The Arts: A Healing Avenue of Expression

Whale of a Good Time, Ali age 18 / Photo courtesy Snow City Arts

Throughout history, the ‎arts have been a source of comfort and healing in times of illness. In Ancient Greece, certain times of music were believed to ease symptoms, and the theater was considered a form of emotional catharsis. In Navajo culture, sand paintings continue to play a key role in healing ceremonies.

For anyone who has suffered from cancer or watched a loved one suffer, we know that the arts possess therapeutic qualities. The arts can relieve stress and distract from emotional and physical pain. Their beauty can be a powerful antidote to the arduous days of disease, loss, and recovery. Certain activities such as painting and pottery can even help restore fine motor skills after debilitating illness or treatment.

I personally discovered the healing power of the arts at the age of nine, when my father died of cancer. Many children lack the full repertoire of words to express their grief, and I was no different. This was further compounded by my living in two cultures simultaneously, since I was growing up in Arkansas and my parents were from China. My parents spoke Mandarin and I spoke English. I could not find enough appropriate words to verbalize my own profound loss. But those piano lessons I was taking opened the door to a different vocabulary to fully express myself; a vocabulary that touched the depths of my heart and transcended the use of linear everyday conversations. Through music, I felt soothed. It was here that I found a way to express and work through my sadness, and discovered ‎a simultaneous source of release and comfort.

At the National Endowment for the Arts, we are seeing the power of the arts in action. Many of our grantees are dedicated to improving the hospital experience for pediatric patients who have cancer or other longer-term illnesses. These are children who are confined to hospitals for weeks or months at a time, and whose daily routines have changed from recess and play dates to flushing out IVs and getting wheeled from one treatment to another.

But the arts can ‎provide a healing avenue of expression. Last year, I had the opportunity to see the work of Snow City Arts, an NEA grantee based in Chicago. Snow City Arts brings the arts directly to a child’s hospital bedside, and provides one-to-one instruction in visual arts, creative writing, theater, and filmmaking. I could see the faces of these young patients brighten when they realized that it was time to create.

There are numerous other organizations doing similarly wonderful work. CosaCosa, an NEA grantee in Philadelphia has transformed pediatric facilities from cold and sterile to bright and magical places. Patients can come together to create public artworks. They acquire a sense of community and accomplishment during their hospital stay. Then there is Creative Kids, Inc., whose Project AIM program received a National Arts and Humanities Youth Program award from the White House in 2013. Through visual and media arts, they engage pediatric oncology patients at Providence Hospital ‎in El Paso, Texas, and helps them unleash the creativity that cancer has tried to squelch.

The National Endowment for the Arts is proud to support organizations that stand up to cancer through the arts and to help expand knowledge of and opportunities to encourage more people to seek funding for therapeutic arts activities. We will continue to invest in the healing power of creativity, and we are committed to helping Cancer Moonshot achieve its goals.