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September 09, 2005

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Publication Date: Friday, September 09, 2005

Art for healing's sake Art for healing's sake (September 09, 2005)

Cancer patients find comfort in putting paint to canvas

By Katie Vaughn

Amid shelves stocked with medical journals, a large group of people hugged, shared refreshments, laughed and cried as they admired a collection of framed paintings in El Camino Hospital's small resource library. Hospital staff dropped in and out and friends and family members came to show support for the artists. Meanwhile, a pair of musicians provided backdrop sound. By any standards it was an unusual exhibition opening.

But that was for good reason, as the crowd was gathered the afternoon of Aug. 30 to celebrate the opening of the first Creative Expressions exhibit, a showcase of 28 paintings made by a group of cancer patients who participate in a hospital-run art program.

The free Creative Expressions program is headed by artist Tehila Eisenstat, the wife of an El Camino surgeon. She and roughly 20 patients have met each Tuesday from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. at El Camino Hospital's Park Pavilion for the past two years. The main purpose of the classes is to teach the patients how to paint, but both the teacher and her students say they've gotten much more from the experience.

In any given class, Eisenstat shows her students a photo they will be capturing, over the course of several weeks, in vibrant, fast-drying acrylic paints. She demonstrates how to render the subject using various techniques, then lets her students loose to try it.

Few of the patients have painted before, but Eisenstat works to keep the atmosphere of the classes non-judgmental, both in regard to the students' artwork and their emotional states.

"I don't want to put them under a microscope," the art teacher said. "They're already under one."

Students say that, despite their low expectations, they have indeed learned to paint. Gwen Gunderson, a vivacious curly-haired blonde who was diagnosed with breast cancer 18 months ago, said the accomplishment is due to Eisenstat.

"With her, everyone can paint," Gunderson said. "She's just tireless in her enthusiasm for the class and us."

The small framed paintings on display at the hospital prove the patients' efforts and talents. Still-life floral scenes in which flowers spill from vases and baskets dominate one section, while a variety of tree scenes are featured in another area. All of these carry important symbolism, Eisenstat said.

"Trees have a lot of meaning," she said. "It's about roots and staying where you are, growing and getting new leaves."

Jan Becker, a white-haired woman with a warm smile who became emotional speaking of her two bouts of cancer, said she particularly likes the individuality of each painting.

"You can see the variations," Becker said. "Look at how different they are."

Eisenstat said the focus of the program is to teach painting, not offer overt therapy to the patients. However, all of her students said it has become exactly that. In fact, they called their teacher and fellow classmates their support group, and said they have formed incredible friendships.

"It's a refuge, a sacred place for women and men who are all in the same boat," Gunderson said.

Eisenstat too is grateful for the program, and says she has no plans to stop her involvement.

"This is the best thing I have ever done in my life," she said. "I extended my family. Each one of them I just love."

Becker said the classes are the best kind of therapy because they take patients' attention off their illnesses and allow them to create something new and beautiful.

"Art therapy sounded like a way to take us away from the stuff going on with us," Becker said. "This is really supportive and meditative and very healing."

For Gail Awakuni, a thin woman with a kind and gentle demeanor, the program has allowed her to better deal with the lymphoma she was diagnosed with in 2002, and to have a more positive outlook on life.

"It's definitely affected me," Awakuni said. "It gave me peacefulness and happiness. It made me see my life differently."

For more information on the program, call (650) 940-7282 or (800) 216-5556, or visit

E-mail Katie Vaughn at [email protected]

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