Seeing Pain, Struggle, Hope Through Artist’s Eyes

By Stan Friedman

CHICAGO, IL (November 28, 2011) – Rita Lindholm laid in her bed at Swedish Covenant Hospital telling Elizabeth Ahlem how grateful she was to have been surrounded her entire life with the love of family, friends, and her church community.

There also had been – and still was – God’s faithfulness and grace.

As Lindholm spoke, Ahlem sat next to the bed and listened with a conscientious ear, her hands deftly painting the picture inspired by the patient’s words.

“The picture meant so much to her that she had it hanging over her bed at home,” recalls Lindholm’s daughter, Kari Lindholm-Johnson. “She wanted it as a reminder of God’s grace.”

The painting was over her bed on September 8 when Lindholm died of pancreatic cancer.

For the past year, Ahlem’s artwork has inspired and comforted patients at SCH, where she has served as artist-in-residence. Ahlem also has been changed by the experience.

A graduate of North Park University where she earned bachelor degrees in art and Spanish, Ahlem had never heard of a hospital artist-in-residence and neither had anyone else at Swedish. Then in 2010, Ahlem helped set up an art show at the hospital that focused on healing.

“I organized the 2010 Dreams of Healing Art Show, and Liz was one of the art interns . . . that I supervised for that show,” recalls Kari Lindholm-Johnson, who serves as a chaplain at the hospital. “Part of their internship was to write a final paper, so I asked them to do something that I thought would be practical and work into possibilities for them. I asked Liz to write up what she would like to do at the hospital with art. I presented that description to Janis Rueping and Jose La Luz to see if it would be a possibility.”

Following research into what other hospitals might be doing, La Luz and Lindholm-Johnson wrote a proposal that the SCH Office of Development presented to the hospital foundation, which approved a grant.

Ahlem began in December last year and works 10 to 12 hours a week, including once a week in the psychiatric unit. Since then, “It’s kind of evolved as we’ve been going” Ahlem says.

Chaplains, therapists and others give Ahlem the names of patients who might benefit from her artistic gifts. It’s important for people to address their spiritual as well as physical needs while in the hospital, but patients don’t always give that consideration, says Ahlem, who grew up attending First Covenant Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and now attends Resurrection Covenant Church in Chicago. “They’re not thinking, ‘This will be a good way to process what I am going through,’ ” she adds.

“People are often confused at first,” Ahlem says of her visits. Sometimes the patients are leery. After all, none of them have ever heard of an artist-in-residence either.

“I have to ‘read’ each patient and see whether they might be interested,” Ahlem says. “Everyone has their natural defenses that go up. That’s something I have to overcome. I can’t just say ‘take them down.’ ”

She begins by engaging the patients in conversation. “You try to develop a rapport. You have to convince them that you care,” Ahlem says.

As she builds that trust, Ahlem begins to take out art supplies from a bag she carries with her. She often paints pictures, but she also does drawings.

Each person differs in what they want to focus on. “Art is very personal,” Ahlem says. “Some people want to name the pain. Other need more hopeful, positive images.”

Some find it difficult to share information while others do so freely. “There was this patient from Ghana and he told a lot of stories,” Ahlem recounts. “He saw symbolism in everything.”

Ahlem gives the painting to the patient when she is finished. Nearly all of them are appreciative. “Generally they’re just happy to get something nice and that someone wanted to do something nice for them,” Ahlem says.

They also share with her what they experience through the artwork. “It’s usually beyond ways that I would ever have intended,” Ahlem says.

When she visits the psychiatric unit, she will set up art supplies in a gathering space and start painting. Gradually people come over and start asking to paint with her.

Lindholm-Johnson, who serves as a chaplain at the hospital and is an artist herself, says Ahlem has done important ministry. “Through her art, Liz makes the intangible tangible.”

Ahlem says she has learned valuable lessons about others and herself. “It teaches me ways in which people communicate through art,” she says. Sometimes patients didn’t want her to create a picture from their stories. “They would ask me to draw a heart or a flower or something like that,” she says. “I don’t like doing them, but I can’t be turned off by it. I’ve had to learn not to put my own motivations behind it.”

There were other motivations she had to rethink. “I had to learn you can’t depend on feedback from people to feel good about yourself,” Ahlem says. The goal of her ministry also had to be re-evaluated. She came to understand that a “successful” session was not necessarily one in which she cheered up the patient.

Ahlem isn’t sure what she will do next after her time at the hospital ends in December. She is certain, however, “For this year – for my life – this has been a very great thing.”

Editor’s note: click here to view a gallery of other work by Ahlem. Click here to see additional photos from the SCH exhibit.

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  1. Praise the Lord for North Park University, growing young adults in their faith and encouraging them in the creative use of their gifts for the Kingdom.  My heart is so lifted by this story of Elizabeth’s idea being allowed and enabled to become a reality, resulting in tender ministry to those in need.  I especially love her painting in the corner of the psychiatric unit, drawing others to what she is doing.  This is a living example of Jesus touching untouchables.  Thank you, Elizabeth, for your lovely example to others of walking in faith and allowing God to use your gifts!

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