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Arts and Healing: Three Women Intersect at the Crossroad of Health Care and the Arts

March 15, 2007

They hail from Michigan, Ohio, and Tennessee. All are artists showing current work at the Bruno David Gallery on Washington Avenue in St. Louis. And each has a connection to Barnes- Jewish Hospital.


Sarah Colby is the new arts and healthcare coordinator for the hospital. Joan Hall was treated successfully at the Siteman Cancer Center, and is working on a commissioned piece for the new Barnes-Jewish College of Nursing. Bunny Burson and her husband, Charles, made a gift to support arts and healthcare at Barnes-Jewish.


It is now widely recognized that the arts have a profound impact on health and healing. Art can enhance the hospital environment with offerings of beauty, spirituality, humor and celebration. The mission of the Arts and Healthcare Program at Barnes-Jewish Hospital is to foster a community culture that includes the arts as an integral aspect of the healing environment for patients, families and caregivers.


Hospital president Andy Ziskind, MD, sees the arts and healthcare program as another crucial way to link the national ranking of the hospital with its emphasis on personal and compassionate care. "Organizations like the Society for Arts in Healthcare have been conducting research on the beneficial effects of the arts in healthcare facilities," notes Ziskind. "It's one more component to providing a healing environment for the people we serve."


Joan Hall: The Survivor


When you look at Joan Hall's art, you discover who she is. Through nets and knots, Joan Hall is a sailor. Images of plants and water and floating, and—look closer. What is that?!


"Oh, those are my cancer cells," she smiles. Joan Hall is a cancer survivor:


Lean and energetic, Hall exudes health and vitality. Whether walking her Bouvier named Schooner, swimming, sailing her boat or teaching students at Washington University, she is constantly moving and animated. It's hard to believe that two summers ago she spent three months undergoing 39 radiation treatments and six weeks of chemotherapy.


Hall's work can be found in prestigious art collections worldwide, including the St. Louis Art Museum, the Brooklyn Museum of Art in New York, the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City, the Fogg Art Museum at Harvard University and the Leopold-Hoesch Museum in Duren, Germany. She is the recipient of two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, and was the first female named professor at Washington University's School of Art.


In May of 2005, Hall was preparing for a trip to Australia and made visits to her physicians in preparation. "I've always been very good about staying healthy and staying up on my routine care and travel needs," says Joan. "I guess I had been noticing a pulling sensation, not really a pain, in my groin for a while. But knowing me, I thought I had maybe pulled a muscle."


One of her physicians ordered a scan, and that was when a cancerous lump the size of a grape was found attached to her pelvis. "I had some abnormal cells in the 1980s after a routine test, and had a cervical cone-always a clean bill of health after," says Joan, "but this must have been a dormant cell, an outlaw."


Her summer plans changed immediately, and instead of going to Australia, she came to the Siteman Cancer Center and Barnes-Jewish Hospital through her physicians at the Washington University School of Medicine. For the first time in her life, she created no art for three months. "My total focus was on treatment," says Joan. "My routine that summer consisted of chemo in the morning- hauling my headphones, laptop and cooler; going home to take a nap; driving to the pool to swim; then going home to take another nap." She went from being "a person who absolutely hates needles and shots to learning how to tolerate a lot more than I thought I could."   She remembers boasting to another artist of her f our new tattoos, the four blue dots for targeting her treatment, her "new compass."


Hall describes herself as extremely independent, and it was no different when it came to her choices about her own care and recovery. When her physician said one of the side effects from the radiation might include permanent damage to her left leg, Hall decided to swim every day. "I made sure my doctor knew," she smiles. "In my own mind, if I could keep the blood flowing, eat good food and stay optimistic, it would work."


She is also not one for secrets, and willingly shares her stories and advice. "I admired my doctors and nurses, but they got used to me speaking up," Joan says. "I would tell anyone in a similar situation to take charge of their care. I admire women like Sheryl Crow and Hoda Kotbe who are telling their stories-it makes  us all stronger:"


Hall finds her art has changed after her recovery from cancer. Her recent show was full of images relating the damage in nature to cancerous cells. She believes art and life are intertwined. "1 started using a scalpel and would cut images out for hours-kind of a metaphor when I think back on it, cutting that cancer out, a way of taking control. My art reflects the ocean and things washing up, things deteriorating or things getting caught in nets, and then my cancer cells and altered proteins and images of aquatic plants from early 1800s illustrations." The images mutate and shift as she' navigates her way through the making of the work.


Hall has been commissioned to create a new work for the Barnes- Jewish College of Nursing, to be unveiled at the new building dedication on April 4, 2008. Her research took her to the rare books library at Washington University, where she discovered the Badianus Manuscript, an Aztec medical text of healing plants from 1552. "I was fascinated at how stylized and almost abstract these images were,” she says, "and thought about how the past informs the present, and the recent interest in herbal medicine and its effects." Hall found it perfect imagery to use in the com mission piece and the donor signs and wall.


Joan also donated the design of the donor signs and donor wall to the College of Nursing campaign and when asked why, she said, "I've had a good life, I am thankful. I've always burned the candle 100 percent on both ends, and I intend to continue until I'm off the planet!"


Bunny Burson: The Giver


Her gentle drawl and kind eyes belie the quiet strength and outspoken political commentary in her artwork. Bunny Burson has dedicated her career and education to the arts in a journey that has taken her through the class- rooms of medical students, the bedsides of hospital patients, the halls of political power and the art galleries of the world. And she's still learning.


