Driving home from an Arizona parrot rescue with my newly adopted Senegal, I received The Call. “Ms. Chappell? Do you have a minute? I have your results. Over half your samples were cancerous. You have breast cancer.” The nurse rattled off numbers and acronyms. I only had a red crayon to take notes (one of those restaurant crayons parents find left over in the car). From that moment, my parrot Zoe became synonymous with breast cancer. He helped me when I felt isolated in my fear and pain. He became the subject of my children’s book, Little Green Monster: Cancer Magic! which our non-profit Well Beings Studio donates to families impacted by cancer.

During cancer, I healed through writing, art-making, movement and being with my bird. I learned how art therapy and support animals share common benefits. The arts and animals both:

  • Help sensory regulation
  • Decrease self-harming behaviors
  • Help us focus on process over product
  • Act as communication facilitators

In this blog, I focus on the power of animals in our lives, and how we can explore this power during the stay-at-home isolation of COVID-19.

Three Animals: Seeing Ourselves

Throughout history and around the world, people have bonded with animals, and identified with their strengths. We turn to animals for explanations and meaning. Human compassion for animals is a strong theme in folklore. (My YouTube search for “animal multicultural folklore” turned up dozens of beautifully animated stories.)

Counselor Dr. Stangline suggests an activity in which we draw, paint, or otherwise create three animals: one animal representing how others see us, one animal for how we see ourselves, and a third animal for how we want to see ourselves. Talk about the animals we identify with and why. Talk about how our animals choices might shift throughout a day or over several days depending on how we feel.

Three Little Birds: Meaning in Song

Animals Have Magic, by Sharon Chappell. 2018.

Music helps us focus our breathing and thinking through rhythm, imagery and mood. We can write songs, sing and dance to them, and create visual art to accompany the song’s lyrics and sound. We can clap and use everyday objects for drumming.

Three Little Birds, Art Journal Spread. Christine Baldwin. 2020

Animals in Nature Treasure Hunt

We love to look for hidden treasures on our neighborhood walks and hikes. Take breaks from being indoors, and explore your local wildlife. Draw pictures, move like the plants and animals you see, and take photographs. Remember to stop and take breaths as you listen.

Here are some nature photography tips from the National Wildlife Federation :

  • Learn how local animals behave as you take a walk.
  • Learn to observe. Use the senses to really see nature.
  • Get down to the critters’ level.
  • Focus on a spectacular detail.
  • Take in the whole scene.
  • Notice how light changes your surroundings and photos.

Featured Artist: Darleese Brown

Creating animals connects us with the world and helps us find our strengths. We can use lots of different art mediums to explore the characteristics of animals. California artist and bird expert Darleese says, “I’ve been crocheting since I was 10 years old.” Now she is making plushies for the children’s story, Scoops of Joy, in production at our non profit, Well Beings Studio.

@handmade_with_love_by_darleese

Just for Teens: Coping with Grief and Loss

Life is really complicated. Sometimes we lose something or someone we love. And we grieve over that loss. Your thoughts and feelings are important. Having a range of emotions is very normal. You may feel overwhelmed or you may feel numb. Everyone processes these hard feelings in their own way. Please find a trusted adult to share your feelings with. They will help you find the support you need.

Using the arts and turning to animals are also strong strategies for coping with grief and loss. You may want to draw, look at photos, journal, create a place of honor for the one you lost. You may feel better after looking at cute cat videos, or reading an animal story. It may time time. See thee resources below for more help.

Losing my horse. Sofia, age 17.

Resources

For workshops on arts and healing, check out the free UCLA Arts & Healing HOPE series online during April and May. Sign up here. Sessions include drumming, art, zumba, music and guided meditation for families.

Sharon Chappell, PhD, is the Executive and Artistic Director of Well Beings Studio. She is a teacher, breast cancer survivor, parent and artist. 

If you would like to contribute to this blog (family activities for emotional well-being, your thoughts on the arts and healing, your artwork), please contact us: sharon@wellbeings.studio

Mental health is important. If you need support, contact MentalHealth.gov. The US Health and Human Services Department will help you talk about your concerns, and connect you with resources, such as a therapist or hotline. You can also visit your local 211 website (in Orange County, CA ours is www.211oc.org). If you are in crisis, please dial 911.