Art as Necessity

Participant works on arts in health engagement activity at Sanford Vermillion Medical Center.

By Ariadne (Ari) Albright

“Have they told you what’s wrong with me?” Henry asked. They hadn’t specifically and yet as a resident in the Special Care Unit of Sanford Care Center Vermillion, I knew he lived with a form of dementia or Alzheimer’s.

He’s in his late 60’s and reminds me a lot of my father with a trim, gray beard and gentlemanly, old world manners.  I introduced myself as Ari and when I asked him his name, he answered grandly, “Sir Henry” introducing me to the man and hinting at his wit. During the first weeks of my joining Sanford Vermillion, we had spotty conversations about our preferences for art supplies. We made a simple journal out of corrugated purple cardstock and folded, drawing paper. There are weeks Henry’s willing to draw in his journal and other weeks I use the purple book to write down things he says. He’s a “still waters, runs deep” kind of person and one must listen closely to hear some of what’s still stored in his mind.

“I haven’t arrived yet,” he says after just sitting down at the art-making table one day.

I get that. My body often arrives before my thoughts join me. On one good day, he blurted out four lines of poetry and I caught enough phrases to identify “O Ship of State” by Longfellow on the Internet. “Put some energy into your words!”  He said a month later as I recounted his recitation with Ellen, a Certified Nurses Assistant (CNA) in the Special Care Unit. And then Henry demonstrated, fist raised, weaving slightly over his walker with a wry smile,

Fear not each sudden sound and shock, Tis of the wave and not the rock;

‘Tis but the flapping of the sail, And not a rent made by the gale!

His delight was a gift to witness. Henry’s drawings tend to be abstract combinations of vertical and horizontal lines with some shading. He is willing to share what he can about his process, of what he’s thinking about when he draws. Essentially, they act as schematics or diagrams of how he’s retrieving information from his mind.

For as long as I can remember, image making –through drawings and paintings- has been my primary means of expression and catharsis. I process information using the basic tools of color, symbols and the physical act of marks on a surface. The stylistic term for this might be autobiographic, narrative painting. A Child’s Design Sense was a series of paintings made during grad school and based on my young son’s first attempts at writing his name. Bearing witness, his transition from expressive marks with a crayon to more intentional lines becoming symbolic stand-ins for his name and names of things, provided me with years of fodder in the studio. What I hadn’t expected is that there’d come a time where the bi-products of my art making: visual acuity, uncertainty and playfulness would be of service to others and prove congruent in a healthcare setting. This is a good thing. The world of a professional artist is often a solitary and solipsistic experience.

I’m a painter and arts educator who started working in Healthcare environments three years ago, after my parents passed on from varying forms of cancer. I was hired January 2013 as Program Coordinator of the new Sanford Arts Vermillion (SAV) program where our primary purpose is to support client wellness through the arts and art activities. (Clients include residents, patients, families, staff and volunteers.) We’ve modeled SAV after the Arts Program coordinated by Expressive Therapist, Jessie Park at Sanford Cancer Center in Sioux Falls, SD. Please note the following distinction: a terminal degree of Master of Fine Arts (MFA) provides fine artists the training to support creative expression with participants, whereas a Creative or Expressive Arts Therapist with mental health components to their education uses art to elicit measurable, therapeutic results in their encounters. In this country, art was first used for rehabilitation purposes in treating WWI soldiers and veterans. Today, according to the Naj Wikoff in Culture of Care for Americans for the Arts, fifty percent of U.S hospitals have arts programs that include permanent displays of art, performances in public spaces, bedside activities and arts activities for healthcare staff.

 “There is a rich and growing body of research connecting arts in healthcare programs to improved quality of care for patients, their families, and even medical staff. Studies have proven that integrating the arts into healthcare settings helps to cultivate a healing environment, support the physical, mental, and emotional recovery of patients, communicate health and recovery information, and foster a positive environment for caregivers that reduces stress and improves workplace satisfaction and employee retention.“

State of the Field Report: Arts in Healthcare. (2009). Washington, DC: Society of Arts in Healthcare.

I experience a great sense of privilege and adventure working in medical facilities with people across the life spectrum; the very young; teens with substance or behavioral challenges; cancer patients and their families; developmentally challenged adults; medical staff and special needs senior citizens. The art activities are created out of the necessity of my participants. Their needs are the same as mine; to be safe, to belong, and to feel respected. People often welcome the invitation to pick up a paintbrush or polymer clay for a benign, creative moment with an artist. I keep in mind that projects must have a high probability of successful completion, delivered at varying speeds and allow for individualized expression.  ‘And remember writer Maya Angelo’s adage?  “People will forget what you said, forget what you did, but they’ll never forget how you made them feel.”


One recent Saturday afternoon at the Special Care Unit, we were working on a watercolor and pastel project based on Kandinsky’s 1913 color study, Squares with Concentric Circles. About a half hour in, I looked up from the table to hear the CD Sing-along for the Elderly No. 4 playing, people chatting and singing, people working with clay, others painting, another working on a puzzle, and some sitting quietly with closed eyes. I counted eleven people -residents, family members and staff, from 20 years old to those in their eighties- around a single, 8-foot table. Art got us all to the table and gives us a common language to navigate our creativity. I am here for those who want extra support.

One more entry into Henry’s purple journal came after watching him stare at his drawing for a long time. On a black sheet of cardstock he had made several deliberate, horizontal and vertical lines in white colored pencil, framing the outside edges of the page. I asked, what’s going on? “I’m waiting for a first, spontaneous mark,” he said. Oh boy.  That’s the kind of self-awareness you’d hear in an advanced painting critique or an artist studio. It’s a kind of moment that makes it a joy to keep listening.


Pseudonyms are used to preserve anonymity. Ari Albright, MFA is employed by Sanford Vermillion as Arts Program Coordinator, and Artist-in-Residence. She also works as a roster Artist for South Dakota Arts Council, Artists in Schools and Communities Program, since 2007.