At the weekly art therapy groups for cancer patients and survivors run by the LMU’s Marital & Family (Art) Therapy Department, some of the participants have considerable artistic abilities, while others haven’t drawn since kindergarten. And it doesn’t matter one bit.
“It’s not about the quality, or even the content of the art,” says Jillian Luz, a 2016 graduate of CFA’s art therapy program and one of the facilitators of the weekly groups, which are offered through Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. “This is a space where, through art making, participants can tap into their emotions, share with others who are going through parallel experiences, and feel less alone. That’s been really powerful.”
Finding Meaning in a Crisis
Now in its fourth year, “Journey Beyond Black and White: Cancer Survivorship Through Art” grew out of contacts between Arash Asher, Cedars-Sinai’s director of cancer rehabilitation and survivorship, and Debra Linesch, interim chair and professor of marital and family/art therapy at LMU. “The value of providing a creative endeavor for people experiencing the existential crisis of a cancer diagnosis and treatment is well documented in the research,” Linesch says. “We also had students who were interested in this. So I went and offered these groups at Cedars, found them fantastically meaningful, and decided we should develop this further.”
In 2020, Linesch and her graduate students, along with their Cedars-Sinai collaborators, organized an exhibition of the artwork produced in the groups, curated by the participants and held online for approximately 200 attendees during the COVID-19 pandemic. “They were telling the story of cancer so beautifully through their art, and this allowed them to communicate to friends and family what it means to be a cancer patient,” Linesch explains. Following the success of that event, Linesch applied for and received funding from the Max Factor Family Foundation to hire Luz and Nicole Imhof, both of whom are licensed marriage and family therapists and registered art therapists, to continue the art therapy groups.
Connecting on a Different Level
The groups, which have been held on Zoom since the start of the pandemic, typically begin with the facilitators offering participants a chance to check in on how they’re doing, often followed by a guided meditation. For the art-making portion, participants are given directives — but also plenty of leeway to go in whatever direction they desire. “As a cancer patient you tend to have limited choices, but when making art you’re in control,” Imhof says. “You can choose what you’re going to make, when to stop, and how much to participate. It’s playful and fun, and it connects to a different part of the brain than talking. There’s also a power in putting something on paper and then holding it up for others to see, even if you don’t say anything.”
Luz has heard from participants that amid the trials of cancer treatment, the group gives them something to look forward to. Some who have completed treatment say the group marked the first time they stopped to reflect on their experience. “It can stir up new emotions, and to be in a supportive environment is very helpful,” Luz says. “Often, after the group helps people realize how much there is to unpack from their cancer experience, they will decide to get individual therapy.”
Adds Linesch: “It’s a privilege to see the level of sharing, understanding, and courage participants show as they reckon with their experience. Leading these groups was one of the most moving things I’ve been involved with as an art therapist.”
Art pieces featured above are created by participants Valerie Graniou-Cook, Linda Okimoto, Edie Moses, Beta Abdolahi, Alexandria Loiseua, and Heidi Cohen.