The Healing Power of Art exhibits individual stories of resilience | Features

An array of artwork lined the walls at the The Healing Power of Art exhibit, each one holding personal meaning to the artist. Radiation masks used for cancer treatment covered a section of one wall, decorated with flowers, butterflies, knitting needles, fabric and other expressions of their owners. Across from the masks hung several canvases vibrant with color painted by individuals with Parkinson’s disease.

Open Doors: Art in Action hosted the opening reception of its newest art exhibit, The Healing Power of Art, on Sept. 1. The Episcopal Church of the Epiphany created Open Doors: Art in Action in 2018 to showcase work made by local artists and partner with nonprofit organizations to raise awareness of social, environmental and justice issues.

The Healing Power of Art features therapeutic artworks created by individuals with disabilities from the Hozhoni Art Studio and Gallery in Flagstaff, patients at the Muhammad Ali Parkinson’s Center in Phoenix, clients of the Cancer Support Community Arizona (CSCAZ) of northern Arizona and clients of the Northland Hospice & Palliative Care in Flagstaff.

At the opening reception, Shay Vigil, the coordinator of Hozhoni Art Studio and Gallery, and Eriko Starley, a Hozhoni art instructor, spoke about the work they do at the Hozhoni Art Studio and Gallery.

The gallery is a program of the Hozhoni Foundation that serves adults with developmental disabilities by helping them create, exhibit and sell their artwork. 

“A lot of individuals we work with have different stories; they come from different backgrounds,” Vigil said. “They come with so many different insights into how they see things and how they feel and how they interpret things, and it’s really, really unique through their artwork.”

The non-profit program caters to individuals of any art background, whether they have extensive artistic knowledge or have never picked up a paintbrush. Vigil said Hozhoni gives the artists the space and facilities to discover their skills and means of expression by offering supplies for various art mediums, like painting, ceramics, writing, textiles and digital art. 

The art showcased by Hozhoni during The Healing Power of Art exhibit consisted of paintings and drawings created through the clients’ artistic processes.

“We try to look at different perspectives to see how we can help them feel that fulfillment and how they are creative people,” Vigil said. “It doesn’t have to be the traditional drawing or painting, it can be whatever creative medium you want it to be.”

Vigil said she feels her clients are underrepresented in the art world, so her program provides them with opportunities to exhibit their art locally and in different communities. The Hozhoni program has helped exhibit artwork in Scotland, Washington, California, Kansas and Colorado.

Starley has been an art instructor with Hozhoni for 17 years. She said the instructors at Hozhoni try to make the art process therapeutic by guiding individuals through physical movements to release tension and express emotions. Part of the reason for the therapeutic process is to identify how to help the individual reach a happy or neutral state after negative emotion, Starley said.

“I really love the process and how I can reach their mind and heart,” Starley said. “Sometimes, beautiful things come out through people in a safe environment, and they open their minds to naturally and gradually free that pressure and stress.” 

The 10 radiation masks at the exhibit — with art surrounding the plastic mesh of each — were decorated with a similar goal to the art created by Hozhoni clients: expressing personal experiences and inner emotions.

The mask section of the exhibit features artists from the CSCAZ of northern Arizona, an organization providing emotional and social support to anyone impacted by cancer.

Each radiation mask showcased was unique to an individual who went through radiation therapy for cancer treatment. A radiation mask is molded to a patient’s head and secured to a table to immobilize the patient during treatment.

Mary Ross is a committee member of Open Doors: Art in Action and said each exhibited radiation mask was either decorated by a person who went through radiation treatment or in honor of somebody who did.

“[The masks] kind of have their own personality,” Ross said. “Without the art, it’s kind of a cage, and it’s made for stabilizing. So, by putting these masks and making them into art, expressing how they felt or what they felt after, once they were healed, it makes it therapeutic, and that’s the key to really the whole exhibit.” 

Displayed across from the radiation masks were several paintings created by patients at Muhammad Ali Parkinson’s Center, the organization that sparked The Healing Power of Art project.

Dan Dooley is the Open Doors: Art in Action committee chair. He said one of his committee members connected him with the Muhammad Ali Parkinson’s Center’s art program, which led to the decision for their next project to feature the idea of therapeutic art.

Between gathering the art from the four represented organizations and setting up a new gallery lighting system in the church, the exhibit took about eight months to put together, Dooley said.

“It takes a long time with all the phone calls and emails, and sitting down with people and explaining to them what we do and why we’re doing it,” Dooley said.

The Healing Power of Art project is the 21st exhibit Open Doors: Art in Action has put together since the committee debuted in 2018. The attendance for the opening reception of the Healing Power of Art was the second largest Open Doors: Art in Action has seen, reaching around 78 attendees.

While the committee operates through The Episcopal Church of the Epiphany’s building, it functions separately from the church. 

“Our committee is composed of 10 people now, and six of them are from the church, but four of them are artists in the community, which makes it where you have a wider span of ideals in the community,” Dooley said. 

The committee’s mission is to bring awareness to a variety of social, environmental and justice issues people often do not want to talk about, Ross said. In the past, the group has put on exhibits about topics like the U.S. and Mexico borderlands, the effects of uranium mining on Indigenous peoples and the Flagstaff housing crisis.

“It’s about social justice,” Ross said. “It’s about giving a voice where there might not have been one, so that’s what we’re trying to do. And that’s what we do with each exhibit.”

Open Doors: Art in Action will be hosting two more receptions for The Healing Power of Art exhibit with new guest speakers. The next event will be on Oct. 6, featuring a representative from the CSCAZ of northern Arizona. The final showcase of the exhibit will be Nov. 3 and will feature the Hispanic outreach coordinator at Muhammad Ali Parkinson’s Center.

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