‘Window to man’s soul’ has a capacity to heal, too

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‘Window to man’s soul’ has a capacity to heal, too

With paint and creativity, a local artist helps to build coping skills among patients experiencing mental and physical disability
McKenna Princing

For Nancy Coleman, a favorite part of being an artist is experimenting with techniques, such as encaustic (beeswax) painting, using a scanner as a camera, and printing on aluminum panels. Recently, exploration has taken her to a new vantage point: Harborview Medical Center.
In partnership with the hospital’s recreation therapy and art programs, Coleman facilitates monthly workshops with patients undergoing psychiatric and rehabilitative care.

Nancy Coleman HMC art
Seattle artist Nancy Coleman demonstrates how to make a leaf into a stamp.
Seattle artist Nancy Coleman demonstrates how to make a leaf into a stamp.

“I was looking for a way to use art as a means to help people,” she said. “I believe that art feeds the soul and lifts the spirit. In times of duress, we all need that even more.”
Recreational therapists use activities and projects as starting points for patients’ functional gains with stress relief, symptom management and skill-building in areas such as social interaction and fine motor movement.
“Patients learn healthy coping mechanisms through hands-on experiential group activities, such as art, relaxation, and exercise,” said Chrystal Williams, a recreation therapist for inpatient psychiatry patients.
Working with these patient populations requires an adaptable approach. Psychiatric patients often have difficulties with emotion regulation, social interaction and time management. Patients undergoing physical rehabilitation need accommodations such as cuffs or grips to help them hold pens or paint brushes.
These challenges can be addressed, and skills strengthened, during a group art session.

Coleman has shown patients how to use dowels and paint to make a design of various sized dots on paper, in the style of aboriginal art. Patients have made number collages and contour drawings, and created stamps from the veiny undersides of leaves. Participant Corinna Barth said the project she did was relaxing and that she was proud of her creations, which she planned to hang in her hospital room. For Margarita Arias, a session rekindled pleasant memories from when she was a preschool teacher, she said. 

During the stamp project, rehab patients were undaunted by partial paralysis in their hands and fingers. One man, challenged by the suggestion that pinching his fingers together would be difficult, picked up a leaf by its stem.
Coleman’s versatility and calm, patient demeanor made her a good fit for volunteer work at Harborview, said Peggy Weiss, director of the hospital’s art program.
“Nancy respects the people she works with, both staff and patients. When I heard that patients from her workshops were feeling joyful and accomplished well after the session ended, I knew the art program is doing its job.”
Two of Coleman’s works are now housed in Harborview’s permanent collection. Her artwork can also be viewed at Seattle City Hall until May 2, and on her website.