“He doesn’t like doing art projects, so don’t be offended if he doesn’t participate,” Cindy said with a sweet smile as she rushed to set up the generous snack offerings for the evening. The gentleman she spoke of was sitting off to the side, at a table away from the group. Never one to back away from a challenge, I approached the gentleman and asked if he wanted to try his hand at monoprinting.
“I don’t know how to do art,” he said with a gruff laugh.
“You want to know a secret?” I whispered. “I don’t either. I’m a performing artist, not a visual artist. So, if I can do this, you can too.”
By the end of the evening, my reluctant artist had created several beautiful mono prints and had a great time doing so. Before I left, he pulled me aside and asked if I was a speech pathologist.
“No. I am a speech instructor. I teach public speaking.”
He looked disappointed. “Oh. I need a speech pathologist. I’d like to work with you.”
Well, shoot. I suppose I could get another degree…
Perhaps I should back up. Last August, I led an art activity with the Wiregrass Area Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) Support Group affiliated with the Alabama Head Injury Foundation. The foundation’s mission is “to improve the quality of life for survivors of traumatic brain injury and their families.” Cindy Woodcox, the resource coordinator for Southeast Alabama, reached out to me and asked if someone from WMA would be willing to attend a support group meeting and lead an activity. I teach in the evenings so my schedule was already packed but I just couldn’t turn this particular group down as I have a personal connection to this type of organization. My father battled glioblastoma, an aggressive form of brain cancer, for almost two years before he succumbed. His tumor was inoperable and, as a result, he experienced many of the same issues that TBI patients do: motor and sensory issues, fatigue, memory loss, personality changes, seizures, and more. Working with them felt like an opportunity to honor my sweet father, so I found a way to work them into my schedule. I am so glad that I did!
Studies and research indicate that “the ability to create art remains long after speech and language have diminished” and “creating visual art can reduce stress and promote relaxation in people who are hospitalized or homebound due to illness.”¹ It’s not so much about the product but the process. Working on an art project allows patients to express themselves without words. Creating can help improve fine motor skills and give them a sense of accomplishment and pride. And let us not forget that making art is also just plain fun! Support groups like the one I visited give patients and their caretakers an opportunity to not only get out of the house but to feel like they are part of the world again.
The Alabama Head Injury Foundation provides numerous services and resources for those suffering from traumatic brain injuries and their caretakers. The Wiregrass Support Group meets on the 1st Tuesday of every month at Encompass Health. Cindy always provides a wonderful night out for her clients, from guest speakers to game night to art activities. She has also partnered with the Alabama College of Osteopathic Medicine (ACOM) who provide student volunteers to help her with the support group. We at the museum work closely with ACOM volunteers as well –another link between art and healing.
When I returned to the Wiregrass Support Group this January with an air-dry clay project, I discovered my not-so-reluctant artist might not be as enthusiastic this time around.
“He says he likes art now…just not working with clay,” Cindy told me with that same sweet smile.
Thankfully, I was met with zero resistance. He dove right in and, with the help of a cookie cutter and a couple of ACOM students, created lovely clay star. I was reminded of a phrase written on a whiteboard in the office of my father’s neuro-oncologist, “You can’t have stars without darkness.”
March is Traumatic Brain Injury awareness month. Stop by the AHIF website to learn more about TBI and the services the foundation offers.
Art heals, my friends. I’ve seen it.
Brook McGinnis is an Art Educator at the Wiregrass Museum of Art and a proud Board Member for the Alabama Head Injury Foundation.
¹The Healing Power of Art. (2017, July). Retrieved February 14, 2020, from https://www.health.harvard.edu/mental-health/the-healing-power-of-art