Karen King’s flowers come in all shapes and sizes.
She paints blue ones on yellow backgrounds. Red ones on pink backgrounds. They have asymmetrical shapes. They have thick, asymmetrical petals. None are alike.
King, 59, was born with disabilities and suffered a traumatic brain injury in the early 2000s when she was hit by a bus. In 2004, she was admitted to Spectrum Health Neuro Residential Care, and took up painting several years later as part of her therapy.
RaNae Couture, art coordinator for Spectrum Health’s Expressive Arts Program, said King has used art to improve her communications skills and confidence. The process of painting helps bring King peace, Couture said.
“Her paintings are full of love, happiness and joy,” she said. “She wants to give her tender loving care from her paintings to others. A lot of her paintings are of happy dogs or cats.
“This year, a lot of the forms are flower shapes. And they’re uniquely her shapes. It’s a very soothing application when she applies the paint. She’ll put on many, many coats. … There’s a meditative quality to it. It’s very soothing to her, applying the layers.”
Because of the thick layers, King’s paintings have a lot of texture to them. They have a thick, tactile quality that makes the flowers jump off the canvas.
Patients who suffer from traumatic brain injuries often speak in short sentences. King is no different. But she says the thick, colorful flowers give her a lot of joy.
“I like the smell of the flowers,” King said. “I can smell the flowers now.”
There hasn’t been a significant amount of research done on the effects of art therapy on patients with traumatic brain injuries. But there’s a growing belief nationwide in the positive effects it can have on patients.
The United States government, in partnership with Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, provides intensive four-week art therapy programs for soldiers suffering these brain injuries. In 2013, 60 Minutes did a story on the incredible masks soldiers craft during those sessions.
“It is so vital for the healing process,” Couture said of the art. “It gives them purpose. It gives them the feeling, ‘I can do this,’ which gives them confidence in other parts of their lives.”
Steve Howell, 51, another resident artist, frequently paints pictures of his old dog Flip, and also has a series of paintings about a beautiful, fictional island.
Howell suffered his traumatic brain injury during a motor vehicle accident in 1989, and began painting in 2008 because “I had nothing to do.”
“Now, I enjoy it a lot,” he said.
His paintings show Flip, a small white dog, galloping through forests or mountains, or stuck in his doghouse, always followed by a flock of blackbirds hovering overhead. His other favorite topics are boats sailing into harbors, or people on an island surrounded by water and lush greenery.
Couture said Howell’s concentration and motor skills have significantly improved over the last decade through his art. He used to only be able to paint for 5- or 10-minute sessions, and can now paint for nearly an hour at a time.
It has also helped him become more social. Howell, who has always enjoyed writing, likes to tell people stories about Flip or the people on the islands.
“The classes really help the artists with social reintegration into the community after their injury,” she said. “It helps for them to express their emotions, gain confidence, make decisions to become more self-directed, and I just notice it helps them communicate with the other people who live here. They’re able to talk about each other’s artworks.”
King agreed about the social aspect of painting. “If I didn’t participate, I wouldn’t make friends,” she said.
Howell said he really enjoys when people ask him about his paintings or want to buy them.
“It makes me proud,” he said. “It makes me feel really good.”