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Featured Stories

Light at the End of the Tunnel

Author: Scott Stoner, Artist in Residence, Smith Center for Healing and the Arts at Inova Schar Cancer Institute
by Artist-in-Residence Turner Houston

I was pleased to witness the extraordinary growth and gratitude of this couple (patient “R” and husband “G”) over a period of four months of bi-weekly chemotherapy sessions. They were both apprehensive about how the first treatment session would go, and declined to engage in an activity. The second session, R colored two drawings and requested her husband’s input on choices of color.


For the third session, I suggested they try a collage and gave them the “word box” to begin the process. Unfortunately, as they were selecting words to use, an issue arose around the arrangements for treatment which was disruptive enough that they decided not to continue with the creative activity (I saved the words they selected to be used next session).


The following session they decided to create a collage that would incorporate words and images that reflected each of their four (adult) children. The images were chosen to characterize key interests of each person. They were both pleased with the result and curious about how their children would respond. When they returned for the next session, they exclaimed how much they love the collage (displayed in their home) and when their daughter saw it, she recognized herself and her siblings as the subjects!


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I next presented them with the opportunity to create something for the HOPE project. G was hesitant, lacking experience with drawing and painting, but R suggested they try it. R asked for a pencil and paper to sketch something out, and when I returned he showed me a sketch that represented their idea to portray a road leading into a tunnel at the end of which would be a shining light – reflecting HOPE as “light at the end of the tunnel.”  I guided him in transferring his sketch to the 9”by 9” square canvas and then rudimentary instructions on points of perspective (e.g. the road going through the tunnel), mixing paint, and creating texture for the blocks comprising the exterior of the tunnel, grass, macadam, etc. They were both pleased with the result and R expressed “I never thought I would be able to paint something that looked like anything!”


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“For the next session (this was in June), I suggested they might like to decorate one of the wood birdhouses I had on the art cart. Hesitant at first about how they would approach it, R decided it should depict various birds, so she selected pictures of birds from magazines while G painted the sides of the birdhouse with various colors. They were pleased with the result, especially the eagle guarding the door!

At the next session, I suggested, based upon the earlier success, that they might create another painting for the HOPE project. They agreed to do so, and I again left them with paper and pencil to think together about an approach to the theme. When I returned G showed me his sketch of a seedling in a clearing surrounded by mature shady trees, but bathed in light from above – reflecting the theme of life that springs from the most challenging of circumstances. I was especially moved by a figure in the foreground, obviously observing the scene, which G described as a ladybug. I again assisted him with mixing and applying color and texture to create contrast and depth in the piece. I was extraordinarily moved by the overall concept and execution of the work – and especially the witness (ladybug) of the scene. R and G were quite pleased and G expressed: “you have turned me into an artist!” He then wrote the description: “Even in the darkest forest there's growth and beauty. So even in my darkest moment there's reason to hope. I hope”

“For R’s last chemo treatment session, they decided to paint another (smaller) birdhouse, noting that they were worried about one of their granddaughters, who was suffering from a specific nervous disorder. Her favorite colors are pink and lavender, which are the principle colors they used for the object, and G painted her initial on the back side of the birdhouse. They felt she would appreciate this personalized gift and looked forward to presenting it to her in person."

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