“This is the face of a man who found out when he was down that the people he thought he could trust, he couldn’t. This is also the face of a man who was willing to name the thing he needed most, and then be openly moved when I gave it to him. I call that a healing moment.”
The image and caption above is just the latest example of the phenomenal service Kathy Curtis, Healing Artist, Fort Wayne Dance Collective, provides to Parkview patients on a regular basis. Through her innovative approach to both mending emotional wounds and shining a spotlight on life’s unimaginable gifts, Kathy has touched the lives of many through the Parkview Healing Arts program.
How did you start doing word art?
It originated for me during a visit with a very sick, very open patient, who was too ill to create anything and yet clearly wanted to be engaged. Being a writer who loves the power of words, and a lifelong lover of the beauty of lettering, I had the idea to ask her for a word that meant a lot to her in that moment. When she told me what it was, I asked if she’d let me draw it for her and leave it behind as a kind of visual medicine for her. I will never forget that encounter. It was so rich and positive. I’ve made the creation of word art my unique way of bringing healing moments to patients ever since.
How do you work with patients to develop the art?
I tell them that I am there to provide a creative diversion, because studies show what a positive effect that has on our mental and physical well-being. Then I tell them what I do and that if they want to participate, all they have to do is give me a word and I will make it into art. The particular type of word I ask for varies with each patient, but generally it has to do with something they need or that inspires them or that means a lot to them.
It has been so amazing to see how many people want to figure out their word, and also how much they appreciate having someone make art for them. Once I have their word, I sit beside their bed, put a tablet of paper on my lap, pull out my crayons, and spend the next 15 minutes drawing their word.
How does this exercise help a patient heal?
I believe a combination of healing things happen when I ask a patient for their word, and then make their art:
- They have to become mindful in order to select just the right word, which distracts them from pain and worries.
- They seem to like being asked an out-of-the-ordinary question that makes them have to think.
- For some patients, this is an opportunity to name something that might otherwise be hard or scary to express.
- As I am drawing, the room gets calm and they either get very relaxed or very talkative or both.
- When I hand them their art, they know I am giving them not just a gift, but a reflection of something important about themselves.
- They show me lots of gratitude, and as we all know, being grateful is a very healing state of mind.
- During the course of my visit, they forget their present circumstances and tap into a bigger part of themselves.
- Their word art is proof that they’ve been heard in some important way.
Studies have been done about the power of journaling in the face of difficulty. The key ingredient seems to be the level of honesty you bring to the writing, in order to get the most positive results. I think that comes into play with my program, too. I have seen big changes happen as a result of some very honest words I’ve gotten from patients.
Any interactions in particular that touched you?
I think one of my favorite experiences is when the word a patient asks for opens the door for an important conversation with their family. Or when it’s funny and breaks the grip of fear and discomfort the family members are feeling. Or when a patient asks for a word that means a lot to me, too, and they let me share it with them. Or when I see a nurse look at the word I’m making and watch as the patient shares what it means to them. Or when a nurse allows me to do a word for them!
I have a wonderful memory of doing a word for a family whose loved one was dying. When I walked in, no one was saying a word and I even wondered if I might be invading a sacred moment for the family. But they really needed the distraction, and the word, when it was done, inspired each of them to share a story about the patient. I literally felt healing energy fill that room.
There are so many moments, and they all boil down to the power of a word to awaken us to ourselves and to each other.
What does this process do for you as an artist?
From a purely selfish point of view, I get to draw beautiful shapes that form meaningful words for people. I am inspired to reflect back what I see in them through the art I make of their chosen word, and I love the feeling that we're co-creating a kind of feel-good tonic that they need in that moment.
I am inspired by these encounters, which is an important aspect of the work for me. I am fed by the words, the lettering, the stories, the family dynamics, the sharing of intimacies as well as the burdens, the way it feels to be reminded week after week that we are all the same at our core and we’re all in this together.
I believe I’m making a small difference for people, and to be doing it in the way I am is like nothing I’ve ever experienced as an artist.