The art of healing

A singer with a mission and “Potatoheads” with a message.

click to enlarge HEALTHY DISTRACTION: Danielle DeCosmo sings with a patient at Shands Hospital at the University of Florida (patient name unknown). - Maria De Lordes
Maria De Lordes
HEALTHY DISTRACTION: Danielle DeCosmo sings with a patient at Shands Hospital at the University of Florida (patient name unknown).

Danielle DeCosmo can make a listener smile or weep with her voice, but if you’re a patient at St. Anthony’s or All Children’s hospitals, she really just wants you to relax when you hear her sing. As the coordinator of Creative Clay’s Creative Care program, she roams the halls of the two St. Petersburg hospitals four days a week with her mandolin and a crew of five other artists — two dancers and three visual artists — who interact with patients as a way of facilitating the healing process.

“At its most basic level, it’s a happy distraction,” DeCosmo says. “At its best, it can lower your heart rate, lower your blood pressure and increase the oxygen in your bloodstream, which boosts your immune system. And obviously there are spiritual and emotional satisfactions as well.”

Creative Care is modeled on the 23-year-old Arts In Medicine program at Shands Hospital at the University of Florida, where DeCosmo was a musician-in-residence for four years before moving to St. Pete last year. Established in 2009, the St. Pete program — less well-known than Creative Clay’s arts programs for people with physical, mental and emotional disabilities — has struggled somewhat to achieve stability. As three years’ seed funding of $400,000 from Allegany Franciscan Ministries dwindled, a 2011 NEA grant (matched locally by a contribution from Perconti Data Systems) gave the program a lift, but subsequent gaps in financing took the artists out of each hospital temporarily. This past fall, a new NEA grant and a matching contribution by the St. Pete Glitter Queens insured its continuation through 2014.

For DeCosmo, that backing means a chance to keep seeing music make an immediate difference in the well-being of patients, whether watching the effect of a song on heart monitors in the neonatal unit at All Children’s or helping adults and families de-stress in the intensive care unit at St. Anthony’s.

“People are so shocked that someone is coming to play music to them that they almost always say yes,” DeCosmo says.

That “yes” is a cue for DeCosmo to enter the patient’s room and strike up a song from her wide-ranging repertoire, which includes golden oldies as well as 1980s and ’90s rock hits. While she’s quick to clarify that she doesn’t practice therapy, providing patients with opportunities to make choices — even simple ones like picking a song or accepting the offer of music — and reconnect with their personal tastes and memories tends to make everyone involved feel better. (In the case of children, music’s soothingness may even enable the use of fewer anti-anxiety drugs.)

“Music therapists, or art therapists, are therapists that are using an art form to talk about psycho-social situations, and I am a musician that’s using music to be therapeutic,” DeCosmo says. The difference is that “I don’t ever ask [patients] about their situation… or how their mental state is. I try to sit and talk with them, and sometimes that comes out… but I don’t delve into it.”

Maintaining distance can be tough. DeCosmo won’t forget the first time a nurse sent her into a room where a child was being removed from life support, or how much the music she brought meant to the girl’s family.

“I’ve had moments where it’s been really heavy and I’ve had to step back and say, can I handle this?” De Cosmo says. “It comes with the job. It’s not like I can say that I’m not going to those rooms, because then I’m denying those people their last requests.”

Creative Care is always looking for more support in the form of donations of art supplies or financial contributions. To learn more, go to creativeclay.org.

The work one professional artist has made as part of her healing process during treatment for breast cancer is on view at the [email protected] through Jan. 11. Claudia Strano, a Brazil-born St. Petersburg resident whose work typically tends toward sleek abstraction, found herself making a different kind of art after losing her hair, nails and, very nearly, her sense of self during chemotherapy. While she was in the midst of that agonizing process two years ago, Strano and her partner went to visit friends in North Carolina. She took along a sketchbook — and what showed up in it as she drew was a surprise.

“I just started to doodle, and all of a sudden these little guys appeared,” Strano says.

Strano calls the figures “Potatoheads.” Since 2011, she has made 75 mixed media works about them, from small sketches to 48-inch-square paintings, 54 of which are on view at the Studio. In essence, the Potatoheads are stick figures with oversized, bulbous heads that invite associations with the baldness of the chemo patient, the affliction of “chemo brain” (the mental fog that accompanies the chemical onslaught) and vulnerability in general. True to the cancer experience, their personalities range from sweet and goofy to frustrated and obscene.

On and around the figures, Strano paints and collages symbols of their endurance. One, a clear self-portrait, wears a blond wig, a feather headdress and a metal bra as she clutches a staff of power; another sits in front of a blazing red sun above the caption “If you could speak my language.” Strano describes the latter piece as an homage to optimism in the face of suffering — it’s a Brazilian custom to recognize a fiery sunset as the harbinger of a good tomorrow, she says.

Strano is surprised by her own big plans for the Potatoheads. She didn’t intend to exhibit them publicly until Bob Devin Jones, the Studio’s artistic director, made the suggestion. Now she’s creating reproductions of the largest works as smaller, affordable prints ($18-68 at potatoheads.net) and planning to design a toy for child cancer patients based on a Potatohead sculpture. A book about the project and an Indiegogo campaign are also in the works. Strano plans to donate a portion of the proceeds to the Cancer Center at St. Anthony’s Hospital, where she was treated.

“It’s rewarding because from something so terrible and painful, something so nice and playful came,” Strano says.

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