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Healing arts: Photos, paintings inspire and comfort

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 3, 2013 - By the time Antoinette Crayton of Florissant finished radiation treatments after a 2009 breast cancer diagnosis, she’d cycled through a kaleidoscope of emotions. But one she kept at bay: anger.

Only after she began making pencil sketches and acrylic paintings through Siteman Cancer Center’s “Arts as Healing” program did her darker emotions emerge. Studying her creations, including a painting of tall trees in dark greens and blues, gave Crayton, 60, insight into feelings she’d avoided.

“It was a very heavy picture; I couldn’t even give it a title,” Crayton said. “It finally occurred to me, ‘Wow, I was really ticked off, wasn’t I?’”

While working as an AT&T customer service representative for 32 years before her retirement, writing was Crayton’s real passion. But during her treatments, she couldn’t -- or wouldn’t, or a little of both -- put words on paper. Making art eventually let her return to creating poetry and short stories.

“The arts program allowed me to tap back into the essence of who I am,” Crayton said.

Vicki Friedman, also a breast cancer survivor, started “Arts as Healing” in 2005 with a tile project. Friedman's not a certified art therapist but has a bachelor's degree in fine arts and a master's in teaching and art. Her orginal goal was 100 finished tiles as Friedman helped chemotherapy patients create images including butterflies, rainbows and messages of “Faith Hope Love.”

Now, about 6,000 tiles are displayed throughout the center.

“I started with eight people in my class and now I have over 60 people waiting for class time,” Friedman said.

A sister's legacy

Making art is just one way patients deal with their emotions. Viewing art is another.

Forty-one photographs from around the world, taken by retired attorney Karen Kotner, greet visitors to Siteman’s Women’s Breast Health Center. Kotner, whose sister died of breast cancer in 1995, donated the photographs in honor of her sister after center department heads viewed them on her radiologist husband’s cell phone.

“My sister was a social worker who dealt with kids in disadvantaged homes; she was one of those people who always championed a cause,” Kotner said.

Kotner’s work includes images of women from such places as Vietnam and South America, as well as St. Louis’ own Rabbi Susan Talve of Central Reform Congregation.

“The hospital gets calls about them all the time,” Kotner said. “The women seem to really relate to these pictures.”

At Des Peres Hospital, the recent installation of 138 landscapes, flowers, abstracts and other works by 20 local artists decorates three floors.

“Art can take us out of the moment by giving us something else to focus on,” said hospital CEO John Grah, in a press release.

Staff, patients and visitors have all commented on the art as a pleasant distraction, according to hospital recruiter Jeanette Bell.

“It provides something to do, maybe while you’re waiting on someone who’s having surgery,” Bell said.

Bringing cheer, relieving stress

When Elaine Poggi’s mother was hospitalized at Barnes-Jewish with non-Hodgkins lymphoma 12 years ago, Poggi brought in some of her own photographs to make the room more cheerful.

“It was nice for her, it was nice for me, and the nurses and doctors also enjoyed it,” Poggi said.

After her mother’s death, Poggi launched the “Healing Photo Art” foundation, which has now placed thousands of nature photographs in 200 medical institutions on six continents. Local facilities include Barnes-Jewish, St. Anthony’s, Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital and Grace Hill Neighborhood Health Centers.

Poggi, who mostly lives in Florence, Italy, offers her own work and that of other photographers. Images from Tuscany and underwater vistas are favorites. The first 10 to 15 photos are often donated; additional photos and frames are paid for by the facility or through contributions.

In the decade since Poggi began her work, studies have shown the positive results of pleasant health-care settings, including relieving stress and even reducing chemotherapy's negative side effects. Other research, some of which involved Poggi’s images, has documented the specific impact of landscapes and other nature scenes.

“These patients really want something on the walls, and they prefer nature,” Poggi said. “I feel like we're on the front end of a trend.”

Nancy is a veteran journalist whose career spans television, radio, print and online media. Her passions include the arts and social justice, and she particularly delights in the stories of people living and working in that intersection.