Arts complementing health: The art cabin - a hidden gem

by Michael Tan (Assistant Professor, School of Art, Design and Media, Nanyang Technological University and Art and Health Advocate)

As a visitor to the National University Hospital, you might have spotted a light blue double storey structure at the corner of the open-air playground while wandering around the pediatric wards on Level 4 of the main building. In an environment where monotonous coloured walls rule meandering passageways and apprehensions linger the air, the quirky light blue make shift structure stood out immediately in the seemingly somber environ; intriguing those who have chanced on it. For those who are not aware, that structure is The Art Cabin. If you are feeling a little perplexed, have no doubt. You read me correctly. There is an art space in the hospital premises. Perhaps, you may be wondering this moment, why is there an art space in a hospital? What contribution does art have towards convalescence?

My involvement as an artist mentor to a group of Dreamcatcher youths for this year’s Shine project has given me an invaluable opportunity to go beyond the walls of The Art Cabin and get to know the space and the people who give meaning and purpose to the place. I would like to use the remaining space of this article to share with you my experience of journeying with the youths and the project team in the past months, and hope, through this sharing, I can illuminate why art is not just an activity and why it matters to health and well-being of individuals, particularly in a care setting such as a hospital.

This collaboration with the Play Therapist Fazilah Kamsin, Art Therapist Loo Hwee Hwee and Social work associate and coordinator Tang Kar Wai (who I wish to affectionately refer them as Angels of The Art Cabin) build on our common interest to explore the impact of art on health and well being; an area of concern in my research on the arts. I began this journey as a stranger to the Dreamcatcher youths in late April. I remembered it was a warm lazy Sunday afternoon when I was introduced to the initial group of youths at the Singapore Art Museum. The agenda was use examples of artwork on display at the museum to expose the youths to concepts of art and engage them in conversation about possibilities in the arts and our imagining about the art- in terms of its potential value for the individual creator and viewers of the work.

As most of the youths did not choose the arts as a career, I confessed, there was quite a bit of work involved to usher the group to get into the ‘productive zone’. That said, it is important to acknowledge that these youths already have their plate full before embarking on this project, amongst them, some are navigating their academic responsibilities, one is serving his responsibility to our nation, a couple of them contributing to our workforce and, a few whose routine during the project period is bounded by hospital visits and treatments. It was indeed a challenge that these youths decided and allowed themselves to on the less familiar ground of creativity. I applaud the Dreamcatcher youths who decided to entertain your creative flame within. Your courage and a spirit of openness have touched me.

As we got into the thick of the project, admittedly, there was a mounting sense of pressure amongst the youth as creativity hit the wall, ideas got challenged and expectation rose. Despite encountering these setbacks in their artwork development, the youths continuously inspired me with their tenacity and perseverance. The Art Cabin was ground zero where art discussions with the youths took place twice weekly, and open studio sessions were made available for the youths to develop their work.

To provide further support them, the team also made use of an online social platform, where access, is only limited to individuals involved in the project. Its aim is to facilitate and encourage discussion, exchanges of ideas and camaraderie. Week after week, they came back to the cabin, to engage and explore. Physical inconvenience was never an obstacle for some of them, they merrily trod to the cabin with crutches and their ‘Mercedes and Ferraris’ (remote controlled wheel chairs). The eventual pick up of creative energy in the art cabin was exhilarating and infectious. It is amazing to witness the growth and feel the sense of belief and accomplishment amongst the youths.

I gathered through this journey that art is not just an activity. It suggests that engagement with the arts produces effects that have implication on the social, emotional and cognitive of individuals and communities. In our consideration of health, it is important to acknowledge ones sense of good or poor health is attributed and influenced by factors such as the biological condition (Disease) and social meaning of the condition (Illness) , Illness, according to Eisenberg, ‘are experiences of disvalued changes in states of being and in social function’ - which produces emotional resonances, while Disease, ‘are abnormalities in the structure and function of body and organ systems.’. This sematic distinction illuminate the point that our sense of wellness is a complex made up that is concurrently affected by our physical state and the not so easily seen social emotion factor. Hence it is important that we remind ourselves that care is multidimensional.

As an example of work for arts in healthcare, the nature of this project demonstrates the ability the arts could reach - the intangible – that encourages human flourishing. The stories revealed in this writing and by the youths in their creations offer us a glimpse on perspectives of life and a food for thought. This conversation would not have been possible or ‘visible’ without us embarking on this process of art. We experienced laughter, joy and witnessed growth in each individual. The Art Cabin is not a temporary respite but a space of discovery and growth for those who found their way into this hidden gem.

Thank you to all participating Dreamcatchers and the angels of the art cabin for enriching my life! Congratulations and know I am very proud of each one of you!