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Taking your tonic: MGH celebrates 15 years of therapeutic art

Celina Colby
Celina Colby is an arts and travel reporter with a fondness for Russian novels.... VIEW BIO

On November 17, Massachusetts General Hospital Cancer Center celebrated the 15th anniversary of its Illuminations exhibit, a rotating art installation based at the Center as well as many of its affiliate locations. Illuminations also includes an artist-in-residence program that brings live art-making to patients. Its goal is to replace generic waiting room art with works created by local and national artists, many of whom have had direct experience with cancer.

Jonathan Zucker, the current Illuminations artist-in-residence, began painting while his father was in the hospital. Painting helped him cope with his father’s imminent death, and helped distract his father from the pain of chemo. Zucker says, “If you want to capture the moment, take a picture. If you want to be the moment, paint.” Though his father has since passed, Zucker comes to Mass General once a week for a day of painting and interacting with patients and families.

His style is abstract and energetic, using vivid colors and frenetic brushstrokes to depict famous Boston scenes such as games at Fenway and boats on the Charles. Zucker stresses that art is not a way to ignore cancer, but a way to come to terms with it. “You build a bridge between creativity and trauma,” he says. With the plethora of donations the program has received this year, they hope to expand the live art component that Zucker embodies.

Deborah McDuff, a local African American artist, brings a unique perspective to the Illuminations exhibit. In her piece “Supporting Parents” she paints a woman embracing her ailing relative from behind. Though illness is clearly a factor, both women are smiling, embracing the time they have left. The background of the piece features soothing purple tones, but McDuff brings her creative flair with the intricate patterns on the subjects’ garments. Bright florals and intricate patterns bring visual interest to the family message.

It’s not just paintings that adorn the halls of the hospital. Justin Freed, former owner of the Coolidge Corner Theatre, makes video pieces of moving water. A cancer survivor, Freed remembers the raw feeling of chemo and the desire to feel anything else but that. His pieces transport patients through sounds and visuals.

Art is a manifestation of life. Davi-Ellen Chabner, artist and author of medical terminology books, believes that creating art is akin to creating more life, more time. For the artists who make the work and the patients who see it every day, art gives us the opportunity to think beyond ourselves, to feel beyond our pain.