She Turns to Art to Heal:
Interview with Holistic Nurse Lisa Wayman, Part 2
Yesterday, in Part 1 of my interview, artist and holistic nurse Lisa Wayman discussed how she entered the field of holistic nursing and why she is pursuing doctoral studies in the use of art as a healing intervention. Today, Lisa explains why she turned to art during her late son's illness, what she learned from her art-making and how she applies her "lessons" in life and at work, and what observations she's made about art's beneficial effects on others.
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Maureen E. Doallas: Let's talk about your own art-making. Have you studied art formally? Do you paint daily?
Lisa Wayman: I haven't studied art formally. I grew up thinking that I had to be practical and art wasn't practical.
I painted and wrote poetry when I was a kid, then stopped when I turned 17. I started painting again around the time I turned 31, [when] I moved into holistic nursing [and] H.Lea Gaydos [a mentor] encouraged me to do some self-care, including soul care.
I don't paint daily, though I should.
MD: When you son was diagnosed with cancer, you found yourself strongly called to paint. What do you think prompted your turn at this particular point to active art-making, and to painting (as opposed to some other art form) specifically?
LW: I think I painted when Joe was ill because I had painted before. I had created Dancing with God about a year before Joe was diagnosed; so, when he got sick, the paint just called to me. I am a visual thinker and I experience a visceral pleasure when I put one color next to another and it is just right. I get such joy when [the colors] touch. So maybe that joy pulled me to paint. Maybe it was that words wouldn't hold the experience. I can't be certain why I turned to painting, but I'm glad that I did.
MD: Had you ever used, before Joe's illness, any form of art to make sense of what you were experiencing, or to help you cope, heal, or recover from a life experience?
LW: I did but not to the depth that I did when Joe was ill. Perhaps my need [then] wasn't so great. Dancing with God, a painting I did before Joe was ill, was a joy to paint, partly because it helped me to love my big strong body.
MD: What did (or do) your paintings show you or teach you about yourself?
LW: I think my paintings are a way for me to learn about what I really feel and think. It is easy to lie to myself in words but symbols in paint and non-verbal aspects of visual art express the truth. . . allow [my] subconscious to express itself. . . [T]he paint brings out what is hidden and lets me discover it on my own. For example, I painted New Beginnings when our daughter left home and did not contact us for four years. I knew I was angry and started a large canvas with red slashes; then I was moved to paint blue tear drops down the middle and realized that I was more sad than angry. The painting moves from left to right, from how things were, through [my] anger, to new beginnings. I painted a circle on the right [that] became a symbol of a new and different but whole life. I felt much more hopeful and had a goal —to work toward that new life — after I completed the painting.
MD: What do you think accounts for the insights you are able to make?
LW: I have a capacity for introspection that allows me to look at the art and examine it for meaning. Art inherently takes the hidden and makes it visible; internal processes become external expressions. Art is external to me —has a life of its own — after I create it. There is a separation between me and the experience of [art-making] that allows me a little room to examine [myself] and think in a way that is different. For me, [what is healing about art] is participating in the creative process and then interacting with [the artwork].
MD: How do you apply the "lessons" of your art-making in your nursing practice and daily life?
LW: I am a recovering perfectionist, and art is great for that. I make mistakes on the canvas all the time and sometimes, I have to get out the white paint and start again, [though] sometimes the mistake is an unplanned, wonderful thing. [Being able to make mistakes on canvas] has helped me be a little more forgiving of myself and more open to [what is] unfolding. I don't need to be so in charge. If I don't paint regularly, I start to forget [that].
MD: Do you think we all have the capacity to experience the kind of transformative effects you've experienced through art-making? What, besides catastrophic illness or loss, might impel a person to turn to art? What might hold us back from turning to art?
LW: I think that transformation is the norm [but, like child development,] an uneven and jumping type of development. We think one way, then tension starts to build and we jump to a different level. Some people do this as a gift of grace, some people work hard to prepare for the opportunities, so when a breaking point comes, [they can handle] it. Me? I must be a slow learner, because I seem to take the hard way and need a big catalyst to push me out from where I am into something new.
