Healing gallery

Can fine art help mitigate physical pain? A free Crocker program aims to find out

Robert Farrimond, Sue Hobbs and Kimberly Smith all participate in Art Rx as part of their chronic pain management.

Robert Farrimond, Sue Hobbs and Kimberly Smith all participate in Art Rx as part of their chronic pain management.

Photo by Kate Gonzales

The next Art Rx tour is scheduled for 11 a.m. Saturday, July 14. Contact Erin Dorn at education@crockerart.org to RSVP or register online at crockerart.org.

It’s Talia’s first time at the Crocker Art Museum, and she seems unaware that it’s considered impolite to sniff a security guard’s shoes. But nobody seems to mind. In fact, the people riding the large elevator to the second story are intrigued by the husky-German shepherd mix, the newest addition to their group.

“I feel very lucky to have her in my life,” Kimberly Smith tells them.

Nine guests, a couple of docents and the service dog make up this late May session of Art Rx, a bimonthly program that invites people experiencing chronic pain on a group tour. Guests make stops at three or so pieces, spending time with each one as the docent facilitates conversation. It’s open to friends and family of people with chronic pain, as well as end-of-life caregivers, for free.

“It’s all designed around making it comfortable, welcoming, easy and fun,” said Erin Dorn, adult education and art access coordinator at the Crocker. In fall 2014, she teamed up with Ian Koebner, an assistant professor and director of the integrative pain management program at UC Davis, which explores non-pharmaceutical, evidence-based approaches to managing chronic pain. Art Rx began as a study within that program to assess whether an art museum visit can help mitigate pain. It falls under the Crocker’s Access Art program, which includes an Artful Meditation class that is held in alternating months with Art Rx.

“This program is one kind of innovative expression of a new approach to pain management,” Koebner said. He led a mixed-methods study that included interviews with health-care professionals, museum docents and staff and those with chronic pain. Participants were surveyed about their levels of pain before and after the tour.

“I’m certainly not suggesting that going to a museum is going to make everybody’s pain go away,” Koebner said. “We’re exploring if it can reduce the burden in significant ways.”

For Smith, Art Rx made it physically possible for her to visit the Crocker after a hiatus.

“I had not been coming to the museum for a while because I have vertigo and I just can’t really manage to be here with people moving around me,” Smith said. “But sitting, that changes the scenario.”

Chairs are always set out in front of the individual works they’ll examine. This tour featured a temporary exhibit of works by Faith Ringgold, an African-American multimedia artist known for creating quilts that tell a story, as well as her feminist and anti-racist worldview.

The group spends about 20 minutes at two mock-ups for the quilt “We Came to America,” which depicts dozens of African-Americans swimming toward the Statue of Liberty from a ship burning in the ocean. Folks disagree over whether this particular image shows any sign of hope. Tour guide Nancy Hampton repeats each point so everyone in the group can hear it, reflect and have the chance to respond.

“All you have to do is say what you observed and that’s treated every bit as valid as an in-depth understanding of technique,” Smith said. “The docents manage to maintain that feeling in the group and I think that’s really important.”

“Every time we do this there is somebody who knows something really pertinent to what we’re looking at,” said Sue Hobbs, who attends most sessions with her husband. “Everybody has different views and it’s very enriching.”

The social component is vital to the study, as well as the patients.

This study asks, “if you help people have an easier time socially engaging, will that actually be analgesic? Will that actually decrease [the] pain?” Koebner said.

The results of the study won’t be published until late summer or early fall, but anecdotally, those who have joined the tour have experienced some relief.

“It’s wonderful to come here for an hour and just get outside of your body and enjoy art,” Hobbs said. “It isn’t about the pain. The pain is what brings us here … but we’re here to enjoy the art.