‘L’art qui parle’: art as a therapeutic tool for cancer patients

L'art Qui Parle

Elizabeth Stone Matho is an American psychotherapist and art therapist with a private practice in Grenoble. She talks to Grenoble Life about an art therapy exhibit of the artwork of cancer patients she has organised for June 10–27.

Grenoble Life: What is the theme of this exhibition and who has organised it?

Elizabeth Stone Matho: The exhibit theme is L’Art Qui Parle, and it’s the artwork of cancer patients in art therapy with me at the CHU Grenoble or in an outreach program in St Ismier. 

It will take place at Ancien Musée de Peinture, Place de Verdun, Grenoble, June 10–27. To coincide with the exhibition there will also be a conference and discussion on art therapy, June 18. More details at the bottom of this article.

GL: What kind of illnesses have the artists involved had to cope with and how did this artistic process help them cope?

Elizabeth: All of the artists have had to cope with cancer. You’re asking such a great question when you ask how the artistic process helped them cope. I think that the answers to that question will become so much clearer than I could explain here in a few words, when you see the exhibit.

Each piece of artwork has a text or title, written by the artist, to help the viewer understand something about the internal processes involving the confluence of creativity, illness, experimentation, personal expression, hopes, fears, wishes and so much more.

Each patient in art therapy experiences the creative/therapeutic process a little differently. For some, it helps to bring solace, for others, it helps to forget, for yet others, it helps to recover one’s identity, femininity, integrate the body image that’s been ravaged by illness and its treatment so that one emerges stronger, more aware of one’s own needs, with more insight about oneself.

First and foremost, the artistic process is non-judgmental, without expectations of an aesthetic nature. It follows the path that seems to be right for each patient, each individual, whether in terms of materials used, content of imagery, form, personal themes expressed. I think that most patients emerge from the very first sessions feeling that in spite of the destructive forces of the illness and its often aggressive treatment, they tap into a vitality that is very much there, very much alive.

GL: In what different media are the artworks?

Elizabeth: Primarily, gouache, clay, and a variety of drawing materials such as pastels, oil pastels, colored pencils and the like comprise the basic materials we use. However, other materials can be added, depending upon what is requested by the patient, as their creative/therapeutic evolution unfolds. I have to add that AGARO (Association Grenobloise d’Aide à la Recherche en Oncologie) has been very generous in providing me with all the high quality materials I requested. 

GL: In what context where the artworks made: did you facilitate them?

Elizabeth: To answer your question, both yes and no. Yes, in the sens that I was always present, offering a climate of freedom and respect, with an understanding of the therapeutic and artistic processes that would be involved. I offer a broad spectrum of possible ways of working, whether from imagination or from even a postcard, which stimulates feelings and thoughts that are also present and need to be voiced.

At the same time, I have to say no in the sense that I usually don’t tell people what to draw or even start with a general theme. I resist the idea that what I might suggest will be correct for them; rather, I prefer that as they get to know the materials, they will generate their own creative and therapeutic processes.

I also believe that in spite of a climate of freedom, people have the right to defend against important feelings and unconscious material. Not every feeling or experience should be brought to light at once because people are often not yet ready psychologically. 

GL: Were any of the artists involved initially resistant to using art as a therapeutic process?

Elizabeth: Yes, in the sense that they didn’t imagine themselves using art as a therapeutic tool, however, generally they had a certain sense of curiosity about the process which mitigated their resistance, or, for some, a feeling that they had tried everything else (medically) so far to treat their cancer and that now, maybe art therapy could be of some help to them. 

GL: Are the artworks all very centred on the artists’ experience or are some more representational or abstract?

Elizabeth: There are all types of artwork, from personal feelings, representational, abstract, with meaning emerging in various ways. Some started out to express something specific; sometimes the result was that expression, or sometimes it changed. Sometimes the meaning emerged only afterwards. Sometimes the meaning of an earlier work became clearer only after other work was done. And, some were even created to forget. I don’t push people, but we do talk together about what the process was like, what the final result might say to them.

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Art therapy exhibit of the artwork of cancel patients: L’Art Qui Parle
Ancien Musée de Peinture (Place de Verdun, Grenoble)
June 10th to 27th • Wednesdays through Sundays • 1pm–7pm
Association Grenobloise d’Aide à la Recherche en Oncologie (AGARO)
Elizabeth Stone Matho, art therapist, psychoanalyst

Conference and discussion on art therapy: Art therapy: As a discipline in and of itself, and its role in cancer treatment
June 18th, 2010, 5pm
La Plateforme (Bibliothèque), Ancien Musée de Peinture (Place de Verdun, Grenoble)
Elizabeth Stone Matho, art therapist, psychoanalyst
Fabrice Chardon, music therapist
Seating limited to 100 people – reservations suggested:
06.12.17.27.11 or 04.76.87.17.60

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