Anything that someone is working on can [prompt a] turn to art.
The biggest barrier to trying art is being afraid that we won't be good at it.
MD: Does art as therapeutic, diagnostic, interventional or promotional health tool appear to be more effective with one than another group of people? For example, is propensity or sensitivity to art as a healing mechanism, or religious belief, or sense of spirituality essential? How might attitude toward art-making affect whether or how we engage it, receive its benefits, understand its outcomes?
LW: There isn't enough research to answer these questions adequately. These are some of the questions I hope to answer in my work.
I do think that if one has a negative attitude toward any intervention it is unlikely to work well.
I have a word of caution on the use of art for healing. I have found examples of art having a negative effect. Some people use the creative process to cycle continually through a negative event without using the opportunity to change their perception or vision of how the future could be. This is where I see the need for a nurse or other guide to assist the patient-artist to use the art [transformatively], to change perception and grow.
MD: What, if any, forms of art-making (poetry-writing, music performance, painting, etc.) seem to be most beneficial to which groups of creators (adults, children)?
LW: Again, this is an area [where there has been] very little research. I think the most important thing is that the art be a type that resonates with the person. ([For example,] I know that at the VA, the most popular type of art-making is leather-making. It must attract the men for some reason.
MD: Are art's beneficial effects largely anecdotal, then, or can they be measured and quantified? What have you observed since your own "mapping" of self with art? Are any of those observations applicable universally?
LW: Art's beneficial effects have been largely anecdotal, though a start has been made on more scientific (qualitative and quantitative) measurements. Part of the problem [in much of scientific research] is lack of capability to model or measure whole-person changes. It's a problem shared in research in all complementary or alternative therapies. The issue isn't, does art have an effect or not, but do we have enough understanding of people as a complex system to understand the effects of art?
For me, creating art allows me to express negative emotion — and then to experience positive emotions from the creative process. I also use the process to change my perceptions of [my] current situation and to envision different future outcomes. This may be what is behind studies showing that people who create art have a more positive outlook on life and are more able to engage in the work of their life stage, including saying goodbye at the end of life.
The area is so open to research that I can't give definitive answers to these wonderful questions. My research career is starting at a time when practitioners who use art know [intuitively] it works but [acknowledge] there is real work to be done in defining the benefits and understanding the process.
MD: What is your favorite story about being witness to art's healing effects?
LW: Well, I am a hospital nurse and an academic. I have research articles I could quote but I can't give you a patient-using-art story because I'm not a clinician in this area at this time. I have, however, done a number of art projects at conferences. I particularly like the communal weaving project I did for a church and for an AHNA conference; working on one project together was a community-building experience.
MD: When you speak in public, do you share your personal experience of how art helped you? What one detail or piece of information do you never leave out?
LW: I do share my experience of how art helped me. For me, the value of my art is not just [to show] what the finished product looks like but [to communicate] what I learned and how [my art-making] helped me. It energizes me to have a group share that experience with me; it is extremely personal [and, for that reason,] I don't think people forget my presentations.
One thing I never leave out is how the process of creating art is a dialogue between the artist and the piece of art. The piece has its own life and will talk back to you, if you will listen.
Lisa Wayman is the author of "Walking with Persephone: A Journey Toward Healing" in Creativity and Madness: Psychological Studies of Art and Artists, Vol. 2 (Barry M. Panter, Ed.; Manipal, India: American Institute of Medical Education Press, 2009), available through Creativity and Madness. She also contributed the chapter "The Art of Survival" to The Art of Grief: The Use of Expressive Arts in a Grief Support Group (J. Earl Rogers, Ed.; New York: Routledge, 2007). Lisa's paintings may be seen here.
Portions of my interview with Lisa first appeared at the T.S. Poetry Press blog (go here).
Portions of my interview with Lisa first appeared at the T.S. Poetry Press blog (go here).