FALMOUTH — Throughout her 30-year career as a fine-art painter, Erin McGee Ferrell has explored the intersection of art and healing. It’s never been the sole focus of her studio practice, but it’s always been there, sometimes far in the background and other times front and center.

It’s front and center again, and not just because of her recent diagnosis of and treatment for breast cancer. Ferrell, 46, dedicated nearly all her artistic energy in 2018 to art-therapy projects and research, culminating with the publication of an article this February in the Clinical Journal of Oncology Nursing on the effects on patients of live painting by an artist in a clinical setting.

In November, all her efforts to integrate art and healing came to bear in her own breast cancer diagnosis, treatment and recovery, which is ongoing.

“It was interesting to have the whole 2018 year being about me being a researcher and project coordinator working with cancer patients as an artist, and then my collaborative team became my doctors,” she said, surrounded by her colorful paintings and streaming morning light in her sunny Falmouth studio. “It’s a very different experience being an insider as a patient than swooping down as someone who thought she knew what was needed. It’s a totally different experience.”

Her interest in art therapy began with personal experiences in healthcare environments that she found aesthetically displeasing. Waiting rooms felt cold and stark. Doctor’s offices inspired tension, not relaxation. When a friend was hospitalized for breast cancer many years ago, Ferrell brought in several large watercolor paintings and taped them up in her hospital room to create a lively, vibrant space to remind her friend of an art gallery and create positive, healing energy.

McGee Ferrell with her cat, Milo, in her studio at home.

While balancing her career as a plein-air painter, Ferrell has become somewhat of an expert about the integration of art and health, speaking at conferences, publishing papers and pursuing projects to help advance her own understanding of her role as an artist in the healing process. Last year, she set up her easel in chemotherapy treatment rooms to give patients something other than their condition to focus on and think about, and worked with families of those who have died from cancer to create art projects inspired by happy memories.

Today, she navigates her own medical journey that began with her diagnosis in November, followed by a double-mastectomy in December and continues with five months of chemotherapy, which she is in the midst of now. She will follow that with two months of radiation and will have her ovaries removed in September.

As soon as she got home to Falmouth after her surgery, she began an art therapy project called the Pirate Crew Paper Doll Collection to help other women going through similar treatment. With names like Ms. Mastectomy and Ms. Chemotherapy, her paper dolls are designed to help patients navigate the challenges of surgery and recovery. She outfits her dolls with the things patients need to recover and heal with more comfort – a post-surgical bra, front-zipping clothes, an assortment of pillows and even a cowbell to ring for help. She worked with her friends at Hair Matters, a South Portland nonprofit organization that helps cancer patients feel better by outfitting them with appropriate hairpieces, to create wigs for the dolls.

She believes her dolls can help prepare patients for what to expect from surgery and guide them through the treatment and recovery process. Last week, she met her crowd-sourced fundraising goal of $10,000, which will enable her to move ahead with the project. She envisions creating a set of dolls that includes the clothes and accessories a patient will need, along with the tips, tricks and hacks that she learned to make her care and recovery more comfortable.

She will introduce her Pirate Crew Collection to the cancer-treatment world next March at the 2020 Breast Cancer Education Conference at the Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center at the University of Miami. She has been invited to speak about her project in the context of moving from the role of practicing art-therapy to accessing it as a patient. She has another invitation pending to present at a conference about cancer and art later in 2020. On Oct. 1, as part as breast cancer awareness month, Ferrell will present a pop-up event with the paper doll collection at Thompson’s Point in Portland, and she is in conversation with the creative team at Portland Ballet about creating a dance based on the collection.

Jill K. Sonke, director of the Center for Arts in Medicine at the University of Florida, said Ferrell brings a valuable and unique perspective to the cancer conversation, because of her expertise as an artist and her experience as a patient. Doctors can learn from her insights and benefit from her ability to express her feelings and ideas visually, Sonke said.

“What’s really extraordinary about Erin is that she is an exceptionally gifted artist. Her work is amazing. There is quite a high level of artistry and integrity to her work around arts and health. She has applied her work in a clinical setting and achieved quite an accomplishment related to both research and publication,” Sonke said.

“Weaving her own personal experience as a patient brings a level and depth to our world and to our field that is exceptional. We all have our health challenges. Erin is living her experiences and creating work as a professional around her lived experiences in a mindful way and with unique clarity. It has tremendous value to our field.”

