top_nav_ bar
features departments past issues contact links home


Pastel by Henry Isaacs, whose first wife died of breast cancer


Wooden sculpture of a woman by Louise Calvin, breast cancer survivor


Art of Survival

There are few experiences in life that evoke stronger emotions than a diagnosis of cancer. For patients, family members, friends and caregivers, living with cancer can evoke feelings of sadness, fear, anger, anxiety or helplessness. Alternatively, the diagnosis may spur patients and families to new levels of determination, resolve and freedom to embrace new challenges.

To express those deep emotions some members of the cancer community turn to art, creating beautiful and often poignant words, images, sculpture or music. Vanderbilt’s new REACH for Survivorship Clinic is providing an outlet for those creative urges by holding writing workshops and displaying some of the artwork designed by cancer patients and family members.

“We display wonderful art here at Vanderbilt University Medical Center because we want the aesthetic to be beautiful for our patients and visitors,” said Donna Glassford, executive director of Cultural Enrichment. “We also understand that the process of creating art can be therapeutic for patients and their families, helping them find a way to express complex emotions.”

Recent research reveals that participating in visual arts activities can decrease symptoms of distress, anxiety and depression and increase psychological strength among patients and caregivers.

Several pieces of art currently on display in the Survivorship Clinic were created by cancer patients or their loved ones.

“We want the Survivorship Clinic to be a warm welcoming space full of reminders of encouragement,” said Anne Washburn, M.P.H., associate director of the Office of Patient and Community Education. “Our survivorship program focuses on more than the disease. We provide a holistic approach to care and we want to encourage our families to express themselves artistically.”

The clinic is filled with art created in several mediums. Hanging in the lobby are lovely pastel landscapes from artist Henry Isaacs, whose first wife died from breast cancer.

A striking wooden sculpture of a woman prominently displayed in the lobby was carved by Louise Calvin. The breast cancer survivor started carving in her 40s after a mastectomy and continued to create stunning artwork until her death at age 84.

Head and neck cancer patient Maurice Mantus donated an evocative black and white photo of an arched bridge reflected in a water of a stream below. He titled the image “Water Under the Bridge.”

The process of creating art is clearly cathartic for patients and their loved ones. Artist Andi Seals, who plans to share some of her paintings with the clinic, is the widow of country music artist Dan Seals, whose early career was as one-half of the musical duo England Dan and John Ford Coley.

“Creating visual art does for me what singing, writing lyrics and music did for Danny,” said Andi Seals. “It expressed his view of both the inner and outer world. When he was diagnosed with mantle cell lymphoma my painting style transformed.
It switched without my conscious intention from representational realism to abstraction. It became a vital link between the experience of powerful circumstance and the processing of feelings that swelled up inside the soul.”

Washburn said the pieces on display elicit positive emotions.
“Even when artists have passed away, their art represents hope.”

– by Dagny Stuart