Heidi Darr-Hope has been dealing with cancer for most of her life. At age 10, she lost her 6-year-old brother to brain cancer. That experience never left her. She then became an artist, achieving a masters in fine arts at the USC more than 40 years ago. Her art gradually provided a healing outlet — a way for her to process grief. She realized the restorative process could be offered to others. Twenty years ago, she birthed Healing Icons which offers creativity classes as a form of stress reduction for adult cancer patients. Their art workshops allow survivors to delve deeper into the creative process affording them the opportunity to create their own personal symbols of healing.
Heidi says that although her career changed over the years from teacher to social media marketer to event planner to traveling exhibition manager, her foundation has always been art. She has operated a studio on Lady Street for many years, and her work is on display at Carol Saunders Gallery on Gervais Street. Her father was a musician, and family members on both sides are artists of all types. “When I told my parents I wanted to be an artist, their response was, ‘Of course you do,’” she says.
Heidi’s personal artistic style involves water-based paints, mostly acrylics, as well as inks and pencils. In her studio — wall to wall and covering every available surface — are representations of her artistic abilities. Saturated, vibrant colors dominate. Her largest piece is 4 by 4 feet. When she gets together with cancer patients, Heidi guides them to use objects from nature, personal memorabilia, collage techniques and paint to create original artwork that results in mixed-media expressions symbolizing healing journeys.
Since 2009, Healing Icons has been a non-profit organization. Prior to that, however, the pilot program that was Heidi’s brainchild was — as she points out — serendipitously picked up by a local cancer center as a support program for patients. Those who enroll in Heidi’s art classes learn about Healing Icons through brochures, word-of-mouth, social media and medical or art community networking. Some cancer patients want to participate in Healing Icons while undergoing treatment, while others prefer to wait until months or even years afterward.
Heidi uses skills she gleaned teaching in middle schools and public schools to effectively communicate art to cancer patients. For several years, she was part of an artist-in-residency program and worked with students to make a collaborative piece that could be installed at the school. When patients attend a Healing Icons all-day Saturday class, a one-hour “lunch and learn,” or extended six or eight-week classes, they first do a free-writing exercise that liberates them to visualize a symbol or an image, or multiple symbols and images. “From there they get lost in the process and begin to see things,” she says. “Then they just go with it.”
Linda DeLeonardis, diagnosed with breast cancer at 49, did not have much of an art background when she took one of Heidi’s classes. Heidi directed students to work on a collage. The students first perused magazines, and Linda chose National Geographic. She became interested in the thought of fire consuming a tiger and leaving a lion alone. The theme was carried over into a second art project. “These two pieces and Heidi’s insight marked the beginning of my healing process and gently moved me forward,” says Linda. She began to think more about the art and less about the “troubling issues” associated with cancer.
Heidi says the predominant hurdle is that patients not familiar with the art process believe they lack talent or creativity. She tells them to trust the process. “I have to remind them that they’re learning a new language. There are no expectations of the end product. The end product is actually not as important as the process. Making art is a way to center one’s self. Most can’t believe so much time has gone by. They don’t think about the cancer or the pain while they are creating art.”
Heidi points to studies indicating that creative modalities reduce stress. Selena Brown can attest to that. She was undergoing treatment for breast cancer while taking care of her mother, who was recovering from triple-bypass surgery, when she decided to take Heidi’s classes. “I needed an outlet,” says Selena, who has loved art since childhood and felt the classes were a good fit.
Selena’s sister died of breast cancer, and her youngest daughter has undergone treatment for breast cancer. “Heidi’s gentle encouragement helped me put into words and art the feelings of fear and sorrow. I had watched my weight and exercised, and I thought I was healthy. However, I did not control the stress in my life. I began to realize through the classes that there is so much more to a person’s well-being. I had to get over the thought that I did something to cause the cancer — that I was no longer healthy and strong. Art as a healing exercise helps you relax in ways you don’t realize,” she says.
Both men and women 16 years and older attend Healing Icons classes. Selena’s daughter even attended classes. Creating art helps students communicate their illness to friends and family, Heidi explains. “These people are incredible, courageous and resilient. They have a zest, an appreciation, for life. They have to be able to face death and not be afraid of it. They’re always so amazing and inspiring to me.”
Selena points out, “Art makes you open up, release the tears you don’t cry, the fear and the apprehension about treatment. Heidi is an excellent teacher, sensitive, compassionate and is skilled in working with people. She has walked in our shoes because of her brother and can truly show empathy.”
Even though some have lost battles with cancer, many have survived to discover a “mysterious visual language” that comforts and provides solace. This past year, Heidi was honored to be asked to speak at a former student’s memorial service. She and other patients created a 6-foot round memorial piece that guests at the memorial service added to. Scarves, herbs, seashells, candles and flowers were just some of the items that made up the artistic tabletop display.
Linda says she has made lifelong friends through Healing Icons. She has branched out and even taken clay and watercolor classes. She says cancer is not just about physical healing, but emotional healing as well — and Heidi helps people with the latter.
An ongoing Healing Icons traveling exhibit has been showcasing at least 40 color reproductions of artwork produced during the art classes. The exhibit has been shown in medical venues, insurance offices and galleries throughout the United States for 15 years. However, Heidi says the exhibit is expanding to include some of the original work by cancer patients and students. “Everyone knows someone who has or has had cancer,” she says.
Heidi wants to make sure those with cancer know about Healing Icons as one way to deal with a difficult time. Donations to the non-profit organization result in primarily free classes to cancer patients. Yet, she is also developing an online workshop series called Courageous Creating that anyone around the globe can take, for a nominal fee. This will launch in October when Healing Icons will celebrate its 20th anniversary with a fundraiser to coincide with Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
Instead of considering cancer in light of the sadness she felt when her brother died, Heidi communicates through Healing Icons that art as an emotional outlet is very powerful. “To share what I love with others is to give and receive a gift,” Heidi says.