Art therapy with coma patients
The artist: Bernhard Cociancig
Bernhard Cociancig is an inspiring man and artist on a mission. After a 40-year long career in the petroleum industry, he took on official art studies at the Vienna School of Fine Art. His objective with his art is to communicate a message of social responsibility and environmental awareness. But for the purpose of this blog, our focus is on how Bernhard gives back to society by ways of donating his expertise and time to art in healthcare; Bernhard provides art therapy. In this capacity, he makes a difference in the lives of patients with a variety of illnesses; from severe brain damage to MS, and addictions.
Ever since I first met Bernhard, I had indicated interest to sit in on a therapy session with patients effected by severe brain damage and living in a persistent vegetative state. He arranged just that for me when I met him in Vienna this Spring.
Excited about what’s to come, Bernhard and I drive to the Haus der Barmherzigkeit in Vienna. I am about to witness a remarkable art therapy session.
When we arrive at the therapy location, Bernhard’s audience is already waiting. Eight patients, situated around a make-shift easel. A full house! Some are in a wheelchair, others in a bed. But without exception, they are carefully positioned around the easel. Enabling them to witness the creation of the artwork of the day.
A remarkable art therapy session
The session takes place in an open courtyard within the hospital. Nurses, visitors, everybody is in an upbeat mood. Sunshine enters the room, softly shielded by a rainbow-colored sheer curtain. The radio is on, playing 80’s music, and a busy nurse station is located nearby. It makes for a lively scene around a mostly silent audience.
Bernhard prepares his workspace and takes out a canvas. He puts down a quick sketch, and paint is poured. As he starts shaping up the initial composition and base layer, the patients are off and on more or less alert or seemingly asleep.
They receive their care, medications, and food. One patient, who is able to eat by mouth is hand-fed a typical Austrian dessert of “knödeln mit erdbeer saus”. Care is lovingly provided by individually appointed nurses. A visitor who entered the room is now caressing the hand of one of the patients. Her son? All while Bernhard is painting along and a Portuguese landscape is appearing.
Time passes and as the painting slowly becomes a recognizable scene, one of the patients seems to watch with increased interest. There is a change in her energy somehow: where her head was tilted backward before, it is now more upright. The moments where she is awake, she seems concentrated on Bernhard’s work.
About two hours later, the painting is completed and Bernhard starts to clean his brushes. All but one or two patients seem to have dozed off. The atmosphere in the room shifted to almost serene.
Healing power of art
I have just witnessed an example of the subtle yet undeniable healing power of art in healthcare. What an experience. Thank you, Bernhard and the wonderful staff at the Haus der Barmherzigkeit, for the difference you make in the lives of these patients and their families.
“Midday Heat” by Bernhard Cociancig
Feature image with this blog is “Midday Heat” by Bernard Cociancig, as it was created during the therapy session described above. Bernhard donates all works produced during the therapy sessions and they remain on the walls at the Haus der Barmherzigkeit in Vienna.