Why Art Matters In The Painful Places Of Life, with Erin Mcgee Ferrell

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By Antrese Wood, Conversations about the business of art, and Inside the artist studio. Discovered by Player FM and our community — copyright is owned by the publisher, not Player FM, and audio is streamed directly from their servers. Hit the Subscribe button to track updates in Player FM, or paste the feed URL into other podcast apps.

It is difficult to honestly talk about the most painful places of life - the times when cannot avoid facing our mortality or need to come to grips with our value as human beings. But in this conversation, Erin McGee Ferrell spoke about those issues with such ease that I was grateful. The ease with which she deals with those subjects is a testament to the healthy way in which she's faced those issues herself.

Erin lit up my day with what she shared and the way she shared it, and I know that you’ll be inspired and encouraged as well. A few jewels you can look forward to from this episode:

  • Erin’s current studio: in a church rectory, overlooking a cemetery
  • How Erin got involved in healthcare-related work - and the difference she’s making
  • The relationship of art to the deeper things we all experience in life
  • A South American experience where Erin discovered a culture losing its artistic history
  • How Erin’s art serves as her personal diary
Creativity poured out when Erin faced her mortality

Amazingly, as Erin and I recorded this conversation she had just passed the 1-year anniversary to the discovery that she had breast cancer. Throughout that year she had experienced all the emotions and procedures you might imagine and many that you can only know if you’ve been in those shoes.

She says that the experiences of the last year pushed her to a new place of expression, a place where she had to release the thoughts and feelings that were bubbling to the surface from the deepest places in her soul. She wrote bad poetry in the middle of the night and she created art related to the things she was experiencing.

She says…

“When you tap into those really deep places of facing your death - stuff just has to bubble up. When you go that deep, you hit something and it has to bubble out of it.”

A research project that proves the power of art on cancer patients

Even before her own experience battling cancer Erin was deeply interested in the impact art could have on those fighting life-threatening diseases. She was awarded a research grant from the state of Maine to do an 8-week study which was called, “The Effects of a Live Painter in a Chemotherapy Treatment Facility.” The project was designed to provide exactly what the name implies - and measure the results.

With the help of a friend who is a Social Psychologist, they conducted the study and published their findings in the Journal for Oncology Nursing. What did they discover? There were four primary findings...

  1. The presence of the artist lowers anxiety
  2. It changes the feeling of the environment
  3. It creates a spontaneous community among the patients
  4. As a side-benefit: the project lessened the degree of compassion fatigue experienced by the nurses

Clearly, art and the creation of it matters in life and death contexts, making not just the experience of those undergoing treatment better but also helping those who care for them to provide even better care.

Art is about the human soul - and we don’t touch it as much as we need to

Perhaps one of the most powerful points Erin makes has to do with the greater function art has in relationship to the human soul. In her mind, art helps us touch the parts of ourselves that are the most important, give them expression, and benefit others in the process.

Art provides a vehicle through which to express things like fear, loneliness, mortality, hopes, and dreams - and to process those things through our expression. Erin sees our honest connection to those parts of ourselves as being vital to health and our growth as human beings.

In all of that, Erin sees herself being a “seed slinger” - a person who tosses things out without a lot of planning but with the hopes that they will take root and grow to the benefit of others. A recent experience regarding the placement of some of her books in the Alumni Center of her Alma Mater (Mount Holyoke College) affirmed that at least some of her seeds are doing just that. I believe it’s even more extensive and I am encouraged that she’s reaping the fruit through experiences like these.

“My art is my diary”

True to her description of the function art plays for us as human beings, Erin says her art is her diary. She creates as she experiences and responds to life. That admission is apparent in this conversation even if she hadn’t described it that way. Many of her projects and paintings are clearly drawn from the chapters of her own story and she has learned to have joy in the journey and to infuse what she does with fun.

I so enjoyed this conversation and believe you will too. Please don’t miss it. Erin is a treasure and her contributions to the world through her work are far-reaching and significant.

Outline of This Episode
  • [0:32] The joy, humor, and faith in the future behind Erin’s overall work
  • [5:05] A quick description of Erin’s artwork - loose, figuration, abstract, observation
  • [7:01] Erin’s work process involves lots of play and experimentation
  • [11:06] The outlet Erin found in art while battling breast cancer
  • [16:55] How Erin’s experienced the loss of artwork skills and traditions in South America
  • [23:15] “The Pirate Crew Paper Dolls” project
  • [29:08] The organizations Erin is working with - and why she’s so involved in health care
  • [39:15] Erin’s current project - 6 X 6 paintings - and the future work she dreams of doing
  • [42:51] The most challenging things to Erin as a painter and artist
  • [45:43] Art as a diary
  • [49:34] Erin’s advice to herself as a younger artist
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