Picture this: a plain, white wall lined with a row of masks, each one different. Some are bright and colorful, covered in feathers or intricate symbols, others are stark and plain, painted a pure, thick black. From an artistic and cultural standpoint, the masks are compelling and quite stunning. You find yourself staring at these eyeless faces used in ritual or performance to conceal identity or hide emotion. As you step closer and look more intently, you wonder how each was made and why. Who created this piece of art, and what did the process entail emotionally?
In Missoula, such an exhibit of masks would tell many stories. In 1993, Youpa Stein and Beth Ferris co-founded Living Art, a holistic program devoted to supporting cancer survivorship through the arts. “When I was in graduate school in San Francisco, a friend of mine from Montana, who is no longer living, was battling spinal cancer,” says Stein, president of Living Art. “She found that dancing and writing helped her during her journey with the disease. She discovered art to be an essential part and way to deal with her physical and emotional life during that time.”
Art therapy is not a new concept, but a very rich one. Since the 1940s, art therapy has helped patients deal with injury, illness, and trauma. Working with patients such as veterans traumatized in World War II, the first art therapists found that this type of psychotherapy enables people to express themselves through both words and images, accelerating the process of physical and emotional healing. Many cancer patients—like war veterans, victims of physical, sexual, or emotional abuse or those who have survived a trauma or natural disaster—do not like to talk about their experience and all that it entails physically and mentally. In art therapy, patients do not necessarily need to use words. They can express themselves using more ambiguous and, therefore, safe symbols.
Over the years, there has been some confusion about what art therapy entails. It is not making art for art’s sake. It is not active therapy. And it is not art as a diagnostic tool. Instead, art therapy offers the person who is sick an opportunity for a transformation of state of mind through the process of creating an image, whether it be a mask, a painting, a poem, or a dance. It is not the image itself that is important, but the process that is key.
“In our culture today, we want to put illness and death away, push it somewhere out of sight, out of mind,” says Stein. “By doing this though, we lose something. People come to our workshops thinking they shouldn’t feel angry or sad, this way or that way. They think they have to separate everything into good and bad. Creating art is a way for people to find ways to look at their experiences, all of them, no matter how good or bad, to not shove them away, to let them all flow through their life at every stage.” Art, she adds, is necessary for the health and well-being of all people, not just those who are sick.
One of the workshops offered through Living Art is called “Cancer, Courage and Creativity.” The 10-week workshop is designed to integrate drama, poetry, art, storytelling, mythology, and mask making. Expressive arts help participants build connections between body, mind, and spirit and help them restore a sense of wholeness.
Living Art also offers a four-day retreat near Flathead Lake called “Coming Home to Yourself: An Outdoor Odyssey,” for women with cancer or other life-threatening illnesses. “Like creating art, there is something healing and empowering about being out in nature,” says Stein.
Though she has never had cancer herself, Stein has lost many friends to the disease. “One thing I’ve learned from the people who have come through Living Art is that we are alive ’til we’re dead. I grew up in a way that was very sheltered from death. But now, being closer to death through this work, I find life much richer. All of our experiences, no matter what they are, are about living. Even in the dying process, we are alive. Why choose to be closed off during any journey in your life? The question should be: What is the quality of life that I want to live, even when I am sick or dying?”
In the spirit of celebrating the richness of life, Living Art is hosting its second annual Winterfeast. “When Beth and I were trying to come up with the name for this event/fundraiser, we kept talking about cultures that had mid-winter celebrations—food, music, festivity right there in the heart of winter’s darkness. A feast for the senses, a feasting for life.”
Winterfeast will feature performances by cancer survivors, families, friends, and the healthcare community, including Unity Dance and Drum, poetry read by author Patricia Goedicke, a chorus and drumming group led by Matthew Marsolek and including several local nurses and caregivers, a tap dancing troupe headed by Lindy Coon and several cancer survivors and local oncologist, Dr. John Trauscht, and a father and daughter number performed by Ruefha and Michael Hendricks. The pre-show will feature the Hot Tamales, festive food, a raffle, and an exhibit displaying art, poetry, and masks created by members of the Living Art workshops.
As one “Cancer, Courage and Creativity” group member puts it: “My mask reflects my struggle with opposites, light and dark, joy and suffering. My struggle with cancer was like walking in two worlds, an inner and outer world. Living Art gave me a form for diving into my struggle and making sense of intense emotions I have felt.”