The art of healing

Sculptures, paintings serve new role in medical centers

By Linda McIntosh


A cancer center might seem like an unlikely place to have an art exhibit. But more and more medical centers are displaying paintings and sculptures in waiting areas and patient rooms to create an atmosphere conducive to healing.

The San Diego Cancer Center in Encinitas currently has on display more than 30 paintings by Rancho Santa Fe artist Heidi Rufeh. The exhibit, called “Explorations,” runs through Jan. 18.

“I’m hoping my pieces give a good feeling,” Rufeh said. “If the environment is more pleasant, it can help the way someone feels about a place.”

Rufeh recalled that when her late husband underwent chemotherapy, the surroundings were depressing. “It made you feel scared,” she said. “I want my pieces to change the environment so people aren’t so bogged down by its harshness. I think that can help the healing process.”

Rufeh sees her bright colors as uplifting. People are drawn into her abstract paintings because of the intense color, she said.

Solana Beach-based artist Amber Irwin, whose glass mosaic art was on display during the opening reception of the exhibit at the center, also reflected on art and healing.

“Cancer is an angry sickness,” Irwin said. “Having art at the center can help to change the anger and pain into something more peaceful and healthy.”

The center features different local artists every few months.

Yanina Adler, a scientific director at the San Diego Cancer Research Institute who volunteers as coordinator of the exhibits at the San Diego Cancer Center, said she is enchanted by the transformation.

“People are walking by the walls of the center, which now looks like a high-end art gallery. To take such walks and be transported through these visual expeditions means healing for everyone,” she said.

Adler recalled one patient who wrote to her about how the paintings of boats in one exhibit brought back fond memories of sailing with his father and took his mind off the medical tests he was undergoing.

Rufeh sees her paintings as a way to connect with people and evoke feelings.

“People identify with a piece of art in different ways,” she said.

Many of Rufeh’s paintings at the cancer center are dreamlike and express a sense of longing, which might evoke similar feelings in her viewers.

“It’s very healing to see art in hospitals. It takes your mind out of where you are,” said Anita Edman, community services coordinator who manages the city of Solana Beach’s art gallery.

The city gallery currently hosts an exhibit by physician and artist Julie Prazich, who is medical director at the San Diego Hospice. Prazich is donating a portion of the proceeds from her Solana Beach exhibit, “From Mountain to Sea and In Between,” to the hospice.

“Prazich’s work is very calming,” Edman said. “It puts you in a good healing space.”

Prazich is known to do art with her patients as a means of therapy.

Creating a piece of art can be therapeutic, but so can looking at it.

For artist Lia Strell, it’s a matter of transmitting some of that creative energy to the viewer.

Strell believes that the creative process keeps her healthy and brings a sense of health to her viewers.

“While my mind is trying to figure out my next sculpture, I am visualizing to see if it works. Sometimes it is so exciting in my mind, my whole body feels the happiness,” Strell said.

“Happiness, love and laughter are key to health. When my work is released and responded to, I am hoping the viewer receives a portion of these.”

Strell created the 15-foot-high “Ribbon of Hope,” which is among nearly 30 sculptures at Scripps Memorial Hospital La Jolla in the Wolfstein Sculpture Park.

“It’s serious, but there’s laughter in my work,” said Strell, a member of the Solana Beach Art Association.

Strell has dedicated her art to her father, who is fighting cancer.

“I think art has an impact on healing. I hope my art helps people living with cancer,” she said.

One of Strell’s first pieces, in which she focused on the idea of healing, was a sculpture called “Healing Energy.” In 2001, Strell was commissioned to create a healing energy symbol and turn it into a sculpture for Jim Mattioda, founder of Arcana Herbal and Nutritional Pharmacy.

Mattioda drew a graph of his formula for healing, and Strell developed a symbol for him.

“People look at it and see different things,” Strell said. People have come to Strell with different interpretations of her art, which she welcomes.

Some people look at the “Ribbon of Hope” sculpture and see an embrace; some see flowing water, and others see a cancer awareness ribbon.

“I begin my work, and people interpret it,” Strell said. “I think it touches people’s souls.”

Healing Art Exhibits

  • ‘Explorations’ by Heidi Rufeh

When: Public viewing by appointment after 3 p.m. through Jan. 18
Where: San Diego Cancer Center, 1200 Garden View Road, Encinitas

Contact: (760) 634-6661,

  • ‘From Mountain to Sea and In Between’

When: 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday-Thursday and alternate Fridays 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. through Dec. 31
Where: Solana Beach City Hall Gallery, 635 S. Highway 101

Contact: (858) 720-2454

  • Wolfstein Sculpture Park

Scripps Memorial Hospital La Jolla, 9888 Genesee Ave., La Jolla
Contact: and