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Strokes of paintbrush or other arts enhance spiritual healing

By Mary Hazuka

Providing medical care is just one step on the long road to recovery. Providing space for creativity and a safe community to heal, and relieving stress through creative outlets are other steps.

The Providence Center for Spiritual Healing at Sacred Heart Medical Center seeks to help heal patients through art and has committed itself to creating and nurturing a program that integrates art into the healing processes.

Ann Walker
Ann Walker

The center integrates faith and health, providing the Inland Northwest with a service that not only fosters a creative environment but also encourages the autonomy of its patients.

The Arts in Healing program, founded with grants, philanthropic work and donations, brings the arts to patients and staff, providing art for families and friends of patients at the hospital.

Started a year ago, the program brings healing, enrichment and wellness to patients.

Ann Walker, a Spokane native and the program coordinator, brings skills in psychology and art therapy to patients she encounters everyday.

“I always loved art growing up, and it was a part of my life through high school. Art is more then just something that is pretty or something that looks good. It expresses who you are more than what you can say.  Art is healing,” Ann said.

As full-time Arts in Healing program coordinator, she has dreams for the program’s future.

Art allows an escape from the stress of disease, pain and hospital living, she said.

Ann explained that it is a “remarkable drug,” alleviating the pressure and stress patients undergo. It allows patients to escape from the pain and usual routine of hospital care to heal, thrive and express themselves, which in the ultimate scheme of things, is the deepest healing that may be needed.

“It is positive to see the patients feeling emotionally better.  It goes with the theory on the mind, body and spirit connection. This is an important part in the process of people getting better,” she said.

She explained that the mind-body-spirit connection looks at the whole person rather than separating out the emotional and spiritual from the physical.  With that in mind, the program offers patients, family members and staff a way to tap into their emotional and spiritual selves in order to improve their physical health as well.  

Research has shown that when a person participates in some creative endeavor, there are positive physiological effects: blood pressure lowers, heart rate slows and chemicals that promote well-being are released in the brain.  This is similar to the deep relaxation that is often experienced in the body during prayer or meditation,” she said.

After graduating from Mead High School, Ann graduated from Whitworth University in 1999 with a bachelor’s in psychology and went on to earn a master’s degree in art therapy at Lesley University in Cambridge, Mass. 

“I consider myself spiritual and resonate with mystics from various faith traditions such as Meister Eckhart, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Teresa of Avila or Sufi mystics Rumi and Hafiz.

The mystics speak of a deeply personal connection with the divine, the infinite worth of all people, joy and delight in creation, paying attention in the present moment, the importance of stillness and silence and interconnectedness with all beings. Also, they speak of compassion, honor and respect for self and others.  These are values I hope to bring to my time with the patients,” Ann said.

She was hired under Chaplain Ann Hirst, who led fund raising and collects funds from grants and donations, and helped create and coordinate the art healing programs at Sacred Heart, at the Providence Center for Faith and Healing in the building where the Sisters of Providence once lived.

The arts program has received several grants, including a Livestrong Foundation grant to hire a part-time artist in the children’s hospital, and one from Susan G. Komen for the Cure to help fund programs for adult radiation oncologist patients.

“The art projects we offer are open-ended, meaning patients choose what to do,” said Ann.  “Every day they usually have little choice about what to do in a hospital, so being able to choose the projects they want to do is empowering.”

Ann wheels around a black cart full of paints, brushes, glue and more. Alongside she carries a pile of canvases that sit in the corner of her office. She lets patients choose and create on their own whim.

She witnessed the impact of art on patients with a man who could no longer use his hands. When others came in to talk to him and discussed his past career as a graphic designer, it brought him to tears. Ann helped remind him of his creative passions in a way that allowed him to reconnect and take his mind off hospital life, even for just a moment.

A six-year-old girl had so many tubes and monitors hooked up to her, she seemed to be “tethered to the bed,” said Ann. After completing the art projects that included painting, making pipe-cleaner animals, bracelets and a mask, the little girl asked if she could take them home. When she heard “yes,” she said,  “This is the best day of my life.”            

Collaborative murals, which line the hospital walls of the Faith and Healing Center, are a testament to the work done by patients.  More pieces are slowly making their way to the main hospital corridors.

Colorful murals are some of Ann’s favorites, as different patients and family members play off each other.  “Each adds their own element as it all comes together as one art piece,” said Ann. 

Participants may paint, draw, or add any piece that speaks to them at that time, and as a whole, the mural paints a picture of the community. It reflects the unspoken bond patients share in the healing process.

Art helps people express their emotions. Often children have trouble expressing non-verbals, and they can’t express fully what they want. Art helps them feel better because they are not stuck,” Ann said.

She also mentioned that art can relieve stress. Some patients actually need less pain medication because their minds are off the daily doses of pills and enduring pain. There are many physical effects as well as emotional.

One project for the future is to put together a mosaic on the outside of the building, in which patients each contribute one piece as it comes together as a whole.

“Now that we have the visual arts, we are hoping to expand and add drama and music as well,” she said.

Ann also wishes to build a volunteer base because most of the staff are part-time.  Volunteers would have fulfilling work and could help the program to continue to grow.

Next spring the National Arts Foundation will be hosting an all-employee art show at Sacred Heart, working with the Providence Arts Program.

The center includes the Meditation Garden, a peaceful place brimming with greenery, flowing waterfalls, walking paths, and places to sit and absorb the peace and beauty. It is open through a gate on the north side on Eighth Ave.

Other healing activities at the center include prayer from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m., Tuesdays, healing yoga by Radha Yoga and tai chi. Music services include sounds for the soul that provide a healing environment for visitors and hospitalized patients, as well as seasonal music such as carolers during the Christmas season.

For information, call 474-3008 or visit