Healing Arts

Healing Arts: Three nonprofits improve lives through creative expression
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What could make a child bound out of a Mission Hospital elevator and race down the hall to their chemotherapy appointment? Or an adult gripped with anxiety and depression enthusiastically head downtown for the afternoon? Art.

Thanks to a trio of Asheville-based nonprofits, area children battling serious illnesses such as cancer, adults with disabilities, and those affected by mental health issues, homelessness, and/or addiction have the opportunity for expression and healing through painting, drawing, sculpting, and a host of other outlets.

Arts For Life: Inspiring Courage Through Creativity  
As with many nonprofits, Arts For Life started small. Very small—with one patient and a photography lesson. But today, the organization offers more than 20,000 free lessons annually—in visual arts, creative writing, and music—to more than 8,000 pediatric patients facing serious illnesses. It provides programs locally at Mission Children’s Hospital and across the state at Duke Children’s Hospital in Durham, Brenner Children’s Hospital in Winston-Salem, and Levine Children’s Hospital in Charlotte.  
“These children are going through one of the most difficult times of their lives,” says Executive Director Rachel Zink. “Our educational art programs are there to nurture their minds and spirits and brighten the hospital setting for them and their family members.”

Some patients participate at clinic art tables, making friends while exploring their artistic talents. Often, siblings take part to stay engaged and positive during what could otherwise be long, frustrating hours spent in the waiting room. Others create at bedside studios: Team members turn hospital rooms into art classes where children can focus on crafting a paper collage or composing a song, instead of the tests and treatments they’re about to undergo.

“We see children who once refused to step out of the car rush excitedly into the hospital and make a beeline for the art table, knowing full well a painful blood transfusion is to follow,” says Zink. “And we’ve had nurses tell us that patients who used to be sick over treatment no longer need a bucket by their side after spending time at the clinic art station. While art can’t change a diagnosis, it can completely transform the health care experience.”

Find more on Arts For Life, including info about an art show at Roots + Wings School of Art on August 23 and a benefit Oyster Roast in September, at artsforlifenc.org.

Open Hearts Art Center: Cultivating the Inner Artist
“I look around me and I come up with an idea,” says Susie, an artist at Open Hearts Art Center. “Then I can’t wait until the next morning to get here and put it down first on scratch paper and then on canvas.”

She’s been creating at Open Hearts, a center for adults with disabilities, for the past three years. “Art is a good stress reliever for me,” says Susie, “and when I’m here, my anxiety levels drop tremendously.”

Susie’s is a universal experience, says Sonia Pitts, a cofounder and director of human resources. “For some of our artists, this is their only form of expression. We give them ways to get their thoughts and feelings out.”

The nonprofit launched 10 years ago by offering traditional art classes but quickly abandoned that approach in favor of allowing the artists to explore their own unique talents and self-taught skills à la folk art.

“We didn’t want to box them in when we’re here to help unearth their free spirit,” Pitts explains. “Some of them have been told what to do their whole life. We provide choices.”

Open Hearts offers visual arts along with dance, spoken word, and other creative options through its studio day program. It also offers artists the chance to exhibit and market their work throughout the Asheville community at locations like City Bakery and Woolworth Walk, as well as to take field trips to galleries through the Boundless Art Project.

According to Pitts, integration with the community is a key component to the artists’ growth. “When our artists go out into the community with their caregivers or family members and see their painting hanging on a wall in a restaurant, it gives them a sense of pride and autonomy,” she says, adding that participants are working artists, receiving a percentage of sales and often being commissioned by collectors. “The visibility has really enlightened community members that our artists are just as capable and contributing as any other artist here.”

Find Open Hearts Art Center online, including details about the annual talent show September 5, at openheartsartcenter.org.

Aurora Studio: A Supportive Space to Create
Lori Greenberg was working as a clinician at a local behavioral health program when she noticed a woman drawing on a napkin and creating sculptures out of scrap paper.

“She was an artist, and I thought, ‘this is powerful—art is powerful,’” recalls Greenberg, who immediately started looking for programs in Western North Carolina that cater to artists in recovery from mental health issues, addiction, and/or homelessness. Not finding any, in the summer of 2013, she started one herself: Aurora Studio & Gallery.

The volunteer-run organization offers eight-week sessions that are part support group, part art class. “The intent,” Greenberg says, “is for people to get together around art and create art in a safe, supportive environment.”

At the beginning of the eight weeks, the small group collaboratively reaches an agreement for how they’d like to work together, as well as how they’ll provide constructive feedback about artwork. Each session, they check in with each other for support, receive instruction from a local artist, spend time creating, then journal about their experience.

It’s a vibrant group environment that participants say feels like a family. “For those who are really experienced artists, they come to the group because they’re experiencing difficulty with isolation,” says Greenberg. “They come for community because their lives are lacking that.” She notes that several participants now attend art shows together, and that two group members are building a creative studio to share in one of their homes.

“Allowing people to work on art when they’re feeling constricted helps them feel more expansive,” she says. “How much better can it be than to create friendships?”

Learn more about Aurora Studio & Gallery and its two upcoming events—a benefit at Loretta’s on August 8 and the opening of A Healing Light exhibit on September 11 at the Asheville Area Arts Council—at aurorastudio-gallery.com.