“I just saw the most amazing exhibit, all based on one letter to a jilted love,” she says, describing a show seen on a recent trip to Venice.  “What amazed me was how artists are finding ways to transform large spaces sparked by one idea!  With this one letter, Sophie Calle responded with five rooms of artwork.”


Burson first connected the dots between the arts and healing spaces when helping a friend through cancer treatments more than 30 years ago. A trained artist her- self, she saw how visual art and music helped take her friend's mind away from the more troubling aspects of the disease.


“The thing about arts and healthcare is that it resonates with everyone: patients, families, faculty, and staff.  We all have had experience with illness and loss,” says Burson, “and the arts have such a positive effect on our mental, physical and emotional well-being—it’s a universal way to heal.”


Her career continued along the same path when she served as coordinator of cultural enrichment at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville, Tennessee. "We developed a course for medical students called Art for Children in Hospitals," remembers Bur- son. "The children worked in various art media with the medical students and saw that they were multi-talented, multi-dimensional. And the medical students saw the patients as more than chart numbers-it humanized everyone, opening up communication between the future doctors and the patients."


At the time, her husband, Charles Burson, a longtime advisor and personal attorney to former Vice President AI Gore, was serving as state Attorney General of Tennessee. His career took them to Washington, D.C., where he served in the White House as Assistant to the President and Chief of Staff to Vice President AI Gore. Bunny was appointed as executive director of the President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities.


"It was a wonderful opportunity to promote international cultural and educational exchange,” she remembers.  “We helped to send The Dance Theatre of Harlem to perform in China—what a way to open up minds!”


When a new administration moved in to the White House, it was time for the Bursons to move on to their next chapter. They arrived in St. Louis, where Charles became general counsel for Monsanto Company. At a welcome reception, Bunny was instantly swept into the local arts community through COCA, the Center of Creative Arts. She was amazed to re-connect with Antonio Douthit, one of the young dancers who had participated in the trip to China sponsored by her previous work. Douthit was teaching at COCA and is now a performer with the famous Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in New York. They are still good friends.


Burson knew she wanted to get involved with arts and healthcare in her new hometown, and through research, contacted Barnes-Jewish Hospital. "I knew the importance of an academic medical center through my work at Vanderbilt-I found one of the best in the nation right here in St. Louis."


Through what she describes as a "perfect storm" of events, she and Charles met Barnes- Jewish President Andy Ziskind, MD, who had come from a medical center with an arts program. Charles became a member of the hospital's board and Bunny worked on bringing the arts to Barnes- Jewish. The Bursons made a gift to the foundation to get the Arts and Healthcare program off the ground.  “Bunny has such an amazing ability to collaborate and see connections,” says Julia Ruvelson, Vice President of the Foundation. "The Bursons' generosity is such a classic example of how they make the whole world their neighborhood"


The Bursons believe that the creative spirit is in everyone, and a place like Barns-Jewish is truly a community of artists. "Healthcare professionals are not only artists in the delivery of care, but so many are painters, musicians, poets writers as well”" says Bunny. "The many people who are part of Barnes-Jewish every day—whether patients, families or staff can add a different dimension to the experience through the arts."


Sarah Colby: The Educator


“As a child, I was always fascinated with nursing and healing,” says Colby.  “I’ve collected nursing memorabilia and have used those images in my art.  My work in community arts and teaching really confirmed my passion for arts and healthcare,”


She is a self-described visual artist, educator and accidental administrator. Studying art formally at Wayne State University in her hometown of Detroit made Sarah know for sure that making art was front and center: She received her MFA from the Maryland Institute College of Art, and stayed on the East Coast for 15 years, living in Baltimore and New York City.


For more than 25 years she has worked in art colleges, community arts centers and schools-The Maryland Institute College of Art, in Baltimore; Parsons School of Design in New York City; the Art Academy of Cincinnati; and COCA and The Rossman School, both in St. Lows.


About seven years ago, Sarah and her husband, Kim, moved to St. Louis. They soon discovered a creative, supportive and generous local arts community.


Sarah had the opportunity to participate in the Community Arts Training Institute through the Regional Art Commission, where 16 Institute fellows (eight artists and eight community workers/social service providers) are provided with more than 50 hours of training. The five-month curriculum includes training on partnership strategies; mediation/conflict resolution; teaching strategies; public relations; identifying funding sources; legal and liability issues in the arts and social services; assessment techniques and advocacy.


“That opened my eyes and new doors to possibilities of art in other places,” she says.  “So when the arts and healthcare program was created at Barnes-Jewish, I knew it was something I really wanted to do.”


Working with a growing group of enthusiastic hospital staff members and artists in St. Louis, the program will include a performing arts series with live music, dance and theater performances. Bedside art projects will feature a variety of portable, simple art projects for patients and their families.


Patiently Waiting™ is a program that will provide creative and fun waiting room activities for families. There will also be a focus on defined gallery spaces for art exhibits and changing exhibitions in public halls, lobbies and waiting areas.


“I am so lucky to work with the everyday connection between the arts and the indomitable human spirit,” notes Sarah.  “These are gifts we can give to our patients and our colleagues every day.”


For more information on the Barnes-Jewish Hospital Arts + Healthcare Program, contact Sarah Colby at (314) 286-0592 or email sjc0705@bjc.org.


From the Barnes-Jewish Hospital Foundation’s CORNERSTONES Magazine, Winter 2007

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