Art goes to the dogs


New exhibit features free art therapy, plus dogs

Dogs and art don’t often go together, unless they’re playing poker. But a new program at the U of A Hospital is using both to brighten the lives of patients.

The McMullen Gallery at the University of Alberta Hospital in Edmonton is now hosting Songs of the Soul – a series of surrealistic paintings by St. Albert Painters Guild member Father Douglas.

The exhibit features about 33 paintings, each of which depicts a different poem from William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience.

The poems in question reflect on how the innocence of childhood is replaced by the experience of life, Douglas says.

“People are supposed to grow up, and adults that remain innocent become targets for those who have become very experienced,” he says.

Dogs aren’t like that. “As they get older, they learn and become more experienced, but still they remain innocent.”

That, plus the fact that he likes them, is why they feature so prominently in this show. Each painting in the exhibit has one or more dogs in it, as well as cats, birds, skulls, floating candies, and other oddities.

As part of the show, Douglas is also holding free art classes every Thursday for visitors to the gallery.

The gallery has long had its feature artists run free lessons to improve patient and visitor health through art therapy, says gallery manager Tyler Sherard. Many studies have shown that creative activities have positive effects on blood pressure and pain perception, he noted.

When Sherard learned about the nature of Douglas’s work, he got the idea to bring in some of the pet therapy dogs already used at the hospital to serve as live models.

“It’s so much better to draw from life than to paint from a photo.”

Last Thursday, a small group of hospital patients and volunteers in the gallery were sketching and painting portraits of Gurdy, a chubby eight-year-old English bulldog brought in for the art lesson.

This was Gurdy’s first gig as a model and the first time she’d ever had her portrait painted, said her handler, Lori Goodwin.

“If she started this earlier (in life), she would have been the perfect model because she loves to just sit and do nothing,” she joked.

Goodwin says she and Gurdy have been visiting hospitals such as the Sturgeon in St. Albert for about eight years as members of the Pet Therapy Society of Northern Alberta.

Dogs are great conversation starters, and bring joy into your hospital stay, Goodwin says.

“I’ve never not had a smile.”

Kathleen Newman, a volunteer with the hospital’s Artists On the Wards program, which has roving artists work with patients, says the live dogs have brought a lot of excitement to the gallery’s lessons. Doing art and interacting with dogs can both help make patients less depressed, so doing both at once is sort of a double-whammy.

“Sometimes people come in just to give the dog a pet.”

The dogs have been a real magnet to draw people into the gallery, especially children, Douglas says.

“Everyone likes dogs,” he says.

“It brings out the social aspects in us.”

The exhibit runs until Dec. 6 at the University of Alberta Hospital. The free art lessons are from 2 to 4 p.m. every Thursday. Call 780-407-7152 for details.


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Kevin Ma

Kevin Ma joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2006. He writes about Sturgeon County, education, the environment, agriculture, science and aboriginal affairs. He also contributes features, photographs and video.