Why Nurses Need to Make Art

The first thing people usually say to me when they find out I’m an artist is, “Gosh, I can’t even draw a straight line.” My response to that statement is, “Nobody can. That’s what straight edges are for.”

Detail of oil painting by jparadisi

Detail of oil painting by jparadisi

When these same people discover I am also an oncology nurse, the second thing they say is, “Painting must be so therapeutic, after dealing with so much death.” My response to this statement is more complex than the first.

First, there’s not really “so much death” in oncology, as treatments improve and many cancers are managed as chronic conditions, which is great. There is still sad sorrow, however. Ironically, when I’m most engaged in a real life human drama, that’s when I find it the most difficult to unleash my creativity. On those days, I’m more likely to calm myself by going for a long run, or knitting, which I consider hobbies.

For me, the creative act of painting is often as uncomfortable as a difficult day of patient care. This is because, I believe the difference between art as therapy, and art as art, is that art as art usually begins with a question or inquiry, and most importantly, results in an insight. Art as therapy requires neither. However, if art as therapy results in an insight, it can also meet the status of art as art. Simply speaking, strong works of art, like strong nursing, involves critical thinking, not simply performing rote skills.

Attaining insight is the reason I believe it is so important for nurses to open up to creativity. Insight leads to an understanding of motivation, our own, and that of others. When we understand our motivations, we are better able to communicate with others. In this dynamic time of The Affordable Health Care Act, nurses need to publicly communicate our role in health care now more than ever.

For instance, the nurse blogosphere is full of posts championing Advanced Practice Nurses as primary care providers. Proponents focus on filling the gap created by a shortage of Family Practice physicians, and reducing the cost of care. While these goals are admirable, the time is now to take creative control of the Nurse Practitioner image by promoting the characteristics differentiating medical science from nursing science: an emphasis on preventive care, in-depth patient teaching, and patient-centered care, which are in some ways superior to that offered by medical science. By creating an image, or branding, if you will, for APRNs, they are appreciated as a unique profession, not as a watered down brand of medicine, or “doctor lite.”

Unflattering, and inaccurate images of nurses are created through tradition, novelists, and outside observers, but rarely by nurses themselves. In order to dispel the nursing stereotypes we despise, nurses will need to rise up and create new ones through visual art, novels, screenplays, and films of such quality that our vision of ourselves transcends into mainstream culture.

Note: This post originally appeared in March 14 2013 on RNFM Radio: Nursing Unleashed!

Doubtful That Art Saves Lives? Evidence Indicates It May Heal

Art Saves Lives,” is a bumper sticker I occasionally see around town, and every time I do  I think, “Maybe, but in an emergency I’d prefer my rescuer know CPR than how to wield a paintbrush.” It’s a conundrum created “where science, humanity, and art converge.”

Girl With Pearl Earring, after Vermeer. watercolor by jparadisi 2012

Girl With Pearl Earring, after Vermeer. watercolor by jparadisi 2012

But what of art’s ability to heal? Most nurses know the benefits of art therapy: self-discovery, personal fulfillment, empowerment, relaxation, and symptom relief. However, can merely looking at art produce similar effects?

This question came to mind while rereading Vermeer in Bosnia¹, an written essay by Lawrence Weschler. Weschler interviewed Antonio Casse, then the presiding judge of the Yugoslav War Crimes Tribunal, during the trial of Dusko Tadic for crimes against humanity.

Weschler asked Judge Casse how he maintained his sanity while listening day after day to horrific accounts of torture, rape, and murder. Casse’s answer: “Ah, you see, as often as possible I make my way over to the Mauritshuis museum, in the center of town [in the Hague], so as to spend a little time with the Vermeers.”

Can looking at art — even a painting as beautiful as Girl With a Pearl Earring — reduce the effects of secondary trauma and compassion fatigue? If so, can nurses and patients benefit from this simplest form of art therapy?

