It took every bit of courage and strength Shirley Walsh had to propel herself through the doors of the QEII Health Sciences Centre last spring for her first chemotherapy treatment.
After facing breast cancer head-on with a mastectomy in February, the Dartmouth woman had mentally prepared herself, as much as one can, for the next course of action – a treatment that terrified her with its bevy of unknowns: chemotherapy.
At Shirley’s second treatment appointment she discovered from her oncologist that she had a low white blood cell count, meaning her body wasn’t ready to receive the chemo and she’d have to wait until another day.
“I was devastated,” she recalls. “I closed myself off – I wasn’t ready to deal with it; I couldn’t talk about it, which was unusual for me.”
Before leaving the hospital, Shirley and her daughter encountered a unique opportunity for art healing – and a complete 180 she didn’t know her morning could take.
“When I left that day, I was on an emotional high; I was so excited,” Shirley explains with an inflection of pride in her voice. “I needed it and I didn't even know it. I was able to move forward with a clear state of mind. I felt the chemo would happen when it happened.”
Shirley’s cancer journey, like so many others’, will be immortalized in Barnacle Tides, a permanent art installation, expected to open early 2014in the waiting area of the QEII’s Cancer Centre.
Halifax-based community artist Miro Davis conceptualized and proposed the idea of a special piece to be installed within the walls of the hospital.
“I looked for an area where people sit for extended periods of time, often feeling uncomfortable and stressed. We chose a place where the piece could be most effective – the site is a major wall with considerable traffic in a sensitive area.”
The sculpture will be a combined series of hand-carved reliefs created by patients, family and staff, cast into blue glass with light filtering through, fitting as windows just inside the openings of the barnacle forms sculpted by the artist. These windows will illuminate unique carvings, inviting viewers to share their experiences in discovering the artwork as it transforms the surroundings.
The wellness wall will provide uplifting ambience, to resonate the positive power of art, offering comfort to not only those who participate in the process, but also future patients and families who will pass through the doors of the Cancer Centre in search of their own healing.
“These barnacles symbolize strength,” Miro says. “They often cluster together to build a strong framework in nature. They band together to survive their shared experiences. Barnacles live and thrive in so many environments and circumstances. They are hard and tough on the outside, while soft and self-sufficientinside, symbolizing a core of tenderness and heart.”
“Each barnacle is so different with its unique shape, and when they come together, they form one structure, a community, a skin.”
“She's good – really good,” Shirley says of Miro. “She gently, in her way, encouraged us to try. I wasn't ready to talk, which is unusual for me. I wasn't planning on participating that day either, but before I knew it, I was laughing, talking and sharing. I was able to put away my frustrations and it turned into a really therapeutic experience. I didn't even know it was happening.”
The experience isn’t unique to just the patients. Family members and staff touched by cancer can also contribute to the wellness wall. The project has proven to be just as therapeutic for family members as it is for the patients themselves.
“It was incredible to watch mom come out of her shell,” says Shirley’s daughter, Jodi Heys. “She was curious, but in a standoffish way. As the experience unfolded, I saw her literally relax.”
While Shirley and Jodi were working on their own pieces, they were approached by the family member of another patient going through a similar situation, and an intimate conversation with this stranger resulted in hugs and tears – a testament, Miro says, to the power of art and the overall intent of the project.
This project aims to instil, amongst all members of the QEII community, an understanding of the benefits that can be gained by encouraging a deeper relationship between art and overall health.
“I am a believer in art therapy,” Jodi says. “I've witnessed first-hand what this, and what projects like it, can do for patients and their families.”
“Cancer is a marathon – that's what we call it. I saw her go through the emotions of losing her breasts. It was a hard adjustment. We all had to learn to trust the process. Therapy through art has helped us to understand and to heal.”
Barnacle Tides is intended to evoke an environment of peace, comfort and life energy to support well-being in the hospital setting, transforming a place often associated with fear, anxiety and discomfort into a place of beauty and peace through form, texture, light and colour. Light will illuminate from inside, symbolically reflecting the hope and strength inside every one of us.
“No matter what happens,” Jodi says, “this will be my mom’s lasting legacy.”