The Role of the Artist

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

"...Cultural meaning, creative expression and healing capability reside within the collective consciousness of all communities. The artist's task is to serve as both a catalyst for freeing the imaginations of community members and as a guide for giving form to their creative expression and healing intention."

(Institute of Noetic Sciences)

The role of the artist is experiencing, much like healthcare, a major paradigm shift. In both cases there has become a profound awareness of the interconnected bonds all disciplines share. We are a multicultural, multidisciplinary society and are in the midst of rediscovering our relationships to each other and our world. Artists are uniquely qualified to give voice to this development in our culture because of their familiarity with artistic process. It requires a complex blend of disciplines and intellectual and emotive capabilities to work as an artist. The application of this expertise to the community at large stimulates substantial dialogue and opens up real possibilities for further development and redefinition of the role of art and artists, thus making artistic practice an integral part of the function of society.

Artmaking and the act of creating is empowering because it multiplies the options for expression which dramatically impact one's ability to experience being in the world. By its very nature artmaking creates an awareness of thought processes, how a person experiences visual space, both imaginary and real, the power of color on emotional states, how one responds to organic and inorganic materials and the sensations they produce in the body, how texture changes perception, how one experiences the power of the imagination and memory, as well as an awareness of the richness of being fully present in the moment. Artmaking in the hospital environment opens the door on the world of the artist's studio and offers to share the beauty, power and inspiration inherent within the artmaking process. In this context it is capable of engendering a restoration of the purposeful functions of art from the history of global traditions.

Parallels to the role of the artist in the hospital environment can be drawn to spiritual practices such as mandala sand painting found in the Tibetan or Native American culture. Tibetan monks create mandalas as a means of centering the self and the community. Native American medicine men create sand paintings for the healing or blessing of an individual or the tribe. At the heart of their practice is the emphasis on participation in a ritual that creates an awareness of wholeness. The universal thread that is woven through these traditions have care and compassion at their core, for the individual as representative of the community and for the community as a representative of the individual. The modern artist can draw inspiration from these traditions which foster the awakening of the individual and collective spirit to reaffirm the power of the imagination.

A personal example from my own life illustrates one of the primary motivating factors for creating the Art Program of the University of Pennsylvania: I visited the Philadelphia Museum of Art one day as an undergraduate student. I was writing a critique of a particular sculpture in a response to a class assignment. I found myself lingering over the color of the piece which was a bright, warm rich red. It was highly evocative of something, I just couldn't figure out what. The following is an excerpt from the paper:

"I was curious about the nature of the color itself. Not just red, but this particular red. I reacted to this red with very specific intense emotions I could not readily define. The realization occurred to me after I left the Museum. It is the red of my childhood. It is the Coca-Cola sign red, the red of maraschino cherries in special ice-cream sundaes, the red of shiny big fire engines, the red of cherry candies in my grandmother's five-and-dime cut glass dish, the red of gleaming candy apples at Halloween, the Crayola red of coloring book summer afternoons, the red of my mother's lipstick that I always wanted to put on, the red of construction paper Valentine hearts, the red of coveted fancy Christmas dresses, and the red of Dorothy's magical shoes in the Wizard of Oz, which the black and white T.V. only made all the more brilliant."

What is so significant about that event is that I was never able to remember or experience those things from my childhood before that moment. My memories and perception of my childhood were gridlocked by emotional pain which significantly hampered the full expression of my memory. Making art and experiencing other people's art combined on that day to allow me to be flooded with the memories of the things that protected me. Each of the objects I named in the paper were connected to an event, a relationship, a situation that created a momentary sanctuary for me.

This story illustrates one of the reasons why I brought artmaking out of the studio and into the hospital community. This potential to expand and liberate perception is intrinsic to the artmaking process itself. Artmaking inspires creativity, creativity nurtures imagination, and imagination envisions possibilities. The program's fundamental purpose is an offering of art in the service of needs.

From the National Cancer Institute