’s work.
    I look forward to exploring this topic with you and sharing some of the insights we have learned while facing our own health challenges.

    In my opinion Fine Art advocates need a new voice. If enough of us come together to express these truths which to me seem self evident, Art and Music will be the last courses cut from school budgets!
    Thanks for your commitment!

  17. Art Therapy is a therapeutic discipline that can be validated by research and studies on the positive healing properties inherent in artistic and creative expression. Check out the American Art Therapy Association (http://www.arttherapy.org/) website. To call oneself a therapist professionally, denotes that you have educational and professional credentials, such as you expect from a licensed counselor or psychologist, physical therapist, occupational therapist, or massage therapist.

    There is another organization that also promotes and recognizes the healing that creative expression fosters, and that is the International Expressive Arts Therapy Association (http://www.ieata.org). Both professional organizations require education and training as well as artistic ability to be able to call oneself an art therapist.

    Encouraging healing through art has long been a passion of mine, and I recently finished my bachelor’s in art therapy, and will pursue my masters, and subsequent AT-R (Art Therapist-Registered) designation after that, and then ATR-BC (Art Therapist-Board Certified) through the AATA. I also may pursue professional certification through IEATA by becoming a registered REAT (Registered Expressive Art Therapist) or REACE (Registered Expresive Art Consultant/Educator). Until then, I can ethically and legally call myself an Expressive Art Facilitator. I cannot call myself an art therapist, just as I cannot claim to be an art teacher or art educator, but I can honestly say that I am an artist who gives lessons.

    The beautiful real-life events and miracles that art can bring to us are wondrous and cannot be denied. We cannot take the therapy out of art, any more than we can think of music without a sense of how it can heal us and take us to a different more positive way of thinking. It is important to realize though, that the profession of art therapy is a real field of study, like biology, engineering, music theory, child development, and law enforcement technology. Please use the phrase “art therapist” appropriately, and if that is what you desire to do, or to seek out for yourself, find a school to help you realize your dream and a registered therapist who can truly help maximize the therapeutic aspects that art is capable of reaching for you. Good luck in your journey.

    Ellen Doerres

  18. In response to Ellen Doerres comment I will have to agree to the description of an art therapist but disagree about who can help people and how people get help.
    I and others are not corporate licensed therapist nor do I want to be because my joy comes from watching people change through the creative side of doing art.(Healing thru the Art Process). How they change etc.. We don’t give medical advice of any kind but being an artist of over 40 years I sure know how to teach people to get involved in the process of art, which is where the healing is. Most of the grieving people I get into art couldn’t afford an art therapist. I love watching them change over time and become part of something bigger than all of us. We deal with the spiritual side of people not the physical. I have a BA from Dallas Bible College and a Masters from Seminary so people can help one another in many ways.
    I’m glad for the art therapist that ask for my help in learning art and I teach for some art to their groups.
    Life is wonderful isn’t it. I wish Ellen the best in her academic search and to help people through art.