A small study ² conducted by Dr. Marina de Tommaso, a neurologist, found that patients who gazed at and contemplated paintings they considered beautiful felt less pain when subjected to noxious stimuli. The New York Times has reported that museum visits help Alzheimer’s patients experience symptom improvement ³. The mechanism triggering these effects on the brain is not well understood.

Though the jury is out (pun intended) as to whether looking at art has therapeutic power, I think it’s worth a try for patients — and their nurses. Here are a few easy to implement suggestions.

  • Incorporate artwork into waiting rooms and hallways, but be mindful of the patient population. Art with jagged edges or mirrored surfaces (some types of sculpture, for instance) may evoke posttraumatic symptoms in patients who have disfiguring scars, surgical or otherwise.
  • Place something beautiful in the patient’s view from the hospital bed or the infusion clinic lounge chair.
  • Place books featuring artwork in waiting rooms instead of year-old magazines.
  • Hang a beautiful painting in the staff lounge instead of that big, messy corkboard cluttered with safety committee meeting minutes and medication recall notices.
 OK, that last one will never happen, so here are some suggestions to try at home:
  • Find a location with a beautiful view on your route home. Pull over, take a deep breath, and look. We live in a beautiful world.
  • Shop for art at a museum gift shop. Not every budget allows for buying original art. Gift shops offer an assortment of quality reproductions. Have less money to spend than that? Collecting postcards of works by famous painters is an inexpensive alternative. Buy frames from dollar stores or thrift shops, paint them white, and hang them in groups on a bright color- painted wall.
  • Create an art space in your home. I pinned my postcards to an old vanity. Once I added candles, it doubled as a place for meditation and reflection.

Do you think it’s the art or a meditative response to looking that provides relaxation and improves symptoms?

¹ Vermeer in Bosnia, Lawrence Weschler,The New Yorker, Nov. 20, 1995
² ITALY: Beautiful Art Eases Pain, Monica Dobie05 October 2008 Issue No:47
³ The Pablo Picasso Alzheimer’s Therapy, Randy Kennedy, October 30, 2005, The New York Times

New Post for TheONC: Can Looking at Art Make You Well?

This week I ask Can Looking at Art Make You Well? in my post of the same title

Girl With Pearl Earring, after Vermeer. watercolor by jparadisi 2012

for TheONC.

I asked the question after re-reading a 1995 essay written by Lawrence Weschler for The New Yorker titled Vermeer in BosniaIn his essay, Weschler interviews Antonio Casse, then the president of the Yugoslav War Crimes Tribunal, during the trial of Dusko Tadic for crimes against humanity.

Weschler asks Judge Casse how he maintained his sanity while listening day after day to grizzly accounts of torture, rape, and murder. Casse’s answer:

“Ah, you see, as often as possible I make my way over to the Mauritshuis museum, in the center of town [in the Hague], so as to spend a little time with the Vermeers.

As do most nurses, I spend my workdays witnessing life and death among patients. At home, the evening news is full of world conflict and disaster. Can merely looking at art calm us and increase our resiliency from burnout, as Judge Casse asserted?

The Oncology Nurse Community (TheONC.org) is a new online social forum for oncology nurses and cancer care teams where they can leverage their collective knowledge, nurture professional growth and emotionally support each other in a secure environment, as registration is required.

Moderated by oncology nurses and key opinion leaders, TheONC features discussions and commentary covering key issues ranging from symptom management and palliative care to managing ethnic and cultural diversity.

Other resources in the community include:

▪                A Library of resources including patient education materials and presentations by community members

▪                Clinic Close-Up, where members can view video-based interviews with experts from large group practices, private practices, and academia covering a variety of topics

▪                News items relevant to clinical practice

▪                An interactive Quiz feature where nurses can test their diagnostic knowledge on a regular basis

▪                A Calendar of national and regional events and meetings specific for oncology nurses and cancer support team members

If you are a member of an oncology nurse or member of a cancer support team, Like TheONC on Facebook, and follow us on Twitter @The_ONC.