Mary’s story: Painting to heal

Twenty years ago, life challenged me. I became depressed and everything in my life shattered and changed. I felt like I was drifting away from myself and all that I knew. In that moment of despair, I realized I had a vision and a dream I had never actualized. I’d always wanted to be an artist but did not have the time or skill and did not know how to go about learning how to be one. It was a turning point in my life. I became increasingly depressed and immobilized. In spite of therapy, self-help books and workshops, I was floundering. I was trying to find something outside myself to ease my pain.

Then there was a miracle. A friend invited me to a studio to make art. It was a ray of hope—something that interested me. Everything in my life had turned bland until I started to paint. Art became my sun, my water and my food. It energized me so much that I felt alive again. I fell in love with becoming an artist. I started painting every day. My creative process was like a river, a wellspring of energy that was profoundly healing and transformative. This experience changed me to my core. I had an experience of healing so profound that I became well and became a different person.

I tapped into my own enthusiasm and power to experience being truly alive. I worked every day in my studio. I invited the artist into my life and I became the artist of my own life. It was a point of departure where I never looked back. My life was on a path to fill a destiny that was unfolding. I knew something was happening that was deeply profound and connected me to my spiritual purpose.

I took out a large canvas but did not even know how to hold a brush. I looked though magazines and saw a picture of a woman who was broken and distorted. That was how I felt. I started painting. I got excited about the colours of the paint, how the shapes appeared on the paper. My painting was large. As I worked, it started to look like something—it looked like my pain, how I felt. I forgot about how I felt and instead looked at how I felt. I got excited about the making of the painting.

Then I got another canvas and started a series of paintings of women. They were all distorted in the beginning. I painted garish backgrounds. I took photographs of myself and started painting self-portraits. I become absorbed in the process and painted how I felt instead of thinking about how I felt. I began to realize that I was painting my life.

Bleeding woman painting - Excerpt from Healing with the Arts

Next I created a studio space for myself and simply began painting. In the beginning, I made no attempt to define myself or my process. I painted from pure feeling states. I became absorbed in the pure expression and gesture of painting. I could completely release my energy passionately on the canvas. The series turned out to be self-portraits. The first painting I called Cut Out My Heart. It was my pain—a deeply intense and dying pain. The figure was broken, distorted, diffuse, crumpled, crying and bleeding. I painted “her.” This figure had been my despair, my uncensored and purely emotional energy. In the moment I had released this image, I stepped back, looked and gasped. What I saw was an aspect of myself that I hadn’t faced until then. It was so ugly. Yet I felt calm and detached in this moment face-to-face with myself. I had let go on an intense emotional and physical level. Painting is physical for me; I embody my pain as I paint it.

For the first time, I was experiencing my pain in a strange new way. As a painter, I stood in front of my canvas and was in control for the first time. I painted my emotions. I painted my body. I could feel that I was the creator of myself.

When I returned to my studio later, I saw that the painting had captured and contained a moment that was now in the past. The painting remained, though the emotion had passed. It was an object that contained an image created in genuine expression. I had moved past it. I realized that I was witnessing my own transformation.

As I painted a series of self-portraits, I struggled with form and perspective. Metaphorically I was re-creating and reconstructing my inner form and inner perspective. The external creative process mirrored my inner world. I realized that the manifestation of movement and change was powerful. It was a process of knowing myself. As I immersed myself in painting, I not only became well but also became the artist I had always wanted to be. My creativity was a part of myself I had neither acknowledged nor honoured. Through this experience, I realized that art could be used as a vehicle for healing.

Art became a way to know myself through the experience of my pain. In seeing my emotions, I could step away from them. They became my art—completely separate from me. In essence, I became free.

I spent two years as an artist in my studio. I painted my children playing on the beach. I painted the surrounding landscapes I saw. I set up still lifes on the kitchen table to paint the things I loved.

Since I was a nurse and art had healed me, I hoped to bring art into the healthcare system. This was my opportunity to help others help themselves. No one had ever told me I could take my illness and use it constructively to help myself. Everywhere I looked it seemed like I had been in relationship with a form of healing that was disjointed from my life. It did not support me in the way I needed it to. It wasn’t until I threw myself into my creative work that I felt a powerful healing effect. I needed to throw my whole life into something powerful. I needed my whole life immersed in it because that was how I was involved with my sickness. Art and healing transformed my life. I healed myself. My process was not fragmented—one hour, twice a week. My illness was so overwhelming that I needed to live my healing all the time, not just in visits to a therapist. What was going to heal me—and others—was a relationship with myself that was fundamentally different than any I had had before. I could always be there for myself.

Read art therapist Catherine Gillespie-Lopes’ article on the power of art to unlock artistic expression and heal>>

This article was excerpted from Healing with the Arts: A 12-Week Program to Heal Yourself and Your Community by Michael Samuels, M.D., and Mary Rockwood Lane, Ph.D., and reprinted with permission of Beyond Words Publishing/Atria Books, Hillsboro, Oregon. Buy the book!

Michael Samuels, M.D., is a physician, artist, guided imagery specialist, and one of the foremost experts in body, mind, and spirit medicine today. He is the co-founder and director of Art as a Healing Force. Samuels teaches at San Francisco State University’s Institute of Holistic Studies and is the author of 22 books, including the best-sellers The Well Body Book, Seeing with the Mind’s Eye, and the Well Baby Book.

Mary Rockwood Lane, R.N., PH.D., is co-founder and co-director emeritus of Shands Arts in Medicine at the University of Florida in Gainesville, where she teaches Creativity and Spirituality in Healthcare and is conducting research on creativity and spirituality at the end of life. She is the co-author of five books, including Creative Healing and Spirit Body Healing.

image 1: martinak15 (Creative Commons BY); image 2: HumanSeeHumanDo (Creative Commons BY-NC)