WELLNESS and the Arts

By Jody Farrell

Rob Smith

Rob Smith’s Grande Prairie office is more like a large, homey living room, with the sun streaming in on earthtone walls and warm wood flooring. A sprawling bookshelf hosts a library of reference material: music on CDs, books and manuals on wellness, nature, and healing grief. All within an arm’s reach from the big comfy sofa and armchairs. Drums and interesting artifacts, and messages of serenity and hope abound, and yet the space feels open and airy.

Smith’s background in adult education and social work set him onto the path of people who had suffered trauma or loss. He’d provided public education to a local women’s shelter, and worked with people in a victims assitance program. He eventually developed his own practice around healing through creativity.

“Grief work is about loss,” Smith explains. “Loss can have come with death or divorce, but can also involve something less definite; say the loss of meaning or purpose in our life.”

Healing what is lost requires giving voice to our pain, our broken heart, he says. This does not generally happen by talking about our experience in a conventional counselling session. This kind of healing is more of a spiritual journey, having to do with our heart and soul. Some think spirituality is only tied to religion, but Smith sees it as exploring what the deepest voice in us – the one that longs for goodness and happiness – has to say.

“Most of us who’ve been through trauma can relate to feeling deep hurt at a core level. There’s some truth to the saying ‘I have a broken heart.’ We need to give that hurt a way to express itself.”

smith-painting.jpgSmith is not an art therapist. He finds, however, that creative expression, be it in music or art, poetry and writing, or even gardening, moves a person into the right-brain mode that somehow gives the elusive pain or loss an outlet. No prior creative experience is necessary to produce something from this more symbolic, intuitive side. It’s a comfortable and invigorating experience to be led into. He may invite you to use paints, drums or ink imprinting of your body, depending on what it is Smith and you decide is a good way to approach your grief issues.

The results are long-lasting. For some, two or three sessions may answer their needs. The goal for Smith is simply to get to a place that allows us to say what our heart wishes to say, and then to come back and look at that expression with a more left-brain, grounded approach. In what we have created, we find answers, and Smith says these always include some message of hope.

“The work not only releases the hurt. It opens a new and hopeful journey. Our heart’s greatest desire is to have a happy life. Creativity taps us into that.”

Karen LongmateRecently, Karen Longmate found herself standing beside a wheelchairbound patient, admiring one of the original artworks that hung in the hallways of the QEII Hospital in Grande Prairie.

“He couldn’t speak, so he used a word board and communicated that the paintings reminded him of when he used to ride through the pastures,” Longmate recalls.

The exhibition of local artist-carpenter Dale Sales’ paintings depicting farmlife, gave the man back some of his past. His comments gave Longmate a whole new sense of this person she’d only known as a patient.

Longmate, visual arts coordinator for the hospital, will often see staff, visitors or patients, stopping to look at the works. Sometimes people discuss their reactions. Other times they appear to be reflecting on something personal that the work may have evoked. Like so much that is produced artistically, including poetry and music, artworks seem to touch something deep inside people, resonating, perhaps, with an experience or feeling they have known.

“The hospital is a sensitive and serious place,” Longmate says. “For many of us, it creates a level of anxiety. The art, by contrast, creates a familiar element. It somehow transports the viewer. We can live vicariously through art. We are calmed by it.”

The QEII Hospital Foundation, with support from Peace Country Health, is responsible for the hospital’s visual arts project. It includes a permanent collection of some 600 original artworks, about two-thirds of which are exhibited throughout the hallways and wards of the hospital. Regional artists’ works are also on loan for exhibitions. Sales’ paintings were hung in the Courtyard Gallery, located on the lower level near the hospital cafeteria. Display cubes, featuring three dimensional works such as sculpture, jewellery and pottery, are also on display in and near MacKenzie Place.

PotteryLongmate is passionate about the role the arts can play in health care institutions. She attended an international conference on partners in health care last June in Edmonton, where the University of Alberta Hospital is renown for its work putting artists on its wards.

“They have found that (artist on ward programs) offer people a chance to gather around as a family, even take pictures. That kind of thing is often very sensitive when there is not something other than the patient to focus on,” Longmate explains.

And while these kinds of projects may not be currently available in the QEII, the possibilities alone are exciting.

“I think that in the hospital, where we often tend to think of being sick and looking for an outside, medical answer, we have the opportunity to introduce the idea of discovering in ourselves what makes us feel better” says Longmate.

“If we have accessed something that has come from within and made us feel healthier, more alive, we may then go home and learn how to reintroduce it into our lives there. Hospitals have a captive market for that kind of teaching.”


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