Imagining Wholeness uplifts experiences of cancer and community through the expressive arts

A pencil with a lightbulb in the spot of an eraser shows hands holding a heart -

All are welcome to the Curb Center for the opening reception of Imagining Wholeness: Expressive Art and Well-Being on Thursday, May 23, 4:30–6:30 pm. Imagining Wholeness, the Curb Center’s latest exhibition, showcases works of visual art and creative writing by members of the Nashville community whose lives have been touched by cancer. Through collage, painting, poetry and prose, each piece offers a unique, personal glimpse into the experience of living with cancer as a patient or as a caregiver to a companion and an invitation to practice empathy for those coping with a life-changing diagnosis. Imagining Wholeness is a culminating showcase of works of expressive art created by participants in the Express Yourself writing workshops at Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center and in visual art workshops hosted collaboratively by the Curb Center and Gilda’s Club Middle Tennessee.  

Imagining Wholeness has emerged from both long-standing and new partnerships with the Curb Center. Since September 2009, the Curb Center has partnered with Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center to offer creative writing workshops for patients and their family members. Julie Bulger, manager of patient and family-centered care at VICC, connects patients and families with specialized support resources that help them navigate a diagnosis, including Express Yourself, the expressive writing program. “Nobody expects nor feels good about having cancer or loving someone with cancer,” Bulger remarked. “For many, having an opportunity to express how they feel about their life after a diagnosis is vital.”

This year, Kate Daniels, renowned poet and Edwin Mims Professor of English Emerita at Vanderbilt, facilitated the Express Yourself workshops at VICC. In addition to her work as a poet, Daniels brings a background in the medical humanities field and in leading expressive writing workshops for communities of people facing complex challenges. She traces her passion for and comfort with working with people experiencing health issues to her work as a nurse’s aide at the University of Virginia hospital while in college. This job that she took because of economic necessity would become one that shaped her trajectory as a writer, teacher and person.  

When facilitating Express Yourself workshops, Daniels and her participants often reference a quote from novelist E.M. Forster: “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?” Daniels says that, through writing, “that is what participants are doing—both in solitude alone with themselves, and in community with each other: finding out and then exploring what they really think and feel about the cancer that has befallen them or their loved one.” Participants have externalized their experiences through written responses to themes and prompts posed in the workshops, ranging from resilience to self-compassion to overcoming chaos. Workshopped into poems or short pieces of prose, these writings will be displayed in Imagining Wholeness. 

Imagining Wholeness will also exhibit works of visual art created in workshops co-hosted with Gilda’s Club Middle Tennessee, the Nashville chapter of the national nonprofit that provides free support services to people impacted by cancer. David Wilson, who in addition to serving as the Curb Center’s program coordinator brings decades of experience as an art professor, educator and exhibition curator, led a series of artmaking workshops for Gilda’s Club constituents at the Curb Center. Wilson, along with Megan Forshey, LCSW, program manager at Gilda’s Club Middle Tennessee, crafted a series of studio sessions designed to facilitate connection among participants around shared experiences through making art together. “It’s virtually impossible to escape how cancer indiscriminately interrupts our lives either directly and indirectly,” Wilson said. “As a survivor, designing the art workshops and exhibition with Gilda’s Club Middle Tennessee was personally meaningful and necessary. Artistic expression provides individual empowerment over this ‘intruder,’ and I hope our workshops help build a healing community to enrich our well-being.” 

In addition to in-person and virtual support groups, gentle movement workshops, and educational sessions with oncology professionals, opportunities to make art together are a core component of the support that Gilda’s Club Middle Tennessee offers its community. Some Gilda’s Club community members already know they enjoy making art and seek the opportunity to do so surrounded by others who understand the impact of a diagnosis; others walk through the door insisting they don’t have artistic talent. “Moments when we’re able to confound those thoughts and expectations people have about themselves are wonderful examples of why artistic process and engaging in partnerships like this are invaluable,” Forshey said. “We all learn that the finished product is not the most meaningful part of that process. Opening ourselves to a new experience often results in finding rich community in an unlikely place, sometimes not in ideal circumstances. The creation of that community is what sustains us.” 

Imagining Wholeness marks a new milestone for the Curb Center’s longtime involvement in the medical humanities. “Making art invites us to create something out of our life experiences and bring order to events that can be painful, chaotic and frightening,” says Leah Lowe, director of the Curb Center. “I’ve always believed that creative action affords us agency and broadened perspectives, and my hope is that this programming allows participants time and space to process experiences, make something that pleases them, and fosters a sense of community.”  

The opening reception on May 23 will be a celebration of the healing power of creating in community and will feature refreshments and live music. Free parking will be available near the Curb Center in lots 80, 82 and 122. For event details, parking information and to RSVP, please visit the event link. Contact Rachel Thompson with questions.