In April 2021, I lived in the chemo rehab clinic in Freiburg, Germany. It was a life changing experience that course corrected the life I would follow after cancer. I know that I am stronger because of what I learned while there.
I cannot imagine being able to recover from cancer, chemo and surgery (a mastectomy) without that month in rehabilitation. Anyone who knows me even peripherally knows that I love to paint and draw, but it was in Freiburg where I had Art Therapy for the first time.
The painting above was a result of my playing around with the paints and the paper, to familiarize myself with what I could do. It was my first time using gouache. If you‘ve never tried gouache before, it‘s a paint that behaves somewhat in the middle of acrylic and watercolor. I enjoyed the texture and versatility very much.
My Art Therapist was Andrea Pfeiffer, a terrific lady who is in her own right an artist. In addition to helping people at the chemo rehab center, she runs her own art therapy studios in the beautiful city of Freiburg. Her insightful and quietly pointed questions about the images she prompted me to produce often had me in tears.
Every time, it was a complete surprise to me. I thought I was just painting, but she would ask me a question about a certain detail, and the answer that I would provide all on my own would shatter me. It was revelatory and heartbreaking, but absolutely necessary for me and ultimately, cathartic.
My 1st Assignment
Pfeiffer came up and first covered the left half of the painting. She asked me what I saw there.
Then she covered the other side and asked the same question. She helped me realize that the two sides portrayed different emotions that I was trying to manage.
I really didn‘t know what to expect, but had mostly in mind that I‘d be able to play with paints and talk about my feelings. That really wasn‘t it at all. What transpired was considerably more structured than that. I was guided every step of the way, while still feeling as though I was creatively free there.
“What is that?“
I answered, without even thinking about it, “Flying Nipples in Space.“ Obviously.
I found this particularly interesting, because I didn‘t realize how much the mastectomy I‘d had was so present in my mind. Clearly, it was, and beyond the simple, “Ouch, my scar hurts,“ kind of thing.
It was good for me to see that. I said goodbye to my breast on that day in therapy, and was given the space and time I needed to properly mourn that loss.
The art therapy experience was very hard work, highly emotional, and I wasn‘t the only one in the room. Even with social distancing due to covid precautions, there were typically 4-5 patients in the studio. But I also wasn‘t the only one in tears. Everyone in that room had a lot of emotional baggage and plenty of hurt to heal.
Color and WORDS
Once she realized that I write, Pfeiffer encouraged me to incorporate words into some of my paintings, using pastels. This was for me another first.
There are several layers of words, written directly on top of each other.
It isn‘t meant to be legible. It‘s meant to be an outlet.
Pfeiffer prompted me to write down the words I would want to share with someone who hurt me deeply, but at different points in time: the past, right now, and the far future.
I won‘t go into the nitty gritty of what my therapist asked me at various stages of the painting process, or what all she helped me to unveil through creating. No kidding, that would fill a volume. But you can get an idea of how cleansing and transformative the experience was for me based on the images I‘m sharing here.
This represents about half of what I created.
For me, there are some images that are even now hard for me to look at because I can see the pain there, and recall the words that Andrea Pfeiffer and I exchanged. Those are not included here.
My Pegasus Future
This was one of the later paintings I did for art therapy. I was thinking about my future, and started with a simple line across the page. It‘s the line of bright yellow. Nothing else.
I continued, and added stuff instinctively. I didn‘t have anything in mind other than My Future. It was kind of bugging me that a horse seemed to be developing. I don‘t ride. “Why am I painting this?“
Then I realized that the squiggles above weren‘t random (to me). They were suggesting wings. I kept going with that, playing with it.
Suddenly I stopped and realized what was significant to me. The first line I had drawn was a story plot line, a simple graph line for what a story should be. Every writer knows that shape.
Ride. Fly. Go forward. WRITE stories, create, and be the story you would want to read. In a time when I was feeling low and fragile, this was critical for me.
I don‘t know that anything of what I created in Art Therapy can really be considered art, but it is imagery. The images that came out of the process of creating, prompted by my therapist, were enlightening to me on a deeply personal level. I was surprised every time with the revelations the process revealed.
And it wasn‘t some flakey make-believe woo-woo, either. It was serious, it was hard core therapy, and it was essential to my healing process.
If you‘re considering art therapy but aren‘t sure, I would say set those reservations aside. Just do it. The only thing you have to lose is fear and pain. You will feel those things, intensely, but then you‘ll be able to identify them and let them go, too.