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Commentary: The arts can have healing and transformative power

Nancy Kranzberg

Whether we are singing, dancing or drawing or whether we are watching a play or listening to a concert or reading a book or reciting a poem--the arts can heal and be transformative in one way or another.

Last summer, the Duane Reed Gallery of Art featured works presented by folks involved with the Arts as Healing Foundation. The exhibition was entitled "The Circle of Life."

The Arts as Healing Foundation's mission is to bring therapeutic benefits of art to those touched by cancer and other chronic illnesses. The organization is many faceted and does such things as offer studio art classes for patients and are held in hospital waiting rooms, bedside settings, infusion centers and university classrooms.

This organization is involved in large community projects and offers professional art classes for doctors, nurses, social workers and other caregivers to help them better communicate with patients. These are examples of just a couple of the organization's various programs.

Last fall, I attended Variety, the Children's Charity's production of "Beauty and the Beast" at the Touhill on the campus of the University of Missouri-St. Louis. The production included cast members who were able bodied and those who have physical or developmental disabilities.

According to Jan Albus, Executive Producer, "Disney's Beauty and the Beast" is a story of the search for acceptance, a quest to find love and goodness, and the appreciation of people of all abilities. And as the children of the cast recently pointed out when asked about the message, the resounding answer was "you can't judge a book by its cover!" I was overwhelmed by these kids! 

Groups all around St. Louis are using the arts to promote wellness of body and soul. Take for example the "St. Louis Symphony Cares" program featured in "Happenings," a publication of the Arts and Education Council of St. Louis. The program began five years ago when the Saint Louis University Cancer Center partnered with the symphony and no one knew how it would work out. How would patients respond to having musicians play as they were undergoing hours-long infusion treatments? And how would the musicians react to playing in an intimate setting to such a vulnerable audience.

The program has been so successful that there are more musicians who want to play than there is time available. Andrew Dwiggins, Music Therapist at the SLU Cancer says, "Most of the time, patients remark how it affects the way they perceive time. They forget for a little while that they are going through something unpleasant because they are able to focus on something beautiful. The music often takes them to a place in their memory - a certain song might remind them of their childhood, or a film they saw or a loved one."

Also featured in the A&E publication is the Big Muddy Dance Company's "Senior Embrace" program which Erin Warner Prange, executive director says, "Since its inception in 2012,Senior Embrace has brought high quality dance performances to audiences who might not be able to travel to see them otherwise. All performances are offered free to the facility and its residents. Last year, 11 dancers performed at 27 senior living facilities throughout the bi-state region; this year, the goal is to perform at 30 locations."

And Act Two Theatre's "Deaf Night at the Theatre" serves the St. Charles and St. Peters communities. The volunteer operated theater is in its 23rd season at the St. Peters City Hall Cultural Arts Centre. What sets the season apart is Act Two Theatre's commitment to present shows accessible for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Community.

Two other organizations that were featured in A&E's publication on arts and wellness are the Rep and Mind's Eye. The Rep's Imaginary Theater works with children on the Autism Spectrum or who have sensory sensitivity and Minds Eye brings performances alive for the blind. All of these innovative programs featured in "Happenings" are supported in some way by the Arts and Education Council.

Harvey Lockhart, this year's recipient of the arts educator of the year at the A&E Awards Gala has founded, "Heal's Center for the Arts" which is a nonprofit organization that provides arts education programs after-school and during school vacations to middle and high school youth who live in St. Louis urban communities. The Center partners with local school districts to expand arts education and access for at risk youth. Lockhart has redesigned the music and performing arts programs for the Riverview Gardens School District.

Matthew Henry provides world culture and education to under-served kids through his "Specdrum" program. Henry says this program teaches life skills, acceptance, self-expression and team building among his students and says, "I've never seen a kid frown while playing the drums."

The list of other arts programs in our city that provide healing and wellness goes on and on. What a dark and dreary world it would be without the arts to lift our spirits and enhance our senses.

  Nancy Kranzberg has served on numerous arts organization boards for more than 30 years.

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