How does a retired boilermaker, a general contractor or a dentist weather the many storms of 2020?
The first worked on a tree house without plans, mounting his painted winter mural inside the ceiling and designing only in his minds eye how the refuge will feel upon completion.
The second turned to his woodshop and his sons.
The third decided to enter a church art competition by creating a sculpture to be cast in bronze of his daughter spinning in joy.
All three looked to working with their hands for grounding and productive comfort this year.
But that comfort wasn’t by chance, and it’s one which public health researchers continually point to in studies connecting artistic expression to healing.
“The more we understand the relationship between creative expression and healing, the more we will discover the healing power of the arts,” reads the closing line of “The Connection Between Art, Healing, and Public Health,” a 2010 study by Dr. Heather Stuckley and Dr. Jeremy Nobel.
From grief to joy through art
“There are no limits to the imagination in finding creative ways of expressing grief … tactile involvement at a somatic level, as well as to facilitate verbal communication and cathartic release … reveal unconscious materials and symbols that cannot be expressed through words,” described Stuckley and Nobel.
Retired boilermaker Roger Bonnette, of Warren Township, was at Willow Island the day of the cooling tower collapse in 1978.
“I helped carry guys out, I was on the second floor on Unit 1 when we heard something,” Bonnette recalled as he sat between stacks of prints of his watercolor paintings. “Someone yelled at the buddy that I was with that they needed to get the pickers out from underneath the bottom of the boiler well.”
He hopped in a pickup truck with his friend and the pair were sent to collect the remains of victims.
“You’d find clumps of people, I picked up a piece of plywood and a guy’s face was stuck to it,” Bonnette described. “We were carrying guys out on stretchers to a temporary morgue.”
That trauma still lowers Bonnette’s voice in the retelling 42 years later, but it didn’t crush all hope or joy and instead serves as a reminder that this crisis of a pandemic can be faced with faith.
“I became an artist before I was a boilermaker,” he summarized.
Bonnette most recently is known for a contribution to his church, Waterford Church of the Nazarene, where he painted a winter scene mural in 2017, but he’s also one of the founders of the Riverside Artists Gallery on Second Street, a cooperative gallery operating by membership.
Bonnette has now taken that winter mural home and mounted it within his four-year labor of love behind the family homestead.
He’s spent this year working on that tree house, adding plumbing, a kitchen counter and using the porch as his workshop to shape the wood taken from his property.
“People ask me where the plans are and are confused when I say there are no plans,” he chuckled, pointing to his forehead. “They’re just up here, I see it, how I want it to be and I make it.”
Slowing down in the wood
Likewise in Dart, Cody Venham has also spent time with earthly materials.
“I’m an avid woodworker,” described Venham. “Usually I’m a general contractor but with COVID and people not wanting so many others in their homes I’ve spent more time in the woodshop this year and with my boys.”
Venham appeared in Wednesday’s edition of The Times discussing hunting with his 6-year-old son and the gratitude he feels for family time this year.
But the art connection is with his eldest son.
“He’s more of the thinker, he’s a lot smarter than I am,” described the father of his adult son. “He likes arts and crafts and stuff … we’ve built stuff together.”
Again using their hands to regulate, create and find connection.
Expressing faith through creation
Austin Rehl, of Watertown Township, had to temporarily lay off employees this year while dental offices were closed.
So instead of going stir crazy or sharing in the negative emotions on social media during a turbulent political cycle, Rehl occupied his time with what he lovingly calls his “mid-life renaissance.”
“I wrote a book and started a sculpture,” Rehl laughed as he as he carved away small sections of clay from the knee.
The plan is to enter the work next spring into a competitive collection of art from various members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.
“The theme is ‘All are alike unto God’ and that theme was chosen before all of the challenges of 2020, though it fits,” smiled Rehl. “So (when choosing) something, I thought what are the ways that we’re alike?”
To reflect that theme, he looked to love at home.
“The first thought that came to mind was that we’re all children of God,” he described.
So with the inspiration of his daughter spinning in the grass, Rehl has endeavored to capture that spinning joy first modeled in clay, then cast in bronze.
“The promise of resurrection is a promise of new life and so I’ll have calla lilies in her hand because they represent the resurrection,” he explained. “She’s looking up … and the dress you can see the sleeves floating up … these are like vestidual angel wings. And I thought this could be a piece that would speak to how we are alike unto God.”
That all are able to receive that free gift resurrection, he explained.
“The idea behind the resurrection is that there will be no more sickness, that there will be no more death,” Rehl added. “That we’ll be our best selves. That’s the beauty of Christian theology, it’s a look to the hereafter because it makes it easier to deal with the challenges we have right now.”
Arts in Medicine and Health
Whether the impetus is faith, family or heartache, the use of arts for healing is one which researchers continue to promote and advocate for investment at the most local levels.
According to the Center for Arts in Medicine at the University of Florida, evidence-based outcomes from an investment in art include:
Direct health benefits
¯ Enhanced immune response (see music therapy like the programming of Marietta College).
¯ Better coping and emotional regulation (see Life and Purpose Behavioral Health’s new online video series #TherapyTalk
¯ Reduced loneliness and isolation.
Increased health service equity and access
¯ Increased racial and social equality.
¯ More welcoming and inclusive spaces (see the mural project completed by Marietta Main Street between Front and Second Streets.)
¯ Enhanced service utilization (see the use of citizen-driven delineation of Community Action Bus Line stops in the lower west side of Marietta.)
Creating safe, inclusive and engaging environments
¯ Increased mobility and exercise.
¯ Spaces for learning, connection and play (see the Ely Chapman Education Foundation and the Boys and Girls Club of Washington County.)
¯ Growing and aging in place (see the arts connections made by the O’Neill Center throughout this pandemic.)
Supporting social, cultural and policy change
¯ Enable dialogue within and across groups (see the Black Lives Matter demonstration in East Muskingum Park this summer.)
¯ Elevate underrepresented voices (see the work of Main Street West.)
¯ Organize and mobilize communities.
Enrich research methods and practices
¯ Illuminate community needs and priorities (see the work of the Marietta City Council-funded Enrich Marietta study.)
¯ Support and elevate community narratives.
¯ hare findings in meaningful and engaging ways.
Strengthening health communication
¯ Make information clearer and more memorable.
¯ Increase personal and cultural relevance.
¯ Enhance self-efficacy and behavioral change.
Those outcomes, according to the center, are achieved through art which focuses upon self-efficacy, personal and cultural resonance, aesthetic experience, emotional engagement and empathy, expression and being heard, meaning-making and self-transcendance.
Janelle Patterson may be reached at [email protected].
Today’s breaking news and more in your inbox