Laura Schiess says that creating art helped her heal.

Her father had committed suicide, and she signed up for Amanda Sullivan’s class, “Healing Grief and Loss Through Photography,” at Sawtooth School for Visual Art.

“I don’t think I could have recovered without that first class, and I’ve signed up for almost all of them ever since,” Schiess said in an email. “It’s the most valuable tool in my arsenal of coping mechanisms.

“Art is open, art doesn’t judge, and art doesn’t give you a diagram or a template that says you must follow these stages of grief, and then you will be well. It doesn’t tell you to get over it. It doesn’t require you to say one word, just to open your heart and let things flow.

“I’m the kind of person who can’t take just one approach; I have to look at things from all angles. Photography has allowed me to examine myself and my losses quite literally through different lenses. By using imagery to represent different aspects of my journey, I’ve discovered so much more about myself than I ever would have without. It gives me a sense of strength when I make something beautiful out of the ugly things that have happened.”

Wellness through art

Sullivan, a counselor and photographer, has merged her two passions by offering wellness classes at Sawtooth. She is Sawtooth’s coordinator of Photography and Wellness Through the Arts programs.

“It (art) uses a different part of your brain, so the creative aspect is very helpful in dealing with the emotional aspect of what you happen to be going though at the time,” Sullivan said. “With art, it’s not just the process of using the brain to create something, it’s also the tactile. With clay, you get to feel and use your hands. With photography, you’re looking at something in a different way visually, thinking about creating something not only for an artistic value, but also a mind-body connection to it.”

When JoAnne Vernon became executive director of Sawooth in 2012, she had completed cancer surgery and was undergoing chemotherapy.

“When you go through cancer or chronic illnesses, it alters your view of the world,” Vernon said. “Everything you see goes through a refracted lens.”

Vernon signed up for Sullivan’s photography class, and then connected Sullivan to Robin Atkinson, an oncology nurse navigator at Novant, because Vernon wanted to share the program with other cancer survivors.

“It gave people a chance to be creative,” Atkinson said. “The opportunity opened itself up for laughter. When I hear laughter, I just have to stop and listen to it. It’s a release. We focus on wellness with the disease by bringing the arts in.”

Before Christmas, patients went to Sawtooth, where, “They took a life-changing experience and put it on a mug,” Atkinson said.

In 2013-14, Sawtooth partnered in a pilot project to provide hands-on art experiences, such as journaling, papermaking, blind contour drawing, Feel Good Fridays and mask-making. It was for cancer patients, family members, caretakers and healthcare providers. The effort was funded by the N.C. Arts Council, Novant Health, Wake Forest Baptist Health, The Greer Foundation and Sawtooth.

Jay Foster is director of Chaplaincy & Clinical Ministries at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center. He said that people need to make sense of things when experiencing illness or tragedy.

“I think part of the healing process is to try to find ways to give expression and try to make sense of life anew,” he said. “Often words are really inadequate to express the depths of that experience, what’s been lost and what we’re trying to regain.”

Amy Kincaid, who is Sawooth’s painting/drawing/fiber coordinator, is project manager for the grant that is enabling Sawtooth to expand its wellness programming.

“I think it helps in every aspect of your life because you’re learning tools you can transfer to more difficult things you encounter,” Kincaid said. “You’re better equipped to deal with it because you’re able to tap into that creative side.”

Art-health connection

u In her work as a medical illustrator, Jennifer McCormick uses X-rays to document injuries and illness. But in her mixed-media fine art she uses those same X-rays to create images of hope and healing. She will share her philosophy about mindful art making in a TedX talk at Wake Forest University Saturday.

“Mindful-art making reminds of us our true nature,” McCormick said.

The healthcare community in Winston-Salem incorporates the arts in myriad ways. Journaling, writing groups, drawing, ceramics classes, dancing and drumming provide creative renewal to healthcare providers, caregivers and patients who are healing, living with life-changing diagnoses — and those who are dying.

u Christina Soriano, a Wake Forest University associate professor of dance, has been leading an improvisational movement class for Parkinson’s patients for several years. Dance benefits people as they age, she said, because it is social, physical, creative, fun and communicative. It enables people to know how to move safely and promotes cognitive decision making.

u Cancer Services offers wellness groups to support cancer survivors.

“It’s about being as well as you can in the circumstance that you’re in,” said Julie Lanford, wellness director at Cancer Services. “I think that when somebody is faced with an illness, it’s so overwhelming, and then you feel like you lose control over your life. But creating art gives some control back. … Being around other people going through a similar life crisis helps them not feel alone. They’re finding things that they love and enjoy.”

u Beth Baldwin said that journaling and writing changed her life in ways she couldn’t have imagined after she lost her adult son to cancer. She participated in a writing group led by Carol Henderson that began in 2002. Her work is included in “Farther Along — The Writing Journey of Thirteen Bereaved Mothers.”

“Through our writing and shared readings, we gradually found our way to a brighter place, literally writing ourselves whole,” Baldwin said in an email.

u Art and music therapy are offered at Hospice & Palliative CareCenter.

“Hospice care, at its foundation, is a holistic model, said Katie Cyre, Complementary Therapies Program manager and music therapist at Hospice. “Our Soul Expressions flyer states it simply: ‘Expression is vital to any healing process.’”

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