By Katherine Relf-Canas and Nina Koepcke

Art is often made alone. When an artist creates something outward-facing and externalized, usually isolation is the ideal environment. But isolation isn’t always good, especially when we’re facing grief. Isolation is not good for us when we are going through tough passages in our lives.

It was the urge to create community through making art that helped propel two friends, both dealing with the death of a child, to create a unique art/therapy group back before that concept was common. The artists, Nina Koepcke, and Lois Stuart resided in the San Francisco Bay Area (San Jose and Los Gatos). They formed a group they called LifeLines that emerged in 1993 at a time when not a lot of creative resources were available in mainstream mental health care or as adjuncts to care for those facing life-threatening illness.

LifeLines ran for three years and sought participants who were undergoing treatment at local hospitals and clinics. Project participants attended weekly sessions with a principal support person who might be a family member or a friend. Koepcke and Stuart ran the group independently without professional therapists or other clinicians. What they did do was seek out writers and performers to assist them in the weekly meetings. They put out a call for other cross-disciplinary helpers: interviewing poets, writers, performance and movement artists and musicians, finally arriving at a staff of three poets, Len Anderson, Charlotte Muse and Cynthia Guttierez Williams and theater/dance performer Gabriella Guetzgow.  Anderson doubled as a drummer and rhythm facilitator. With this assembled troop, an art universe emerged, peopled by patient participants who often had a terminal diagnosis and their support persons. It was a permissive and supporting environment that encouraged participants to be open to vulnerability and to find and share inner truths about themselves. Everyone was on the healing journey.

LifeLines answered a need that anticipated the mainstreaming of art therapy. As a kind of forerunner to the many art therapy groups available in the area today, the founders and participating facilitators received recognition awards from The Arts Council of Silicon Valley       and The Montalvo Center for the Arts.

In the intervening years, art therapy has since become a rich field, both as a stand-alone practice and an adjunct to other mental health care. Its roots are various, but some sources cite the work of a few pioneers, including Margaret Naumburg, a psychologist, and Dr. Edith Kramer, an artist and WWII refugee who integrated art making into mental health care settings both beginning around the 1940s. Today, the field has become a standard offering in clinical settings with licensed professionals all over the globe.

Koepcke says that while she and Stuart were supporting others who were facing life-threatening illnesses they were also learning to cope with their own family losses and terminal illnesses. Reaching out to others was in fact a two-way street. LifeLines brought something special to people who were undergoing treatment, some of whose days were at risk of being cut short by illness and whose diminished lives needed enriching.

From the outset, Koepcke and Stuart established the rule for themselves and all facilitators that everyone, staff and participants, would participate equally in all phases of the project. Creating weekly workshops was an open exploration for all. Koepcke and Stuart had no instruction book, never having created anything like this before. Though Koepcke had prior experience facilitating multi-media art workshops for homeless women and children and Stuart had supervised that homeless project under the auspices of the California Arts Council and Tapestry in Talent, a San Jose arts outreach organization. Through the process of creating art in all its various forms, participants created a loving community that allowed them to face diagnosis and treatment and, in some cases, the end of life with courage and with less fear. Through poetry, creative writing, visual and movement arts, participants learned that they were not alone and that others were there to support them.

The presence of an inspirational, supportive and creative outlet in their lives gave participants the blessings of friendship and support. In the LifeLines documentary “I Want to Say,” one participant spoke for all by expressing her gratitude for the group. Some were living each day as though it were their last. In some instances, it quite literally was true. “When I go to sleep,” expressed Sarah, “I don’t know if I’m going to wake up or not. If I wake up, it is another day of hope.”

Through poetry, movement and visual art, LifeLines participants created stories that they could all inhabit. They were all part of a cast focused less on what they were creating than on the creative process. In other words, the aim was not to produce a finished, polished object created for appreciation of its academic or commercial excellence but to   rather to explore their lives, relationships and feelings through the creative process. As one participant said, “The process was the work of art.” These group activities witnessed some participants finding the courage to express themselves for the first time in a manner they had never before known. Some participants made significant psychological discoveries, uncovered stuck emotions and healed inner wounds. One Vietnam veteran even retrieved a suppressed memory of his tortured imprisonment in a hanging cage during that war.

The concept of the life journey was one of the group’s working metaphors. Participants made walking sticks, called staffs, crafted to accompany them on their life’s journey.  They created rattle-like talismans, they held and sometimes treated like “talking sticks” as they moved and recited their poems and other writings. They could scream. They could cry—for real or as a part of expressing themselves in theater games.

Since each participant brought a friend or loved one for support, these caregivers came along on the healing journey, too. Partners of those diagnosed with life-threatening illnesses were invited to express their difficulties, too. One partner said, “I couldn’t believe it! All the feelings that were coming up!”

This joint project marked with a group signature extended into the South Bay community at large when the LifeLines staff put together “Scared, Scarred, Sacred,” an art installation at Works Gallery, and then  housed in a large warehouse space in downtown San Jose, California. The installation featured a huge androgynous figure sculpted of earth and split down the middle to provide a path for viewers.  The earth held staffs, fetishes and medical equipment along with the taped recordings of a doctor giving a cancer diagnosis, hospital sounds, and other scary recordings associated with terminal illness.  Painted and collaged body maps of LifeLines participants hung from the rafters above. At the terminus of the earthen body, Koepcke and Stuart drew a giant sized androgynous body, over 20 feet tall, on the wall and then invited viewers to participate by adding their own drawings and writings to the wall using chalk and liquid clay as their mediums of expression.  When we think of installations, we think of temporary works of art. The ephemeral aspect of an installation seemed quite a fitting choice for a group dedicated to making art about the loss of life or health and the struggle to regain and make sense of that lost ground.

As a culmination of the LifeLines project, Koepcke and Stuart sought funding from the Arts Council of Silicon Valley to create a short documentary entitled “I Want to Say”, as a portrait of the project. They interviewed several videographers, eventually finding Ziggy Mathiesson, a young Icelandic man who volunteered his services in tribute to his mother who died of cancer when he was just a boy.  He visited the group workshops and videotaped the art, movement and writing sessions. He interviewed some of the participants, attempting to capture and evoke their experience. He also spliced into “I Want to Say” footage of the “Scared, Scarred and Sacred” installation made by another videographer. Knowing Matthiesson’s personal history, you can’t help but think about his story, too. And so are we all joined together in a universe of loss and remembrance.


Katherine Relf-Canas

Katherine Relf-Canas splits her time between freelance writing, teaching and other projects. She also volunteers for PSE, an NGO that runs a unique school in Cambodia that serves and supports children and families in poverty. She is now involved with the recently established American Friends of PSE. She has written for blogs and contributed to literary sites and parenting magazines since 1996. Katherine began writing about the healing power of art for this site in 2012, and dedicated the project to her mother, Connie Relf, who worked as an artist and died in 2010.

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