Art For Therapy's Sake

This article is more than 13 years old.

The idea of using art as therapy is nothing new. Programs are active in prisons, nursing homes, and rehabilitation centers all over the country.

Tewksbury Hospital has been running what's called an 'arts and healing partnership' for the past three years. It's a collaboration between the Vermont Arts Exchange and the Massachusetts Cultural Council.

And, as WBUR's Andrea Shea reports, it's producing some unexpected results.


ANDREA SHEA: On the approach Tewksbury Hospital resembles a small, under-funded college campus. The brick complex houses patients with a variety of conditions. Some are seriously debilitating according to Doctor Katherine Domoto, Director of Program Development for the Department of Public Health at Tewksbury.

DOCTOR KATHERINE DOMOTO: The most common condition on the medical side is Huntington's Disease. We also have many people with Alzheimer's and other chronic neurological conditions, Multiple Sclerosis.

ANDREA SHEA: On the psychiatric side Dr. Domoto says patients come here because they need ongoing, twenty-four-hour-a-day care, for substance abuse, depression, and other psycho-affective disorders. She says a good portion of the population has been living here in locked units for years.

DOCTOR KATHERINE DOMOTO: For the most part it serves those that no one else will take care of. In the past it's been called a hospital of last resort.

ANDREA SHEA: On this day, though, patients and staff gather in Tewksbury's basement auditorium which has been transformed into a theater.A wheelchair lift delivers patients onto a rapidly filling stage where they join peers and a few professional opera singers, including Rowan Fenner.

ROWAN FENNER: I work for Streetwise Opera, I'm a singer. And Streetwise Opera is a London based charity that puts on operas and professional music events for homeless people primarily. We've come here with the same idea we've brought some excerpts from the Magic Flute, Mozart and some other pieces of music.

ANDREA SHEA: This concert is the culmination of Streetwise Opera's eight-day residency at the hospital. Domoto says they invited the group to conduct workshops with residents as an alternative.


DOCTOR KATHERINE DOMOTO: There are many patients here that have been through all the treatments that medical science can think of, and so offering them something that's not in a pill and not as packaged in a medical science and yet it reaches them somehow. We can't explain it all, but it's giving them the opportunity to communicate and express themselves in a different way.

ANDREA SHEA: Domoto says for some patients the music calls up earlier times in patients' lives and abilities that might've been buried. That's how it is for Jerry Jack who's singing in the chorus.

JERRY JACK: I like singing, maybe brings back memories of singing in groups back in Chicago, you know back in the 50's.

ANDREA SHEA: And it also helps get patients up and out of bed, according to patient Seth Roberts. He says he's been at Tewksbury for a little over a year and he's loved music since he sang in the choir as a child.

SETH ROBERTS: It's therapeutic, keeps you thinking positive and just makes you want to go on, it does, it gives you energy because being in the condition I got up and I moved up on the stage which I usually don't do.

CHRISTINA WEMET: They can act so normal and whole in the music where maybe in other parts of their lives they can't.

ANDREA SHEA: Christina Wemet has been an on-site Music Therapist at Tewksbury for fourteen years. The performance moves her, and she's a big fan of the artist residency concept. But the program's designer, Patricia Pedreira of Vermont Arts Exchange, says there was some push back from hospital staff in the beginning.

PATRICIA PEDREIRA: There was a lot of suspicion about being an outside group coming in, but 5 years later we have psychiatrists who are writing that into their patient's plan.

ANDREA SHEA: Padreira is a trained visual artist and therapist who grew up in a medical family. She says doctors, professional artists and art therapists can find common ground when it comes to health care issues.

PATRICIA PEDREIRA: That's really the whole concept behind this project is to put together a true multidisciplinary team that acknowledges that any one sector or group couldn't really advance the field but by working together we could make some new inroads.

ANDREA SHEA: But now they're also making some new discoveries.

PATRICIA PEDREIRA: When you give people access to the highest qualified artists who are passionate and committed to excellence we find talent that we didn't know existed.

ANDREA SHEA: Music was written during the pilot phase of the Healing Arts program, three years ago, when Padreira invited MIT Media Lab Composer and Musician Tod Machover to be the very first artistic resident. Machover had created Hyperscore, a software program that allows non-musicians to create music using lines and colors on a computer screen. Hyperscore was initially targeted to children, but Machover introduced it to the patients at Tewksbury

TOD MACHOVER: One of the people there, someone named Dan Ellsey and he has cerebral palsy, has very limited movement and has difficulty speaking, but we adapted a head interface that he has that has an infrared sensor so that he could control the software, so he was able to write incredibly gorgeous pieces of music with no help at all.

ANDREA SHEA: Eventually a live orchestra performed some of those pieces. And next week thirty-two year-old Tewksbury patient Dan Ellsey will premiere his newest Hyperscore piece at MIT. Machover says it's part of the symposium, 'H2O: New Minds, New Bodies, New Identities.'

TOD MACHOVER: We still have a lot of rehearsing to do but it's a remarkable piece, he's a remarkable guy and I think it represents a lot of important things, I think one is: how powerful music is as a tool for expressing oneself, for opening up what's inside each of us and for showing a different side of yourself to the world. I mean I think when everybody sees Dan on stage performing this piece people will see who Dan Ellsey is and will understand him as a person in a way that there's just no other way that that would be possible.

ANDREA SHEA: Dan Ellsey is now mentoring other Tewksbury patients who want to compose. Hyperscore's creator says the program is now included in many patient plans at the hospital, along with other forms of art therapy.

For WBUR I'm Andrea Shea.

This program aired on May 4, 2007. The audio for this program is not available.

Andrea Shea Twitter Senior Arts Reporter
Andrea Shea is WBUR's arts reporter.