In a time and culture when we have lost much of what once nurtured us in families and communities, when many of us have lost our connections to a spiritual life or religious tradition, we feel even more isolated and alone when confronted with a trauma or health crisis. The work of healing artists shows us new pathways and guideposts for our journeys towards healing, peace, and acceptance. Their images make tangible our greatest fears, questions, and hopes. While at times these images may seem too intense or frightening, they provide a framework for moving out of denial and into the power that comes with recognizing the truth of our own experience.
Artists who create work to heal others share a rich, multi-layered, and symbolic language. The power and forms of contemporary healing art have origins in many ancient cultures and among many religions. In particular, the Navajo culture, Tibetan Buddhists, and medieval Christian mystics developed sophisticated systems for the creation and implementation of art as a means of healing. These three cultures recognize the importance of the relationship among the mind, body, and spirit.
In contemporary Western society, Herbert Benson, M.D., of the Harvard Medical School, first charted the healing benefits of eastern meditation through his medical research, which culminated in his book The Relaxation Response. His findings led to the development of the field that we now call mind/body medicine. This field researches the roles that the mind can play in strengthening the immune system, helping to reverse cancer and heart disease, and bringing relief from pain and peace of mind to those in the final stages of an illness. The mind/body field recognizes the interconnectedness of all the elements of our being and the impact stress has on our physical, emotional, and spiritual health. But mind/body medicine has roots in many of the same sources as healing art. In fact, until relatively recent history, healing practices blended art and music with medicine and spirituality.
The Navajo emphasize an interconnection of body/mind/spirit in their elaborate ritual healing ceremonies called "sings or "chants." These chants occur over many days, combining support for the patient by gathering friends and families who join in the ritual performance of the medicine man. A skilled practitioner of spiritual and healing art conducts a ceremony of specific poetry, song, and mythology and creates a sand painting. This process provides an example of a holistic approach to recovery that combines the most potent elements of treatment. The patient is supported by friends and family and receives the full attention of the practitioner. Rather than being separated from self or community by disease, the individual is united with spiritual and environmental resources that seek to restore a natural harmony and balance. The process acts as a powerful system of transformation through which the patient merges with or absorbs the healing properties of the sand painting by sitting in the center of the image.
Healing images derive their potency from their basis in the truth of human experience. In his painting Dying, Alex Grey presents us with the moment of our greatest fear. Grey's vision of the spirit "sees" our death and suffering and offers serenity and reunion with the source of light and understanding. In Christiane Corbat's Amazon, Cry for Life, a one-breasted, armor-plated figure says, "I am not just a cancer patient, I am a survivor! I am a proud Amazon Warrior." Nancy Fried's terracotta sculptures hold up a mirror to the woman who has undergone a mastectomy. Her pieces boldly allow us to participate in a deep experience of shared recognition and loss. They draw us out of the isolation of our disease and remind us that we are not alone in our loss and shame and suffering. These feelings send important life-affirming messages and connect us to a source of personal and collective empowerment.
For the artist who confronts his or her own suffering, the creation of the work itself often contains a healing or therapeutic dimension. The artist also invites us to enter the soul of being and healing, a prospect that can be both confrontational and comforting. Though illness or loss may bring on a sense of isolation and alienation, the work of the healing artist reaches out and says, "See, you are not alone. I have been there, too. We can be touched by the compassion and shared experience. We can also connect with the underlying power of the creative spirit that gives life to art, to the artist, and to us.
Healing art provides us with models of identification. For some individuals the intensity of these images can be disturbing. Such reactions are part of a struggle with denial that can accompany disease and the possibility of death. But for many, the power of this art lies in its ability to connect us to ourselves. Healing art gives opportunities to see our deepest sadness and fear made visible. The articulation of unspoken pain provides us with a sense of recognition and the potential for release that is essential to recovery and serenity. Until recently, cultural and medical models in the West praised the individual who accepted pain and took medicine stoically, but now these models are changing in response to evidence that this behavior does more to impede the healing process than it does to assist us in our journey toward wholeness.
As we perceive and receive the abundant imagery of the healing artist, we are brought back from our lost soul-wanderings into the map of clarity. We are brought back into the fullness of the picture and into the fullness of our own lives. We are no longer lost and alone. We have found the charts to guide us homeward.
The Reverend Dr. Gina Rose Halpern is the Founder and Co-Director of the Chaplaincy Institute. She previously served as Executive Director of Healing Through the Arts, a nonprofit organization exploring connections between the creative arts and healing. This essay is excerpted from Body and Soul, an exhibition catalogue of the DeCordova Museum and Sculpture Park.