The Healing Power of Art,
By Jessica Millis MFA
I have always been surrounded by art. Both of my parents are artists, and some of my earliest memories are of our family making and experiencing art together in one form or another. I remember being taken to the Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco as a six year old. It was the first time I saw paintings by Picasso, Matisse, Rembrandt, and many others. On that day I also saw a contemporary installation that made an indelible impression on me. We were standing in a huge exhibition room, filled with giant mechanical figures that resembled the human form, but were emanating a low, humming sound, and moving slowly and methodically, like robots. As a small girl, I found these large, humanoid figures to be absolutely terrifying, with their drone-like sounds and behaviors. Then, when I looked up, my fear was dispelled as I discovered beautiful sculptures of figures suspended above them, as if flying. Their expressions and form evoked pure joy and freedom, as though they had been somehow liberated from the scene below. Of course I was very young, and lacking in intellectual sophistication, but even as a six year old, I understood in that moment that art can have an extraordinary power to expand our understanding of the world, and bring hope and even healing.
My mother ran a small art center, providing art classes to children during a time when many art programs were being cut from schools. My siblings and I grew up with art integrated into almost every aspect of our daily lives, and probably I took much of that for granted as a very young person. It was as I began to grow up that I became aware of the transformative power of art in the lives of other people as they were influenced by my amazing mother. I remember her reaching out to a boy who was losing his eye sight, offering to provide clay sculpture lessons for him in his home, free of charge. He received multiple surgeries, and eventually regained partial eyesight, but that time was a frightening ordeal for him and for his family. My mother was able to recognize that art could be a catalyst, not just for distraction or entertainment, but for genuine emotional and spiritual healing for this boy. She spent months with him, helping him learn how to work the clay to create beautiful sculptures that he could “see” with his hands through a very therapeutic sensory experience. A few years ago, she received a thank you letter from this boy, who is now an adult. He expressed his gratitude to her for providing him with such an empowering tool at a critical time in his life. He told her that he now works with youth in an effort to “pay it forward”.
As a teenager, I learned first hand how art can save a person. I was diagnosed with a bleeding disorder called Idiopathic thrombocytopenic purpura (ITP), which is when the immune system begins to attack platelets in the blood for unknown reasons, causing excessive bleeding and bruising. Until an appropriate treatment could be determined, I was required to stay home and avoid any activity that could result in even a minor bump on the head, for fear of fatal bleeding in the brain. Essentially, I had to stay in bed until my platelet count could be raised. Until that experience, I had always been a really active kid, and could not imagine being restricted from skiing, hiking, biking, horseback riding, etc. Having these physical limitations imposed was devastating to me, and certainly I was inclined as a teenager to exaggerate the drama of this experience. (I am sure I was not an easy person to live with). My parents provided me with an extensive supply of art materials, which calmed me and gave me a new focus. I had always loved drawing, and keeping sketchbooks, but during my newfound predicament, it became an essential coping activity for me. Because I was dealing with health issues, I became interested in anatomy, and made many drawings inspired by anatomical illustrations. I discovered Leonardo Da Vinci’s notebooks. I created a whole series of fascinating, albeit morose drawings of fantastical, anatomical disasters. In time, I became more accepting of my situation, and there began to be less anger and more hope reflected in my drawings. I visited the oncology /hematology ward of the children’s hospital for regular check ups, and met kids who were going through much worse, including cancer, hemophilia, and aids. I began to develop empathy on a new level, and it was reflected in the art I was making.
I eventually received an experimental treatment that cured my bleeding disorder, and I was able to return to a more typical teenage life, but I had been forever changed. Through that experience, I began to develop an identity and a voice as an artist that was authentically my own. I realized I wanted to make and teach art, not because it was what my mother did, but because I had come to see the powerful relevance of art in my own life and in the lives of people around me. Through drawing I began to see and understand the world differently. When we can see beyond ourselves with insight and compassion, we can interpret what we are seeing “outside the box” in way that can contribute to real solutions and healing on a larger level.
We live in a world that can appear to emphasize narcissism, materialism, and cynicism at the expense of genuine creativity and innovation, but I believe the arts can help us rise above that, creating people who are sensitive, socially engaged, and wise. As we begin to see the empowering and liberating effects of creativity, we are able to translate that experience into every aspect of our lives. Regardless of our professional roles, art can have a wonderful, enriching, and liberating impact on our problem solving strategies. It can be a game changer. I will always have with me the image from the museum of the figures rising above a world entrenched in mindless technology and mediocrity. I feel it is a privilege to teach and make art because I get to be a part of that transformation in some small way. I am sure there are those who would call me naive, but I do believe art can heal the world.