Tonya Babcock sat in the art studio at the Spectrum Health Rehab and Nursing Center on Fuller Avenue, painting a horizon that once seemed so distant.
She delicately dipped her brush in an emerald green paint dollop, then swirled textured circles across the bottom portion of the canvas.
“In the background I do it like texture instead of what you’re supposed to do,” said Babcock, 57, who is recovering from cognitive problems due to liver disease. “I never was much for following the rules.”
These days, Babcock, who arrived at the Grand Rapids, Michigan, facility in August, is practically a painting machine with the Expressive Arts program. She has 12 works of art hanging in the on-site art gallery. She’s sold several. She’s given others to family members as Christmas gifts.
The painting helps her arthritis, she says, and her memory.
“The paintings talk to me,” Babcock said, as she brought into being a green meadow on the canvas in front of her. “They’ve got a lot of stories to tell. I think a lot of it is reliving my past. Some of the paintings are memories I lost because of my brain issues. It’s kind of playing fill-in-the-blanks with me.”
And just as the colors swirl in vivid textures on her canvas, they also swirl in her mind.
A former nursing home charge nurse, Babcock paints nurses, Mother Teresa and mothers nursing babies. She paints skylines, mountains and shooting stars.
She remembers that meteor shower over Lake Huron.
“They kept coming and coming,” Babcock said, explaining one of her paintings displayed in the art gallery. “And I couldn’t take a picture because my phone was on the fritz. So this is my picture.”
She paints not just for the present, but to regain the past. She has become the art. Without pausing, her brush swirling, Babcock explained the scene unfolding.
“This is the grass of the field,” she said.
She then asked art coordinator RaNae Couture to mix up some of that “magic blue” for her.
Couture approached with three tubes, squirted three shades of blue and mixed them together.
“This is where the magic happens,” Couture said.
She was speaking both literally and figuratively. Couture said she’s seen immense growth and progress from Babcock since she’s been painting—physically, emotionally and cognitively.
“Her confidence level is much higher than when she first started painting,” Couture said. “I do everything I can to encourage her and expose her to other artists.”
Couture said she’s noticed Babcock’s endurance and concentration levels are much improved. So is her grip.
An occupational therapy clinical study recently measured Babcock’s and other patients’ grips before and after they painted. Babcock’s grip increased 7 percent after painting.
“It shows that it helps with range of motion of the wrist, elbow and shoulder,” Couture said. “With a study like this, the patients really feel like they’re contributing to a greater cause.”
Babcock said she’s noticed a big difference, too.
Her mind is working better. Her body is working better. She enjoys swaying and seat dancing to the background music that Couture plays while she’s painting.
“My range of motion is a lot better,” Babcock said. “I’m always going to have problems with my arthritis even if I have surgery. This is the easier alternative and it’s a lot more fun. And it’s hard for me to exercise unless it’s fun.”