The arts' role in healing

Workshops offer valuable therapy for cancer patients, others

Elif Akcali, an engineering professor and artist, shows how to make an origami crane at the UF Health Cancer Center on Thursday in Gainesville. The event was part of the Arts in Medicine Program.

Matt Stamey/Staff photographer
Published: Saturday, September 14, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, September 13, 2013 at 6:35 p.m.

Every time Elif Akcali makes a paper crane, she gets a lump in her throat.

For the fine artist and University of Florida engineering professor, folding the cranes into being began as an act of memorializing lost loved ones in her native Turkey.

"In Turkey, when somebody dies, we pray 40 times," Akcali said, recalling a moment of loss last year. "I don't pray, so I thought that I could make 40 paper cranes instead."

She got the idea looking at a mobile of paper cranes that a little girl next door to her in Gainesville had made for her out of sympathy for one particular loss that was especially difficult on Akcali.

"As soon as she walked in, I had tears in my eyes," Akcali said. "It's a lot of work for an 11-year-old girl to fold 40 paper cranes."

Nowadays, Akcali folds an average of 54 cranes each day — often at night, after days of teaching college students industrial engineering. As she folds away — at a clip of about a minute and a half per crane — she listens to the Dvorak symphonies or the Chopin Nocturnes.

"The act itself (of folding cranes) is a meditation. It's very soulful," Akcali said.

The arts accomplish many things, and healing is one of those, Akcali said.

Akcali was transmitting that message Thursday evening to members of an art therapy workshop at UF Health Shands Cancer Hospital, where she helped about a dozen people — including her own students and a cancer patient — turn squares of colored banana paper into delicate paper cranes.

The workshop was part of a series of weekly arts and writing workshops held at the cancer hospital and is aimed at cancer patients, survivors and caregivers. Funded by a grant from the Livestrong Foundation, Shands artist-in-residence Dylan Klempner coordinates the workshops and invites local artists in to conduct them.

"Cancer is the thing that we are all mindful of, but when we walk through that door, I want people to focus on the activity at hand," Klempner said.

And notably on Thursday, the word "cancer" didn't come up during the workshop.

Afterward, participant Liz Kinley, a breast cancer patient who recently finished her last treatment and is on the road to recovery, said she found the workshop challenging because of the level of concentration involved in making 24 folds into a finished crane.

"It was hard because I have no memory," Kinley said, explaining that she has a bit of "chemo brain," a condition in which chemotherapy drugs affect patients' cognition.

But she left smiling and with two cranes in hand and said she'd like to come back for other workshops.

For participant Rachel Roman, the workshop was an opportunity to experience it before she possibly teaches her own in poetry in medicine. The Masters of Fine Arts graduate in poetry is about to intern with Shands' Arts in Medicine program, the umbrella program for the workshop and several other arts initiatives.

"I would like to engage all types of patients," Roman said. "So I am looking at everything from kids' stuff like poetry coloring books to poetry out loud."

Roman learned about the Arts in Medicine program the same way Klempner did: through a PBS documentary filmed at Shands in 2008 called "Healing Words: Poetry and Medicine." The film tells the stories of patients whose lives were dramatically changed by incorporating poetry into their recovery process.

"I couldn't get the film out of my mind," said Klempner, who holds two MFAs — in fine arts and non-fiction writing — and hails from an artistic family who also has been affected by cancer.

Thinking about his own artistic process, Klempner said he wanted to find a way to unhinge artistic expression from the ego, so he began studying Asian cultures, where the arts have a healing role.

That exploration led him to the Shands Arts in Medicine program, one of several around the country that strive to help patients heal through the arts.

"When you come to the hospital, we take away your clothes; we tell you when to eat, take your medications, draw your blood, when you can have visitors. You give yourself over to an uncomfortable situation because you want your body to be cured," Klempner said. "What better than an artist, who is not committed to your medical outcome, to help you on a creative journey?"

For more information on the workshops:

Contact Kristine Crane at 338-3119 or

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