By Anthony St. Clair

Back in 2010, University of Oregon student athletes were the first participants. They knew they needed something — an outlet, permission to express their stress, anxiety, and what they were navigating in life. For an hour and a half they made art. But more than that, each person took steps toward healing, stress relief, and a path to new wellness.

“I noticed a need for decompression,” says Lisa Abia-Smith, director of education at UO’s Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art (JSMA). “All these athletes, male and female, didn’t have permission to say they were stressed out and felt anxiety. They needed to clarify their identities outside of being a student, and they needed an outlet that would help them build resiliency.”

During that first year, the program aided 300 people. Yet this simple act of engagement and creation 14 years ago set in motion something special. Originally known as Art of the Athlete, these therapeutic creative workshops continued at JSMA as Art Heals, under Abia-Smith’s guidance. During every session, each student focused on one project: a self-portrait. For the student athletes, going from field to studio helped them express and diffuse tensions, fears, stresses, and anxieties. They also made stronger connections with fellow students and, as the program evolved and spread into the broader community, volunteering on similar projects with kids who had disabilities.

“Art forged this beautiful relationship,” explains Abia-Smith. “That’s where it started. Students are so willing to share their stories through art.”

And Abia-Smith realized that if UO students could make that connection and find healing through creativity, so could others, including cancer patients, medical care providers, and adult care residents. Holly Residential Care Center reached out and asked Abia-Smith to set up a weekly art program, working with the center’s adult residents to create through ceramic classes, painting, watercolors, and other mediums.

“Many residents there do not have verbal or fine motor skills,” says Abia-Smith. “They could do art in a setting that helped them on their journey.”

At Samaritan Health Services in Corvallis, Art Heals began working with cancer patients, bringing prompts or examples of art from JSMA to give participants something to work with in creating their own self-portrait. One patient created a self-portrait full of stacks of triangles and rectangles, with a circle in the middle. It looked nothing like a typical self-portrait, but it was very much a life, on canvas.

“Each shape represented moments of her life,” says Abia-Smith. “Marriage. Children. A Hawaii vacation. A blip in the middle was her cancer diagnosis, then she went on discussing her wedding anniversary. When she came in she wasn’t an artist, and she felt uncomfortable being there. A month later she had a stack of papers. She’d been drawing and painting every day since she’d left the workshop.”

By 2016, Art Heals debuted as an official university wellness program, with two full-time staff and six teaching artists. Today, 2,000 people a year find healing through in-person and remote classes and workshops, and not just at UO. Thanks to partnerships with Samaritan Health Services, Oregon Health & Science University, Stahlbush Island Farms, and the Institute for Mind Body Medicine, Art Heals can work with people throughout Oregon and beyond. Plus, a grant from the Tykeson Family Foundation enables the community to access the program free of charge.

After adding remote and online programs from 2020 to 2022, Art Heals now offers weekly in-person, online, and hybrid programs, broadening the program’s reach and accessibility. Ongoing research components of the program demonstrate that interacting with and creating art engages the body in healing, from decreasing heart rate to promoting stress decompression. Making art can bolster health resilience not only during the act of creating the art, but after the free workshop, in everyday life.

“If you are breathing on this Earth, we all need some sort of self-care and wellness,” says Abia-Smith. “Everyone is a candidate for being part of the Art Heals program.”

Art Heals
Workshop schedule, free art prompts, free printables, and more: