The Art Program of the The Abramson Cancer Center of the University of Pennsylvania

Gianna Volpe, MFA, Artist in Residence
The Abramson Cancer Center of the University of Pennsylvania
Last Modified: January 10, 2002

The Art program was built on the fundamental belief that our lives are enriched by taking time to explore experiences which awaken the human spirit. Artmaking encourages vision, hope and imagination, all of which foster the healing process. The program seeks to honor each patient as a unique individual whose expressions and communications are to be nurtured, validated and respected.

Rhoads 7: The Bone Marrow Transplant Unit

The Bone Marrow Transplant Unit has served as the foundation for establishing the Art Program in the last four years. As the Artist in Residence I work one-on-one with patients at their bedside or in small groups in the family lounge.

I introduce artmaking as an alternative language for self-expression and visualization. I engage the patient at any level they wish to participate in the creative process. The program is designed with the "non-artist" in mind and appeals to a wide variety of sensibilities by offering many different kind of materials for experimentation. I function as both matchmaker and midwife to their experience. I help to establish connections to the possibilities for expressions and help "birth" the artwork from them. The nature of the unit has provided for a special intimacy between the patients and myself due to the length of the average patient stay, approximately thirty days. The program also impacts the friends and families of each patient in a profoundly positive way by engendering artistic collaborations between the patient and family member and stimulating communication and a sense of wonder. Overall there is a tremendous sense of accomplishment, satisfaction and stress relief experienced by those who participate in the program. The presence of the program creates a unique opportunity for personal growth for both artist and patient, and also by extension, the caregivers on the unit, thereby having the artmaking xperience directly impact the hospital environment positively.

Anecdotal accounts are generally the best way to express the quality of exchange that I am describing. A particularly memorable example of the impact the Art Program has had occurred with a woman named Nancy. Nancy's lymphoma became terminal and as her condition deteriorated, she asked if there was something I could help her make for her two daughters. Even though her strength was extremely limited and she was oftentimes too weak to work for more than a few minutes at a time, we worked together to create watercolor cards, knowing it was the last time she would be giving her children something from her. She shared with me that it gave her great joy and peace to be able to do this for them after months of hospitalization. She had not felt productive because she could no longer function as caregiver to her daughters, and this simple act of creating artwork for them created a remarkable sense of satisfaction that was evident to staff and family alike.

One evening as I was thinking about Nancy, I wondered what else I could possibly do to be of service. The idea came to me to offer my ability as an artist to make a cast of her hands. I approached both Nancy and her husband about it and the idea was received with much interest and wonder. It required a group effort and a delicate orchestration of elements to achieve the cast. Nancy's husband held her in his arms so her hands could be positioned for casting. Nancy and I had much discussion beforehand about the significance of hand positions and what she wanted them to look like. She finally chose a modified prayer position, a softer and more naturalistic version of the familiar praying hands. I unveiled the mold on the hospital tray with Nancy and her family looking on. The wonder and amazement was childlike, as each in turn marveled at the texture of the skin and exactness of the fingernails, to the gracefulness of the gesture and the simple beauty of the hands that had shown love to every person in that room.

Nancy died not long after that day, and her family has shared with me many times since how precious that sculpture is for them. For all of us her hands were both an embodiment of her spirit and a representation of her transition. The process of artmaking facilitated everyone's ability to accept this necessary transformation of Nancy's body to spirit. It served to strengthen and unite us collectively, it helped to transform loss into passage.

Nancy's experience illustrates the quality of exchange that is possible working one-on-one on the Rhoads 7 unit. The small group gatherings in the family lounge are usually of a different nature. I attempt to create a warm, supportive social environment. The lounge becomes a meeting place for patients who look forward to the afternoon art classes and often make "dates" to meet each other at certain times. I have been told time and time again that the Art Program provides the only reason to get themselves up and out of their rooms. Given the length of their stay, this alone is a significant factor to their wellbeing. I also play music during the afternoon group sessions and have found that even when patients are not feeling up to sitting at the table to make art, they simply enjoy being present in the lounge watching others and listening to the music. Frequently I'll encourage storytelling to the music while we are all present working or relaxing. It creates lots of vivid imagery and communications, which in turn inspires the imagination, which then encourages creativity. They report how refreshing it is to see all the art materials and projects being made and enjoy listening to the music. I believe that when the staff witnesses patients in this context it strongly encourages an emphasis of the patient as a whole being, rather than the focus accentuating the disease. Quite naturally, it creates the same perspective in the patients themselves. An active sense of community is generated by the program's presence.