If you had the opportunity to bring together in one special place all the dearly departed who made a difference in your life, who would you invite? Where would they meet and how would they all get along?
Chicago artist Nancy Gershman has developed a methodology to help those coping with loss and regret answer these questions and in the process heal their emotional pain. By repurposing personal photographs, Gershman creates a photomontage, or "Healing Dreamscape," composed to reframe the past by humanizing our fragments of memory honestly, and with a positive outlook. By contemplating our own mythologies, Gershman believes we can nurse our souls privately, or open dialog publicly by sharing our Dreamscape.
|The early phase of the Healing Dreamscape created by Nancy Gershman for Ann Solari-Twadell, PhD, RN.
Gershman calls herself a Prescriptive Artist working with a therapeutic medium, photomontage. She coined the term "prescriptive art" to distinguish the work of art therapists who facilitate art-making by the client from artists who co-create prescriptive art pieces with their client. It would be difficult for an individual to attempt a therapeutic Dreamscape by one's self.
"First, as a neutral outsider, a Prescriptive Artist brings the objectivity and wisdom that only comes from distance and experience," Gershman said. "Second, it requires a high level of intuiting what the psyche needs to move forward which comes from observing the client in situ, gauging their spirituality, culture and humor," she added. Finally, executing a Dreamscape necessitates professional skills in photomontage technique and software.
For the Hektoen Institute of Medicine's Nurses & the Humanities program, Gershman created a Healing Dreamscape for Ann Solari-Twadell, PhD, RN, associate professor at Loyola University Chicago Marcella Niehoff School of Nursing, who was grieving her deceased husband. During her first meeting with Gershman, Solari-Twadell did not know what to expect. As she began digging through boxes of photographs, she realized that in the span of 20 years, she had experienced 12 deaths, five of them occurring in a period of just over 2 years.
In a moment of clarity, she decided to dedicate the Dreamscape not only to her husband but to these
12 significant people in her life.
Landscape of Memory
The Dreamscape had a transformative effect on Solari-Twadell and her perception of these tragedies. She recalled how initially she had grieved these single incidences of death as great losses. But through the Dreamscape, these deaths took on a different meaning: one of gratitude. To achieve this therapeutic effect, Gershman set the stage in a location connected to peace and happiness: a campsite in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in Minnesota where Solari-Twadell had been with her husband and later scattered his ashes.
Gershman helped Solari-Twadell recall anecdotal memories and focus on the spiritual gifts she had received from her relatives, cleverly representing them with powerful imagery. The Dreamscape allowed Solari-Twadell to become appreciative of the gifts she had never taken the time to acknowledge while her loved ones were alive.
One example is the dog in the foreground, which refers to the evening promenades she took with her Uncle Jack every Thanksgiving. While walking the dog the two hardly spoke, which Solari-Twadell realized helped her develop an appreciation for the beauty of silence. Another is the cowboy blanket warming her mother-in-law, Aimee, symbolizing the gift of good fun when she had performed charades about a cowboy movie.
"Nancy Gershman is very good at creating an intimacy and a sacredness conducive to sharing and respecting your stories," said Solari-Twadell, regarding Gershman's ability to dissect her personal life and connect her more deeply with family histories.
|In this final version of this Healing Dreamscape, photomontaged by Nancy Gershman, memories and people appear together in a timeless tableau. "They are all gone now. But I feel like there's a standing invitation to come join them. ... You feel they have all the time in the world," said Ann Solari-Twadell, PhD, RN.
Perhaps the hardest working elements in Gershman's Dreamscapes are humor and irony, which help distance the client from built up anxiety, guilt or anger. Solari-Twadell shared, "because the scene exudes fun, laughter and enjoyment, it brings a more light-hearted perspective on the loss." There is a scientific basis for this as well, as laughter causes the release of hormones like adrenaline and opiates like dopamine which calm the body down.
Reconnecting With Loved Ones
In the nursing profession, wishful reality and positive visualization can be a particularly effective tool. Sandra Gaynor, PhD, RN, executive director of the Council for Public Interest in Anesthesia, reflected, "In illness, we become vulnerable. Loneliness, depression, and fear replace our normal, healthy coping mechanisms." She thinks nurses could recommend the use of Dreamscapes to patients living with long term illnesses to recollect people and places that may have gotten lost in the anxiety of the disease.
Visualizing wishful spaces they would like to inhabit and from which they draw strength, could bring patients closer to the people they love, especially those who no longer can be by their bedside.
"I think this idea of prescriptive art and fusing one's thoughts, memories and pictures into a physical vision that transports us to some place surrounded by loved ones and happy memories can be considered a healing tool or a saving grace," Gaynor said.
Dreamscaping is a means to rewrite the past to produce a more constructive future. It is also more than the outcome of a process. It is a spiritual activity as it connects us to something larger than ourselves.
"Making visualizations look realistic is not enough. They also have to be elevated by art," Gershman said. "Only when art reaches for a higher plane of thinking, can we start embracing loss more philosophically and less emotionally. The narration, the connections that allow us to see that we are bigger than the sum of our parts - it works like a burst of sunshine!"
Rachel Christophe Baker is a freelance writer and director of cultural & educational development at the Hektoen Institute of Medicine, Chicago.