By Dorrin Zarrin Khat, Jillian Macklin

At the Toronto General Hospital, we have created an art workshop for heart function, heart transplant, and ventricular assist device patients called ‘Paint Your Experience’. It is rooted in the concepts of art therapy and open for all. Read below for the next event.

Art Therapy: What is it & who is it for?

We can all recall a time when we were kids, when arts and crafts were the best part of school or after-school activities. Give us some markers, crayons or a paint brush, and the creative juices would begin flowing as we got lost in our own little worlds. So simple, but so fun and relaxing. Remember the pride when we completed something and showed our friends and family?

So why is art work as uncommon in adulthood as it was common in childhood? As it turns out, that same euphoric feeling can be harnessed as a therapeutic tool for adults.

Art therapy refers to the use of creative techniques like drawing, painting, coloring, and sculpting that enable people to express themselves artistically, and embrace the psychological and emotional traces in their creative works. Guided often by an art therapist, people can interpret the nonverbal messages, symbols, and metaphors that are found art forms, which can foster a better understanding of their own feelings and behaviour.

Scientific literature shows that art therapy can lead to many real benefits:

  • Achieve a sense of calm and relaxation
  • A greater ability to ground oneself physically, emotionally, psychologically
  • An alternative means to express oneself when it’s hard to talk about it
  • Enables one to understand their personal experiences and relationships
  • Creates a visual album of one’s healing journey

Since this is about the process of expression with art as the medium, people of all artistic abilities can find success. We can use art-making as a springboard for past experiences and memories, as well as a vehicle to tell our present-day stories. It is less about aesthetics of the art but rather how we can work through sometimes difficult feelings and support one other. Overall, art has a powerfully therapeutic effect – it can inspire, console, liberate, comfort, expand and revive us.

Healing and the Arts: A Tool for Patients & Caregivers

The founder of art therapy, Adrian Hill, coined the term to describe the effect his painting had on his recovery from tuberculosis. He soon brought art-making to other patients with physical illness, setting the stage for the use of art therapy for individuals with medical conditions and/or disabilities. Over time, it was used less as a remedy for physical ailments but more for its psychological benefits. One key reason is that it helps individuals cope with pain and reflect on their feelings associated with a traumatic experience. It allows patients to identify feelings associated with physical pain and motivates active participation in their medical care. Naturally, medicine has learned that the ability to express oneself through various art forms enhances the sense of well-being. British neurologist and author Oliver Sacks described such an awakening like this: “the patient ceases to feel the presence of illness and the absence of the world, and comes to feel the absence of his/her illness and the full presence of the world.”

Art therapy has been known to lower the perception of pain by shifting mental focus away from the painful stimulus. It is not a distraction per say, but more so a way to teach us how to relax and alter our mood, so the pain doesn’t control our emotions. This is highly useful for chronically ill patients and their families because individuals who go through pain often lose their sense of control as their pain starts to dictate what they can and cannot do. Practising art can help them reclaim ownership in a part their lives in terms of what materials they choose to use and the steps they take to create their piece.

In hospitals, art is claiming an increasing place – including music, poetry, storytelling, dance and visual arts. Many programs are designed to boost patient morale and stimulate healing. They also provide a medium through which patients and families can express their feelings about their illness and treatment regimen. In other cases, engaging in the arts within the confines of a hospital room can improve quality of life and provide a sense of meaning during long hours of recovery and reflection.

In short, it is a powerful aid in recovery.

“Art washes from the soul the dust of everyday life.” ~ Pablo Picasso

Paint Your Experience Workshop for Heart Function & Transplant Patients

‘Paint Your Experience’ offers patients and caregivers a safe and open environment to express their thoughts and feelings about their health-care journey through visual arts. After spreading word through available channels, we welcomed 12 patients to our pilot event in the patient education room of the Peter Munk Cardiac Centre in the summer of 2018.

There, participants assembled at tables with a variety of art supplies: paint, markers, pencil crayons, water colour, pastels, glitter, construction paper, beads, etc. Along with organizers, a trained art therapist, Eva-Marie Stern from Women’s College Hospital, launched the session with a five-minute “scribble-in” where participants checked-in with their current feelings. Everyone had the opportunity to introduce themselves and share what they wanted about their journey and what brought them there that day. Most importantly, we took a moment to remind them that this session was for them.

What followed was an optional prompt to inspire their main piece of art: this is my inside, this is my outside. The session lasted 45 minutes, after which participants were free to share their insights on what they made if they wished. In that moment they talked about what different lines, shapes, colours textures and orientations meant to them, as well as the emotions and thoughts that arose during the process. We were left in awe when the majority of participants took us carefully through their pieces and opened the floor for discussion.

In this successful pilot workshop, patients and loved ones detailed their current challenges and joys, what it’s like to live with a donated heart, how transplants affect family members, medication management, and much more. What emerged overall were stories and illustrations of “hopeful journeys” that generated intimate, powerful discussion. Mixed with the heavy topics were many light-hearted moments, forming the full picture of patient resilience. The opportunity for storytelling and connecting with patients, caregivers and staff was not only inspiring but important. We hope future events will strengthen these bonds, creating a support system within the community at the Peter Munk Cardiac Centre, UHN, and the Ted Rogers Centre for Heart Research.

Next Paint Your Experience Event

Monday, November 18, 2019
2 p.m. – 4 p.m.
Peter Munk Cardiac Centre, Toronto General Hospital

For more information or to sign up, email:


Acknowledgements: We would like to thank Jane MacIver, nursing professor and researcher at the Ted Rogers Centre for Heart Research, for her support and passion for this project.