Volunteer shows cancer patients and caregivers how to tap into healing powers of art

March 13, 2019
Hollings art infusion class instructor
Art instructor Beth Melton-Seabrook stands in front of the art project for Hollings' first art infusion class. Photo by Dawn Brazell

Beth Melton-Seabrook rips up a painting with relish, showing class participants how to do the same so they leave a white-edged tear around the shapes being created.

To rip up their work is hard for some to do. They’ve spent some time playing with the color and mixing shades. There’s paint everywhere and tools, from bubble wrap to corrugated coffee sleeves, spread out on the table. Melton-Seabrook laughs at the hesitation.

“The tearing is a part of the letting go. It’s all part of the chaos. It makes it more organic and tactile. It’s also just fun,” she says. Others follow her lead, with nurse Christopher Hairfield joking: “Check your talent at the door.” This is his second time he’s attended the class. “Did anyone else feel noticeably better last week after leaving? I did. I felt much less irritable.”

That’s exactly the goal. This art workshop for staff and faculty at the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC) is all about letting go and being present in the moment. Tonight, the group is experimenting with patterns and layering as they make a flower collage. As part of the process, they learn more about themselves and each other.

Leading the class is Melton-Seabrook, a local artist, who soon will start a similar class for cancer patients and their caregivers at Hollings Cancer Center. The workshops will be held Tuesdays, starting March 19, from 10 a.m. to noon on the third floor of the cancer center at 86 Jonathan Lucas Street in Charleston, S.C.

The workshop is an expansion of MUSC Health’s Arts in Healing Program that is coordinated by Katie Hinson. Hinson says the workshop at Hollings Cancer Center is a great addition as it strives to heal, inspire and educate patients and families. “Art infusion workshops set to build community as patients and families learn new skills and use art making as an empowering outlet.”

Art infusion instructor with art therapist
Hollings art therapist Katie Hinson (right) and volunteer Beth Melton-Seabrook (left) come together for a first look at the art infusion class project. Photo by Dawn Brazell

Grateful to volunteers like Melton-Seabrook, Hinson says having her on board enables them to expand the program to a broader community. She and Marie Doll are clinical board certified Art Therapists who conduct confidential therapy sessions at the bedside. While volunteers do not provide therapy, they do provide creative prompts and art instruction in an open environment. The class is set up so participants may come and go.

“With Beth’s many years of experience teaching individuals of all ages across the Lowcountry and support of the Arts in Healing clinical staff, she has the tools to safely lead creative groups for patients and families,” she says. “Beth’s experience as a community artist allows for creative and inspiring outlets for our patients and caregivers.”

Melton-Seabrook, whose sister works as a nurse navigator at Hollings Cancer Center, says the volunteer work is a perfect fit for her. While she likes helping all patients, she has a special interest in oncology. “Everyone has had someone in their life touched by cancer. My maternal grandmother passed away from cancer – blood cancer – and one of my very best friends passed away in October from a brain tumor,” she says. “It just felt right to do this.”

Raised in the Lowcountry, Melton-Seabrook likes to do a wide range of projects in her art classes. She’s known for her ability to recycle objects and she likes to portray conventional, local images using the unconventional surfaces of salvaged and repurposed materials. All the classes she teaches vary in theme and techniques. The goal is to relax and just go with the flow.

With pattern play painting, for example, participants are finding a flower in their abstract work by tearing it out and layering it onto the canvas.

“There’s no right or wrong way to do it. Once you realize you can’t mess it up, that adding to it and experimenting just makes it better, it just lets you relax and have fun with it,” she says. “Seeing how it helps lift people’s spirit is rewarding. My favorite quote is from Pablo Picasso: ‘Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.’”

She can tell by the end of the class what a calming effect it has on participants.

“It can at least take your mind off of the here and now – what’s happening in the hospital setting. It also can give you a skill you can use later. The tools we use are so simple and basic – just stuff you find laying around your house. My hope is they can take the skills they learn home and, if they are feeling anxious or having a difficult go health wise, they can go back to that.”