At the time of her surgery, Ferrell’s doctor gave her a thick manual with all the information she would need, but Ferrell was overwhelmed by the emotion of her diagnosis. She compared receiving the diagnosis to “this sense of literally a football helmet was put on my head, almost like a concussion helmet associated with PTSD. When you get diagnosed, you get so much information that my brain could not process it. People would say, ‘Find your care team, get second opinions, research the best clinical trials.’ Literally, all I could do – my doctor gave me a number and I called it.”

She held up the manual. The cover is clean, the pages not creased. “I have not read one page of this. I was given it the day I was diagnosed and I still have not cracked the cover of it, because I could not handle it. What I needed, and what is not out there, was very dumbed-down information.”

McGee Ferrell holds up one of her paper dolls.

She began making paper dolls because her surgery prevented her from moving her arms above her shoulders or lifting anything weighing more than a pound. She couldn’t paint the way she was used to, so the paper dolls offered a chance to make art while working small. It was the first time she made paper dolls since moving as a youngster from her home in Kentucky to a new home in Seattle. It was an awkward time for her back then. She had a funny accent and didn’t know anyone. “I was in this new environment and didn’t have any friends,” she said. “Making dolls was a way of controlling things. I was in charge, and I made whole worlds.”

She envisions her doll kit as a breast-cancer education tool, to be given by surgeons or social workers to patients instead of or in addition to the thick, intimidating manual. The dolls could be given from a mother undergoing treatment to a child, to explain the process in simple terms. Or from one friend to another. Friends have good intentions, Ferrell said, but they often don’t know how to respond unless they’ve experienced cancer themselves.

“I got so many socks with pink ribbons and handmade hats and things that were not particularly helpful to me, and it’s because there is not a lot out there to give for support items. We need a human, palatable, digestible way to talk about the complexities of treatment, for patients to have a clear, visual laundry list of what they need to buy and what they are facing,” she said.

Ferrell with some of her paper dolls in her studio in Falmouth.

As Ferrell sees her work, she is translating a complicated medical manual into a simple visual aid. That’s the work of an artist, she said, to distill information and ideas into a visual language that people can understand on their own terms.

Somehow, this year looks like it will be as busy as last year for Ferrell and her art, and this year she is dealing with the added stress, mentally and physically, of ongoing chemotherapy and radiation and more surgery in the fall. If the prospects are daunting, Ferrell hides them well.

She just delivered two large-scale oil paintings, based on Biblical stories and her religious upbringing, to her Portland gallery, Venn + Maker on Washington Avenue, where she shows a range of her work, large and small. Ferrell has made a 30-year career painting on the streets of Philadelphia, where she lived before moving to Maine, and of Portland. She also shows abstract paintings in the gallery, and now this new Biblical work that was partly inspired her grandparents’ work as missionaries and her husband’s work as an Episcopal priest.

Ferrell’s commitment as an artist impressed Venn + Maker curator Erica Gammon before Ferrell became sick. Her commitment since then is even more impressive, she said.

“I appreciate that she is not too precious about anything. She just has to do it,” Gammon said. “I love how she has always been so energetic. If we could all have a dose of what Erin has to keep working, we would all be incredible. She is always finding the next thing, always reinventing herself.”

Whatever happens with her paper doll project, Ferrell wants to move forward with her other work simultaneously. She will not let cancer define her life or her career. Her oil paintings are collected nationally, privately and in public and corporate collections. Former professional hockey player Kimmo Timonen and America’s Cup winner  Robert James Gale are among her collectors. Taking a year off from her fine-art career because of her illness frustrates her. “This feels like such a year on hold,” she said.

On this sunny day, Ferrell moves easily around her studio showing off her work. Below a bank of windows she has taped up a scroll of paper with a series of lines that indicate the up-and-down journey of chemotherapy, like being on a roller coaster or climbing a mountain. The mural oozes a sense of cancer. There are drawings of nipples and breasts and scary-looking scars, and images of cairns that serve as treatment bench posts along the way.

And here and there, she has added big red strawberries, “just because I wanted to.”

Bob Keyes can be contacted at (207) 791-6457 or:

[email protected]

Twitter: pphkeyes

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