Marie Curie exhibition showcases the impact of art therapy at the end of life

Categories: Community Engagement.

Marie Curie joined forces with the Royal Academy Schools earlier this month to host an exhibition unlike anything shown there before. Something not based on intensive study of art, rather, an insight into the role art plays in therapy and support for those affected by terminal illness.  

Life Embraced showed work produced by patients, carers, volunteers and nurses at Marie Curie hospices in Hampstead and Bradford. Some of the pieces came directly from art therapy sessions. 

We met Eliza Bonham Carter, Curator of the Royal Academy Schools during the hang of the exhibition. She had arranged each of the pieces where she planned to put them and highlighted a few she was particularly fond of, giving us an insight into some of the similarities between this work and the art she more regularly sees. 

She said: “I think that the thing that everybody shares when they work visually is a kind of way of getting engaged with thinking through materials. I think whether you’re doing that in an art therapy session or as an artist, there is an underpinning that’s common. It’s a kind of thinking that’s different from other kinds of thinking.”

Eliza has been visiting Marie Curie Hospice, Hampstead for three years, working with Michele Wood, the Art Therapist there. Eliza added:

“One of the things that I’ve really enjoyed about working with Marie Curie is the conversations I’ve had with people in the organisation about art and about art therapy and coming to learn a little bit more about what goes on. Also exploring where things do overlap and where things go in different directions. For me it’s been a real pleasure and really interesting.”

‘My emotionally challenging but rewarding journey’

On the opening night of Life Embraced, contributors came to see their work. Marcia Mishcon, an Art Therapy Volunteer, exhibited an extremely intricate piece of work. She had spent years collecting the various elements, including chocolate buttons, paint tubes and pencil sharpenings. All elements were brought together with tender and poignant dedication.

“This house/home/hospital/hospice I am exhibiting is about my emotionally challenging but rewarding journey … Its four rooms represent the art therapy “safe” room allowing anger, denial, bargaining, depression and acceptance to take place; a “transformative” room dedicated to a young patient; a “waiting” room and the “embracing life” room.”

Truly inspiring contributions also came from patients and their families in both Hampstead and Bradford hospices. To dive in, paint and get creative during difficult life experiences is evidently therapeutic, but the challenges some people face are undeniable. Thomas Read produced stunning abstract pieces with the help of art therapist, Michele:

“These three paintings represent a cross section of the works I have done with Michele Wood, during the past three years of individual art therapy sessions at the Marie Curie Hospice, Hampstead. I believe they show a freedom of expression, full of colour with a hint of spirituality. I have been suffering from a neurological condition known as Progressive Supra-nuclear Palsy, which leaves me without voice and wheelchair bound. My eyesight is also affected. I have a Parkinsonian tremor which makes artistic work difficult.”

Franky Henley, a Marie Curie Senior Health Care Assistant, who looks after people in their homes overnight also contributed. Hearing her passion for the job and learning about her dedication makes the pieces even more powerful – art inspired by the people she cares for. She dedicates time to them even after they have gone.

“The paintings represent a period of time spent with these individuals and the relationship which we have built together,” she said. “This art pays tribute to the deep connections that have grown between me and the people to whom I give care – two human beings, communicating in a profound yet ordinary way. Both giving and receiving. An act of love. I feel so grateful to those that I meet and to be able to do this work that is so important to me. This humble artwork is an offering of my gratitude.”

Really, this exhibition pulls together everything Marie Curie stands for. It celebrates and supports patients and their families, it represents the dedication of Marie Curie nurses, carers and volunteers. Most importantly, it shows how life is cherished up until the end – just as it should be for everyone.

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