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A picture of health

| Date Posted: 1/14/2015

By Kay Grismer

for The Foundation of FirstHealth

(The story originally appeared in the January issue of Pinehurst Magazine)

You’re sitting in the exam room waiting for your doctor. Your pulse is racing. Your blood pressure is going up by the minute. As you look around, your eyes come to rest on a beautiful painting of a mountain stream running through sun-dappled woods. Within moments, your stress and anxiety begin to subside.

You’ve just experienced the “healing power of art.”

A rich and growing body of research shows that art has a powerful therapeutic effect. Patients and caregivers who are exposed to art are acknowledged as being more optimistic and hopeful. They experience less boredom, anxiety and loneliness; are better able to let go of fears and tension; and are less stressful and feel less pain. They also respond better to treatment since a less stressed body is better able to heal than a tense one.

“For every day a patient lies in a hospital bed, it takes roughly three days to achieve his or her previous level of functioning,” says Dr. Lisa Harris, an internist and chief executive of Eskenzi Health, an affiliate of the Indiana University School of Medicine. “If an art installation gets a patient out of his room or paintings take a person’s mind off their pain and lower their stress levels, the art isn’t just decorative anymore. It’s part of the entire model of care.”

While hospitals are becoming “mini-museums,” museums are, in turn, becoming “places of healing.” Research has shown that museums can be restorative environments – places where people go to relax, recharge, and boost their mental and physical well-being.

As British philosopher Alain de Botton said, “Art museums should act in our times as cathedrals once did: places to heal one’s soul.”

In the second of three lectures in the “Health, Healing and The Humanities” series presented by the Clara McLean Advisory Council and The Foundation of FirstHealth, John Coffey, deputy director of art and curator of American and Modern Art at the North Carolina Museum of Art, will present “Curator’s Choice,” 10 of his favorite works that embody the “healing power of art.” The program is scheduled for Wednesday, Feb. 4, at 5 p.m. at the Country Club of North Carolina.

A Raleigh native, Coffey studied art and history at Broughton High School and graduated Phi Beta Kappa from UNC-Chapel Hill with a Bachelor of Arts in history and art history in 1976. He earned his Master’s degree in art from Williams College in Williamstown, Mass., two years later.

Coffey was assistant to the director and then acting director at Williams College Museum of Art before becoming curator of collections at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art in Brunswick, Maine, in 1980.  He returned home in 1988 as curator of American and Modern Art at the N.C. Museum of Art. Five years later, he was made chief curator, a position he held until 2001, when he became deputy director for art and curator of American and Modern Art.

Coffey has overseen the development of the museum’s collections of American and Modern Art, as well as its “exquisite assemblage of Jewish ceremonial art,” one of just two permanent Judaica collections belonging to public museums in the U.S. He is the collection’s curator as well as staff liaison to the Friends of the Judaic Art Gallery. He also serves as an adjunct associate professor at UNC-Chapel Hill.

One of Coffey’s favorite works, with its poignant story of loss and healing, is “Sir William Pepperrell and His Family” by John Singleton Copley. Pepperrell was married to Elizabeth Royall, daughter of one of the wealthiest men in British America. During the turbulent years leading up to the American Revolution, Pepperrell remained steadfastly loyal to the British Crown. Fearing mob violence and the wholesale confiscation of his property, he sailed from Boston with his family toward an uncertain exile in London.

Soon after arriving in 1775, Pepperrell commissioned Copley, the preeminent portrait painter in the “Provincial outpost of the British Empire” before he moved to London, to paint a family portrait – a happy domestic scene of Sir William, his wife, their three daughters and newborn son.

But, as Coffey explains, it was an “elaborate fiction, perpetrated by client and artist to make an unacceptable reality.” The Pepperrells were not English gentry, but exiles, bereft of country and much of their fortune. Moreover, Elizabeth had died in Boston two years before the portrait was painted. For the 30-year-old widower and his children, “Copley offered a comforting vision of what might have been, had not war and death come knocking.”

“But I still breathe,” William wrote to his mother. “Love I never can again, till my soul is re-wedded to that of my dear Betsy’s in the Joy of praising God forever.”

Pepperrell kept his word and never remarried.

Coffey describes the N.C. Museum’s new space, opened in 2010, as “ethereal, spiritual and calming … a great place to experience art.” The best way to experience this vast treasure trove is to slow down.  The average visitor spends 10 to 30 seconds in front of a work of art.

“The breathless pace of life in our Instagram age conspired to make that feel normal,” says James O. Pawelski, director of education for the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania. 

“Feel empowered to ‘curate’ your own experience,” Pawelski advises. “Find a piece of art that speaks to you and observe it for minutes rather than seconds – you are more likely to connect with the art. What happens is you actually begin to be able to see what you’re looking at. Project a lot of you and what is going on in your life at that moment into that painting. It can end up being a moment of self-discovery.”

Take the “curator’s cure.” You’ll be healthier – and happier – if you do.

To register for this complimentary program, call (910) 695-7510 or email by Jan. 28.

What: Health, Healing and The Humanities series Presented by the Clara McLean Advisory Council and The Foundation of FirstHealth
Speaker: John Coffey, deputy director of art and curator of American and Modern Art at the North Carolina Museum of Art
When: Wednesday, Feb. 4-5 p.m.
Where: Ballroom, Country Club of North Carolina

 To register, call (910) 695-7510 or email

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