The Healing Power of Art

By Rabbi Julie Wolkoff. D.Min., CT

The day before Bob died, I was taking a quilt class. I was making one of the teacher’s patterns – I wanted to learn the technique and I wasn’t really interested in creating my own design. I came home with a small, almost finished piece. I had just the smallest bit of the binding still to stitch. But when I got home, Bob wasn’t feeling well and wanted me to take him to the ER. He looked at the quilt – a chair on the beach and asked, “Is that St. Martin?” One of the very last things he said to me, looking at the quilt, was “That’s cute.” It was his often said, positive response to my art projects.

My sewing machine and supplies sat in my car for another two weeks. Then they sat, untouched, in my house. My colored pencils and sketchbooks remained in their tote bag as I missed the last session in a class I was taking on drawing flowers. In the face of loss, I could barely contemplate getting through the day. There was no way I could do anything even remotely artistic. It was almost a month after Bob died when I started taking pictures again. I didn’t even use the digital Nikon he had bought me (us) a year earlier. I took my phone and tried, each day, to find something beautiful or meaningful to me. I had no words to share, but I could share images that reflected some of my emotions. Though the summer, I attended a bereavement support group and I took pictures. I had a structured journal and I was writing – raw words, words I haven’t looked back at, words that poured out my feelings – but it was in looking for beauty every day that I saw the good during my bad days.

Then after two months, I picked up my knitting. I didn’t have to think. There were patterns to follow. Muscle memory led me through and the meditative qualities of the work helped calm my raging mind. I figured out that patterns and prompts helped me. Rather than looking at a blank sheet of paper, they gave me a place to start. The result might reflect grief, or joy, or healing, or confusion, but there was a result. My goal was to not over-think, but to react and respond.


“Passing Through” Mandala

I explored self-discovery through mandalas. I didn’t do every prompt, but the ones I did do helped me. I used the mandala format to finish a sketchbook from The Sketchbook Project that I had bought last year and had planned to do last summer. I took a month-long on-line writing workshop. The daily prompts were not always interesting to me, but I wrote. Several times during the month, I responded to the prompt, then turned it around and wrote the opposite. Some of what I wrote ended up in a “Fiction Project” book and was sent off to the Brooklyn Art Library, a wonderful crowd-sourced library of sketchbooks, fiction, prints, photos, and other art. (You can find me on their site as “RavJulie.”)

Finally, I went back to my sewing machine. I had baby quilts that needed making. In addition, I had gone to the first meeting of my quilt guild last fall and signed up to take workshops. I didn’t even have my checkbook that night, but one of my friends had hers and she had one check left. She wrote the check so I could sign up.

A few weeks ago I was at one of the workshops. It was taught by Valerie Goodwin – an amazing quilter and teacher. (If you only click on one link in this posting, click on hers!) Her quilts combine art, maps, and architecture. The class was on”Haiku Quilts.” We each wrote a haiku (or several) that related to a place. We shared them with each other and then did small sketches based on a haiku. Finally, we each made a small quilt of our haiku as Valerie taught us her techniques.

I had been focused on ordering Bob’s grave marker and yahrzeit plaque, so perhaps it was no surprise that my first haiku reflected that. I wrote (and sketched) some others, but everyone in the class felt the first was the most powerful. It was challenging. It was cathartic.


cemetery paths
markers row by row – family
together again

It was, I think, the first in a series.

More than that, it was another reminder for me that art heals. Whether writing, painting, sketching, taking photographs, creating collages, knitting, quilting, or doing any number of other creative pursuits, art has been a source of healing for me and for many others. 



Rabbi Julie Wolkoff, D.Min., CT, is a hospice chaplain in Massachusetts and a past co-president of the WRN. Find her blogging at:










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About wallcough

Trying to find beauty and joy in the world around me . I am many things, among them a quilter, a knitter, and an incessant reader. There is not enough time for them all, so I jump in between them as the mood hits me. Professionally - a rabbi; a hospice chaplain.

One thought on “The Healing Power of Art

  1. Beautiful posting, reading it on Shabbat in Tel Aviv. Inspires me to learn more ways to use my hands for creativity and comfort. Intimidated by your multiple talents. Where to begin?

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