HOPE IN MANY COLORS: With artist’s help, cancer patients fashion scarves that tell their stories

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GREENFIELD — It only took two weeks for Kathy Harter’s hair to fall out after she started chemo about six weeks ago.

On Wednesday, Aug. 25, the Fortville woman started designing a brightly colored headscarf to cover her bald head, but it will be so much more than a head covering. It will be a work of art, and a testament to her journey with cancer.

Harter, 63, is among a handful of patients at the Sue Ann Wortman Cancer Center who were recently chosen to create headscarves with the help of an Indianapolis textile artist, Emily Gartner.

Kathy Harter and her friend, Sharon Fisher, listen as Emily Gartner, right, talks them through the process of art therapy. Gartner, an Indianapolis textile artist, is providing art therapy for a handful of patients undergoing chemotherapy at the Sue Ann Wortman Cancer Center. She’s helping each of them design their own headscarf. (Shelley Swift | Daily Reporter)
Kathy Harter and her friend, Sharon Fisher, listen as Emily Gartner, right, talks them through the process of art therapy. Gartner, an Indianapolis textile artist, is providing art therapy for a handful of patients undergoing chemotherapy at the Sue Ann Wortman Cancer Center. She’s helping each of them design their own headscarf. (Shelley Swift | Daily Reporter)

Gartner has been designing her own fabrics for the past 30 years, sometimes showcasing the clothes she makes in fashion shows. Next month, she’ll show off her designs in a fashion show in Milan, Italy, known as the fashion capital of the world.

This week, however, she’s been busy helping cancer patients like Harter with some art therapy, designing scarves that reflect a bit about each of them and their personal journeys.

As an artist, Gartner loves helping others tap into their creative sides and design something that’s truly one-of-a-kind.

When asked what motivated her to first start helping cancer patients through art therapy, she instantly chokes up thinking of her mother’s best friend, Julia, who died from the disease.

“I do it in honor of those who have had cancer and who have passed away,” she said.

The artist has channeled her grief into inspiring hope among those battling cancer, by helping them create scarves that reflect a bit of themselves.

“First I like to get a sense of what colors they love and their sense of style. I like to learn about what their experience with cancer has been like, and what their support system is like. Some have been struggling for years, while others are just starting out. Some have a big community behind them, while others keep things to themselves,” she said.

“I helped one lady who was from Texas (design a headscarf), and she loves southwest themes and southwest colors,” Gartner said. “Another person’s daughter had created an image of an Arizona sunset with her family silhouetted, and we incorporated that into the fabric. Each one we design really speaks to the individual and their personal experience.”

When sitting down for her initial consultation with Harter, the artist learned that she’s a big fan of bold colors like purple, yellow and orange.

She also has a bit of a hippie vibe from growing up in the 1970s.

After browsing through hundreds of images on a Pinterest page for inspiration, she and Harter settled on doing a random pattern for her headscarf called an acrylic pour, similar to a Jackson Pollock design.

“The next time we meet I’ll bring a blank canvas and we’ll pour the paint over it,” the artist explained.

Gartner will then use the design to create the fabric that will be used to make Harter’s headscarf. The finished product will also bear some sort of inspirational word, embroidered by Harter’s close friend, Sharon Fisher, who has been a longtime source of support.

Fisher watched on Wednesday as Harter ran her fingers over various types of fabric, selecting one that was soft to the touch, similar to the headscarf she was wearing that day.

“I love how this one feels,” said Harter, marveling at the bright purple and green patterned fabrics Gartner had created.

Art therapy is a multi-sensory experience that can be a great form of healing, said the artist, even for those who don’t consider themselves to be artistic.

“I’m not creative at all, but I’m really enjoying this,” said Harter, as Gartner handed her a sample box of acrylic paints and brushes to take home and experiment with, to mix her own colors.

Harter said the art therapy project would be a nice distraction from her chemotherapy treatments, designed to fight the cancer that has metastasized on her spine. She beat her cancer the first time she was diagnosed in October 2016, and hopes to do so again with the support of family and friends.

The headscarf she’s creating will eventually become part of her legacy, she said, just like the scrapbooks she’s created for her son, Eric, and her beloved grandsons, 8-year-old Evan and 5-year-old Landon.

Helping patients celebrate their lives as they fight against cancer is what the art therapy initiative is all about, said Jenn Wells, director of marketing at Hancock Regional Hospital.

“Cancer unfortunately happens, but you can still live life,” she said.

“We’re here to help you get through a less-than-healthy time in people’s lives, but we constantly remind them that there’s more to come. There’s more than the illness, there’s a person and a life to embrace.”

Harter can’t wait to see her finished headscarf made with bright, bold colors, emblematic of her bold fight against cancer. “I think it’s going to look amazing. I may even wear it when I get my hair back,” she said.

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Art therapy is being used to help patients cope with their cancer journeys as they under chemotherapy at the Sue Ann Wortman Cancer Center.

It’s a practice used to help individuals with their physical, mental and emotional health.

According to the Patient Empowerment Network, a public nonprofit, many studies have found that art therapy is a great way to help cancer patients deal with how they’re feeling, including reducing depressive symptoms and physical pain, while improving their outlook on the future and making them feel listened to.

A study of 1,500 participants conducted by the National Institutes of Health found that art therapy helped to reduce anxiety, depression and physical pain in patients, and most patients also reported a general improvement in their quality of life.

The research suggested that the emotional benefits lasted as long as the therapy, but a reduction in pain was seen in patients afterwards too. Another study found that the improvements in anxiety and depression symptoms were long-term.

Even those who can’t work with a professional art therapist are encouraged to do art therapy on their own, whether it’s drawing, painting, sculpting, writing or playing or listening to music.

Source: Patient Empowerment Network

powerfulpatients.org/2019/02/13/using-art-therapy-to-cope-with-cancer/

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