The Elixir of Art
BY MARGARET NEWCOMB
“Art saved your life,” Father Robert Pelton, a counselor at a community in Ontario, Canada surprised me with this statement during my first conversation with him.
I was a runaway 19-year old searching for meaning and purpose in her life. I had just finished telling him the story of how an insightful nun witnessed my being bullied during recess, making middle school a living hell for me, and how she had rescued me.
Beginning in sixth grade, everything about me turned wrong. When the other girls wore pantyhose, I was stuck with fishnet stockings. When I was drafted onto the big girls’ softball team of seventh and eighth graders, my mother made me wear pedal pushers, while all the cool girls a grade or two older wore fashionable cutoff jeans. The coaches had pulled me onto the team after witnessing my prowess at recess. I could catch, pitch, and field, thanks to having played regularly with my tough brothers, who made absolutely no allowances, I’m grateful to say, for my being a girl. The coaches made me a first string shortstop. The offended older girls kept up a constant barrage of insults. Their sneers and insinuations tortured me, until one day, I took off my uniform and walked home, never to return to the team, never again to return to the game.
Then began a middle school nightmare. No one talked to me or played with me at recess, unless it was to mock me, my clothes, my shoes, the size of my feet. The kind nun who taught seventh-grade English must have seen what was happening, though she never directly addressed it. She simply took me aside one day and told me she could use some help with her bulletin boards. In the late 60s, troll dolls were all the rage. Using full-size poster board and markers, I filled the classroom with colorful mop headed trolls, each one carrying a big sign proclaiming a grammar, spelling, or punctuation rule. The adorable creatures earned the admiration of the other students and ended my sentence as butt of all torment. They did me the further service, by the by, of ensuring that I master the intricacies of English.
The creative act of making art brings wellness. During middle school I experienced emotional healing when I lost myself in the delight of drawing those funny beings, working to make each one uniquely expressive. As a younger child, I had escaped the stresses of a tumultuous household by curling up into my bed and drawing stories with happy endings. The stories had no words. They were all pictures, though I would sometimes narrate them to my younger sisters and brother.
Throughout high school, college, graduate school, and all my life long, up to the present moment, art has lifted me out of anxiety and carried me into a place where peaceful energy reigns.
Personal experience gives me the confidence to assert that making visual art is therapeutic. I assume that other creative activities such as writing poetry or fiction, sewing, composing or performing music, and other pursuits that have no focused practical purpose, but which instead arise from a desire to make something aesthetically or auditorily pleasing, that these activities, too, promote emotional health.
Late summer of 2022 seems a good time to consider the benefits of art to physical health as well as to mental wellbeing. Having not myself contracted the coronavirus, I cannot cite direct evidence that art helps heal such a disease, though I suspect that it helps with coping and recovery. I can, however, attest first hand to the role art has played in helping me face two life-shaking illnesses that have recently sent deep tremors across the surface of what I thought was my settled and mostly secure world.
First came disturbing changes to my husband’s behavior and personality, culminating in wildly psychotic exhibitions that terrified me. My kindly and usually mild-mannered husband accused me of trying to poison him. I won’t forget the morning I awoke to find my husband angrily bustling about, telling me that he’d called the police, accusing me of trying to kill him, of training our six-month-old standard poodle puppy to attack him. Those police officers became my friends over the next year, reappearing too often, to rescue me from Tim’s rages and Tim from himself.
In late May of 2019, after a particularly extreme psychotic episode and three weeks of Tim’s hospitalization in the University of Washington’s Psych Ward, came the diagnosis of Lewy Body Dementia. I retired earlier than I had planned in order to manage the demands of this baffling and cruel disease.
Receiving a phone call from an Amtrak conductor at 2 a.m. in France, while I was chaperoning students on an exchange trip, brought home to me just how very serious Tim’s condition was turning out to be. The conductor told me he was putting Tim off the train and depositing him at the nearest hospital, which happened to be in Nebraska. Tim was seeing terrorists and shouting and scaring other passengers. More recently, just a year ago, while I was still in shock and struggling to find ways to navigate the demands of my husband’s illness, my own body raised a ruckus and threw out its Jack-in-the-box surprise of non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.
That first September of my retirement, to focus myself on something other than not being in school teaching art and French, I had plunged into a painting project for Burien Arts, their 20/20 benefit auction. I chose to put those two subjects into my nine 8″ x 8″ wood panels, using French monuments as my theme. The recent burning of Notre Dame Cathedral’s medieval spires represented to me much that had gone wrong with the world, Covid, yes, but also the vicious political and xenophobic divisions that were burning out of control, making our whole globe sick.
To my great relief, I found that Tim loved seeing me paint. He always had before, but so many of his behaviors had changed with the emergence of the disease that I feared he might react differently since. But, no. If anything, his admiration for my work only increased. He marveled at the images and noticed all kinds of little details. The “Morphing Monuments” project released both Tim and me from the unsettling effects of our life changes.
My jump-started education about dementia has taught me that “creativity is the last to go.”
I would add that the same holds true of appreciation of creativity. My little studio became a peaceful safe space for the two of us.
Then came the cancer. It’s more or less accepted to say that stress can make you sick. Certainly, the past couple of years have been frightfully stressful for me. My reaction to my doctor’s phone call, after she told me that my biopsy had come back positive, gives evidence of just how stressful. My first thought was not, “Oh, no! I’ve got cancer!” It was, instead, “Oh, thank God! I’m going to get a break from dealing with Tim’s LBD!” That didn’t happen, but even so, I survived and have come out strong and healthy, I am happy to report, with no evidence of cancer anywhere in my body.
With the return of health came a renewed desire to surround myself with art and artists. Colleen Bowen, of the lovely boutique C’est la Vie in Edmonds, put me in touch with Denise Cole, who has since taken me on as part-time help in her gorgeous Cole Gallery, thereby introducing me to Edmonds’ vibrant artistic community. Meeting artists and seeing them teach inspires me on a daily basis to appreciate creativity in others as well as to pursue my own art.
Recently, while visiting Cascadia Art Museum, also in Edmonds, to view Maria Frank Abrams’ work and learn her story, I read a note this artist wrote after all her close family were killed at Auschwitz. Herself imprisoned at Bergen Belsen, she lost the desire to live. I will let her tell you in her own words how art saved her life. In comparison, my little middle school drama pales to nearly nothing.
There was a woman in the same barrack where I was… she was an artist; she talked about her work, about her life in Paris, about her past.
It was throughout this period when I felt that I wanted to live after all, and that if I lived, I wanted to paint…
This desire to become a painter helped me live.
While I was going through chemotherapy, my artistic output diminished, but did not stop. Even when I was not actually painting, the thought that I would paint again soon, no matter what, comforted me. Maybe it even promoted healing. It clearly motivated me to get well, so that I might enter again into the creative energy that lifts my spirit, so that I might, maybe, leave a work or two of pleasing art behind when my time to leave the planet finally does arrive.