Photo by Lauren Honeycutt / Nevada Sagebrush

By Lauren Huneycutt

early two years ago with the stroke of a paintbrush, a glass of red wine and a strong sense of curiosity, Sharon DeMattia painted a unique self-portrait that turned into something more. It led to her nonprofit and soon-to-be business, Art Inside Me.

“When you do it, you get into a sort of meditative state, and your mind wanders,” DeMattia said. “I had no idea this project I did with my kids and for myself would turn into something like this.”

THE STORY 

Art Inside Me is a visual healing arts program DeMattia has developed with the help of a private investor, the Healing Arts Program for Renown Medical Center, her kids and outside participants.

“If you were a blank canvas and I drew your outline on it, how would you tell your story?” DeMattia said. “Welcome to the Art Inside Me project.”

DeMattia supplies participants with paint, markers and a canvas that has a black outline of a person and a heart painted in the proper place. By telling her story she helps participants think of their personal struggles and really examine who they are in hoping it will translate into art on their canvas.

After DeMattia was laid off from her job and gave up all of her possessions during a painful divorce, she took time to rediscover who she was. Three Iron Man triathlons, a trip to Burning Man and countless Art Inside Me activities later, DeMattia was presenting her idea at One Million Cups, an event that helps entrepreneurs-to-be.

“They helped me figure out the business side to Art Inside Me, which will launch in less than a week,” DeMattia said. “Last year my total income was $6,500 because I didn’t have a real job. I had offers for another job in health care, which is what I had always done, but I knew in my heart this project was important, and I had to stick with it.”

DeMattia took it upon herself to get the project moving. She went out into the Reno community, brought doughnuts and coffee to the river and did the project with the homeless.

She has done the project with first and sixth graders, college students, recovering drug addicts, abused women, cancer patients, engineers and businessmen and women.

“It’s obviously different when you do the art with children versus adults,” DeMattia said, “but what I have found is this project allows the person, no matter who they are, to see what they truly think of themselves, whether it is what they believe, or what they have been told by others over time.”

The self-portraits are all one-of-a-kind. Some are colorful and others black and white. Some are a beautiful mess and others are organized like a flow chart.

DeMattia’s use of social media led Annie Zucker, the Healing Arts Director at Renown, to the Art Inside Me Facebook page and website.

“I read her story and about her program and felt like what she was doing really encapsulated and identified exactly what anybody going through a life change or personal discovery would really benefit from,” Zucker said.

THE SCIENCE 

A case study conducted in 2010, which focused on visual art and music therapy done on medical patients, indicated that these therapies lower anxiety and blood pressure. These results were mirrored in a study Renown Medical Center conducted in 2013 called Music to My Ears: The Power of Music Therapy.

The positive benefits of visual arts therapies was apparent in both of the case studies, but were most drastic for females battling cancer.

The results showed that, “Engaging in different types of visual art helped these women in four major ways.

“First, it helped them focus on positive life experiences, relieving their ongoing preoccupation with cancer.

“Second, it enhanced their self-worth and identity by providing them with opportunities to demonstrate continuity, challenge, and achievement.

“Third, it enabled them to maintain a social identity that resisted being defined by cancer.

“Finally, it allowed them to express their feelings in a symbolic manner, especially during chemotherapy.”

It is because of results like these that Renown continues to implement the Healing Arts Program.

HOSPITAL REASSURANCE 

When DeMattia worked with Renown’s program, she did the Art Inside Me project with pediatric and chronic disease patients, but mostly with breast cancer patients.

The outcome of the paintings, the stories told by the women and their eagerness to participate, surprised and inspired DeMattia.

“I think it was when she did all these projects at the hospital, she realized the importance of her project,” Zucker said. “Art Inside Me is a great self discovery project and can benefit anyone who needs to start a conversation with themselves.”

Zucker continues to implement DeMattia’s program for patients she believes will benefit from it. Zucker also runs the music and pet healing programs Renown offers.

“As a hospital, all the patients know we are here to help their physical needs,” Zucker said. “But we have to be there for their emotional and holistic needs as well, and the art programs do that. They help the patients feel better in general and are usually a conversation starter with the nurses and hospital staff, so the patients feel more comfortable and cared for.”

For some hospital patients, this artistic personal project is the best jump-start to feeling like themselves again.

“The coolest thing about therapies like these is that artists and musicians are getting to use their talent and expertise as a gift that brings meaning to other people’s lives,” Zucker said. “Art and music should not be used as a secondary option.”

DeMattia continues her work on Art Inside Me and remains patient as it builds as a business and nonprofit.

“This project is good for your soul,” DeMattia said. “Opening up and becoming vulnerable is a good thing sometimes. This project shows a person where they are in their life. If you do a portrait quarterly throughout the year, I guarantee each one is drastically different.”

Lauren Huneycutt can be reached at lhuneycutt@sagebrush.unr.edu.