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Gay Walker helps others in the art of healing

In addition to curating art exhibits, art therapist Gay Walker created a workbook for cancer patients to use to express themselves through art.

In 1995, at age 51, artist and art therapist Gay Walker was working as both a volunteer and a paid professional providing therapy for youths and adults with cancer at a number of organizations in Southwest Michigan. She was vibrant, energetic.

While she worked, she often wondered if those who are not artists turn to art to express their feelings when faced with a major illness. Motivated to answer that question, she applied for and was given a $1,000 grant and put out a call to cancer patients to contribute artworks and writing.

The response was resounding. Within two days, she received 125 pieces of art and 40 pieces of writing, including poetry, by people who had a strong desire to tell their stories.

From these entries, Walker created The Art of Healing: An Exhibit by People Touched by Cancer and a book of related writings. Intended to be displayed on one wall of the West Michigan Cancer Center for two weeks, the exhibit generated an energy that extended far beyond that humble expectation. First, the submissions were so extensive that the exhibit covered the walls of an entire floor of the center, where it resided for six months. Then administrators in hospitals and cancer centers in other parts of the Midwest wanted to display it, so it traveled to various locations for two years.

“This was not art for beauty’s sake,” Walker says. “This was art for telling the truth, telling it like it is. It was real. It showed a poignant inside view of cancer.”

When the American Cancer Society learned of the exhibit, they recommended it — and Walker — to the U.S. Department of Defense. The department invited Walker to bring nine of the exhibit’s works to Washington, D.C., for the interior of its Mobile Breast Care Center, which traveled the world to provide mammogram screening for women in underserved populations.

The Art of Healing‘s success also prompted Bronson Methodist Hospital to commission Walker to create another collaborative exhibit a year later. Her initial response was, “I think we got all the art there is about cancer.” Not so. The Art of Healing II drew another 125 pieces of new art and traveled for two years to various cancer centers and hospitals in the Midwest.

Then, in 1998, Walker was diagnosed with breast cancer. She recalls the moment. “I don’t think I thought about it for more than a split second. ‘Remove the breast,’ I told him.”

To express her emotions, Walker created her own personal The Art of Healing collection, consisting of 36 pieces of art in various forms and a booklet of poetry called Perdiddle (which means a car with one headlight).

“I had this urge to put it down, get it out, release it, not hold it inside,” she says of the collection, which traveled to cancer centers for several years and resided at the Bronson Cancer Center during much of 2022. Earlier this year it was displayed at Glen Oaks Community College, in Centreville, while Walker served as artist-in-residence there.

Walker underwent 10 surgeries, including a mastectomy and reconstructive procedures. She chose not to undergo chemotherapy or radiation but did take tamoxifen, a drug used to treat breast cancer. And she survived.

Then, in 2000, she was diagnosed with uterine cancer. She had surgery to remove her uterus. And again, she survived.

But cancer was an ever-present companion. John, her husband of 50 years, died in 2017 from aggressive nasal lymphoma that quicky metastasized through most of his body. Six months after John’s death, their son, Kristian, then 47, was treated for testicular cancer. He has been cancer-free for five years.

But still, cancer came knocking again — this time in 2021, in Gay’s kidney. “No, no, no,” she says she cried. “This can’t be. I’ve paid my dues.” She had surgery to remove that organ. And she survived.

Walker, who turned 80 in February, represents resilience. “Here I am, 25 years after the first one,” she says, referring to her bouts with cancer. “I won.”

The Art of Healing exhibits — both her personal one and the group efforts — are also survivors.

In the early 2000s, Bronson Healthcare commissioned Walker to curate Images of Healing: Personal Expression, an exhibit to explore the trauma of any illness. “We had sexual abuse, schizophrenia and all kinds of scary things,” Walker says of the 175 submissions. And, like the other The Art of Healing exhibits, this exhibit traveled for two years to hospitals and medical facilities throughout western Michigan, including Traverse City, Grand Rapids, Lansing, South Haven and Battle Creek.

Walker is currently working on another collaborative exhibit, The Art of Healing III. The purpose of the new exhibit, will encourage creative expression among people who say they can’t draw.

Walker will link cancer patients who feel hobbled by an “inner critic” with trained artists. A patient will describe their emotions to the artists, who will transform the emotions into a visual image. Poets will then create poems to describe each work, a form of writing called ekphrastic poetry.

For those who want a more private form of creative expression, Walker has created The Art of Healing Workbook, a 46-page book with instructions and ample white space for cancer patients to draw, write and relate their stories in imaginative ways.

Walker developed her Expressive Arts Program at the Bronson Cancer Center based on the workbook.

The funding for the Expressive Arts Program and the cost of printing The Art of Healing Workbook came from a Freedom of Spirit Award recommended by Molly Vass-Lehman and Rob Lehman and given by the Fetzer Institute to the Bronson Cancer Center in Walker’s honor.

The Expressive Arts Program includes holistic modalities such as sound immersion, guided imagery, mindfulness meditation, breathing techniques from yoga, and yoga nidra (the process of slowing down and chilling out). “These are not new modalities, but they’re new to the Expressive Arts Program, and they give patients options within their healing treatment,” Walker says.

While it might be said that life has been cruel for having brought cancer into Walker’s body three times, she is a woman who has risen far above her circumstances and now has great appreciation for support groups. Of the one she joined in 1998, she says, “There were 10 of us who were diagnosed within a month of each other. We did the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure and all kinds of things together.” She pauses. “I’m the only one alive. I’ve been to all their funerals. But I also know how important that support was.”

Today Walker is part of an intimate support group for widows. Through her various endeavors of art therapy, she is an instrument of support for countless people in numerous states who have received inspiration to process the impact of cancer through creative expression.

Robert M. Weir

Robert is a writer, author, speaker, book editor and authors’ coach. You can see more of his work at robertmweir.com.

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