A&E: Art Heals the Heart

Art can turn a complex feeling or idea into something physical. It can distill the mind’s dissonant troubles into a work done by the hands, and that can be a great tool for cancer patients and their families.

“If those with cancer can find a creative side, I think it’s therapeutic for them, whether it’s painting, or sculpting, or writing,” says Bob Willis, grief counselor with Hospice of Oklahoma County.

Willis leads “Healing Heart” workshops for cancer patients and their families twice a week. “It’s a grief support group, but it’s a little different slant,” he explains. Participants sculpt a bandaged heart. “I see people who can relate to the broken heart, as well as the bandage and stitches,” Willis says. “They’re in a tough battle and they need to be aware that there are people who can help them at this time.”

Mary Lou Moad, a licensed art therapist who teaches with the Edmond Fine Arts Institute, says artists use their craft to work through feelings, but most are doing it alone. “Even though it’s cathartic to do that kind of art, it can be genuinely healing with an art therapist,” she says.

“It’s not just about the patient or the person,” Moad explains. “It’s not just about the art and it’s not just about the therapist; it’s about that triangle. All three parts are equal. You’re really involved in the process of doing the art and why.”

Moad leads art therapy sessions for displaced children at Pepper’s Ranch in Guthrie, but she worked with cancer patients for ten years. Her first internships were at Integris Baptist Medical Center’s cancer unit and with a group at St. Anthony’s, doing therapy with kids whose parents had cancer.

“I loved working with cancer patients because they so wanted to live that they were really excited about their art and really living their lives to the fullest,” Moad said. “They were such a good example of what it means to really live, especially those who knew that their time was really limited.”

She finds her own artwork to be therapeutic and revelatory. In her first art therapy class at the University of Oklahoma, she painted a portrait of herself as a younger person, during a time when she was severely depressed. Moad found herself using shades of blue and purple. “For the first time, I realized how sad I had been. My own art mirrored that to me, how I had been all those years. I started bawling when I saw that picture and realized how sad she was and that’s what taught me the value of art therapy,” Moad says. “When I did all that blue in my picture, I did it around my heart … and the process of doing that was very healing for me.”

Moad also loves to paint landscapes and Native Americans. “I find it really moving and beautiful when I think of (what) all the Indian tribes in America have been through and how we all need to be a warrior in our own lives,” she says.

It takes extensive education and experience to become a licensed art therapist. You have to become the equivalent of a licensed counselor, and also study art therapy. “It’s very rewarding because you’re required to be an artist in addition to being a therapist,” Moad says.

Willis and Moad recently participated in an art show at Integris Cancer Institute. “It’s an opportunity for either cancer survivors or people who are currently in treatment, or just professionals, to share how cancer touched their lives,” Willis says.

The hospice patients Willis works with usually can no longer create their own art, but he started casting their hands. “It captures something very personal,” he says. “The hands’ size and fingerprints are caught in that casting. It’s a way for a person to be remembered.”

Often, Willis sees patients who are artists but can no longer paint or sculpt. He tries to help them focus on the body of work they have created. “It gives their life value and helps their self-esteem,” Willis says. “It reminds them that they created art and have something that will continue after they’re gone to be a reminder of their talents and life.”

Willis has also been a pastor for nearly two decades and for 15 years has been working with families stricken by cancer. “It’s my ministry to deal with grieving, death and dying.”

Aside from his work as a counselor, he sculpts cowboys and Native Americans. He performs demonstrations at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum. Willis uses sculpting to help himself deal with the heavy nature of his work. “It’s my therapy,” Willis says. “When I deal with death and dying, sculpting brings the balance back to my life.”

To contact Willis, call 330-4910. To contact Moad, call 478-0515. “I’d be happy to talk,” she said.

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