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'Warrior Women' seek healing through art

InteractiveINTERACTIVE:
View our interactive gallery for a sneak preview of some of the sculptures and photos of Waking Dreams and Warrior Women.
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By CNN Interactive Writer Sue Hoye

(CNN) -- A unique group called Waking Dreams and Warrior Women has been exploring the healing effects of art. The Rhode Island organization of physicians and artists presented a multimedia performance of original dance, music, sculpture and photography at the Carriage House Theater in Providence this weekend to promote breast health awareness.

The event, "Flight from Slumber," was intended to share information about breast health and to re-examine the relationship between art and medicine. The group's focus is and has been on breast cancer, but the members feel art has the potential to help with all types of illnesses.

Dr. BetheAnne DeLuca-Verley, a breast cancer survivor and a founder of the organization, was diagnosed with the disease two years ago when she was breast-feeding her third child. She was given a grim prognosis, underwent intensive chemotherapy and eventually had a mastectomy.

When she was ill she began dancing, something she hadn't done for 20 years. She choreographed some modern dances that were performed during this weekend's event. Her 9-year-old daughter danced with her.

Verley said Waking Dreams and Warrior Women began last September during a discussion in her living room with physicians interested in the impact of art on healing. Also present was sculptor Christiane Corbat, who was already using art with heart and breast cancer patients to help the healing process.

Corbat approached Verley about doing a body casting of her before and after her mastectomy, which she says "let me see myself outside myself."

Verley feels art creates "almost sacred space." When people are doing art they don't feel vulnerable as they might in a doctor's office -- they can discuss and explore illness, death and dying more comfortably.

Many of Corbat's works were featured at this weekend's program. She worked with the group to create a sculptural installation piece called "Hanging Out." The work includes torso castings from many women with breast cancer. The women decorated their own body castings, which Verley says helped them to reshape their experience and promote positive body images.

The castings were hung on a clothesline, the idea being that the women could hang out the torso like they would clothes on a line, an ordinary thing to bring the crisis of cancer back into perspective. "It diffuses the fear so that you can talk about it," Verley says.

Some of the body castings were worn in the performance by the professional dancers of the Cadence Dance Project.

The goal of Waking Dreams and Warrior Women is not to create an alternative to traditional treatment but to offer spiritual healing as well.

"I would never discourage someone from getting traditional care," Verley stresses. "I know I wouldn't be standing here talking to you without it."

People seem drawn to the concept. Verley says the group is growing quickly. The nonprofit organization incorporated in February. While it is based in Rhode Island, it has board members across the country as well as international representatives.

The group is filling a void in medicine, Verley says. Art therapy is complementary care that helps improve the quality of life, she says.

"I know as a physician how when I was sick in my bed without my hair, my physicians, as good as they were, there was a place they couldn't enter. It's part of our (physicians') training."

Brown University Medical School has given the group a grant to work with medical students to help them explore other aspects of healing.

The group also plans to go into schools to talk to students about school violence. Verley says they are considering helping the students do hand castings because "hands are so reflective of everything that we do." After the students decorate the hands, they can be connected to build a bridge sculpture showing how they are individuals, yet connected.

A Paleolithic figurine has become the symbol of Waking Dreams and Warrior Women. It is called Nuit and was used in Greece and Algeria more than 4,000 years ago to help people who were sick. Verley says though it was picked at random, when they learned its meaning, group members thought it very appropriate.

According to history books, Nuit was considered the goddess of the soul, related to fertility and the gateway to dreams. "It gives testimony to the journey," says Verley.



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