CREATIVE PEAKS: Imaginative Mending

By on May 24, 2017

When art becomes therapy for the artist and her viewers.

JACKSON HOLE, WY – For fourth-generation Wyomingite Tamara Ashburn King, to paint is to heal.

“I think it’s just a moment where I can sort of step into the river and blend away from the universe,” she said. “I get into the zone. It’s intense, it’s daunting, but it’s an act of movement. To have a white canvas and explore with color, which obviously is very healing, and watching it move on the canvas, it’s all an incredible experience.”

While art as a process is healing for artists like King, for others, art as a product is healing enough. Such is the inspiration behind St. John’s Hospital Foundation and the Center for the Arts’ program “Art and Healing,” now in its second year. King will discuss her art and its relationship to healing at St. John’s Medical Center, where her art now hangs, over lunch on Friday.

“Tamara’s artwork represents the second exhibit we’ve presented jointly with the Center [for the Arts],” said Jennifer Simon, St. John’s Hospital Foundation vice president. “Like the first one, the material is perfect for the medical center campus. It embodies a thoughtful reflection in the interplay between art and well-being.”

Indeed, a growing body of research recognizes that exposure to art has a calming, and even healing effect on patient well-being. Art on hospital walls makes patients feel more at-ease, the Center for Health Design found, and can actually improve patient outcomes.

King says she doesn’t know the science behind it, but as an artist, she has a handful of theories about why art is so impactful. “Viewers are moved by color, by mystery,” she said. “They want to know more. We’re all seeking that within ourselves, and in many aspects of art.”

“I was thinking earlier of how butterflies are attracted to certain flowers,” King mused. “There are certain parts of the animal world that are attracted to color for sheer survival.” King listed a palette of colors and the effects they have on human psychology. Green and blue are calming. Red induces passion.

King’s paintings are “extremely colorful, because inside I feel that way.”

Art also runs in King’s veins, as does a connection to St. John’s Medical Center.  King’s mother Raylene Ashburn was an award-winning landscape painter, and King grew up painting alongside her all her life. In 2013, Ashburn was diagnosed with stage-four breast cancer, and spent 18 months in and out of St. John’s.

“She had all these dreams of returning to her art, but wasn’t feeling well enough to do it,” King said. So instead, King and her mother would walk the halls and just look at the artwork. “She was inspired by the art, and it made her feel better,” King said.

Ashburn died in 2015. In the wake of her death, King said she “didn’t really know what to do with that immense loss.” So she painted. Rather than waiting for the “perfect moment” to inspire her, she decided she was going to “open up those doors, let the light in, start moving and creating.” From her grief, King’s “Animal Spirit” series was born. “Because it does, it takes animal spirit [to paint]. It takes courage and self-reflection.”

King’s paintings are abstract, and are a physical representation of the many paradoxes in her life. Growing up, she traveled around the country and world, splitting much of her childhood between Maui and Jackson Hole. Maui, King says, is feminine—warm, soft, nurturing. The island is actually shaped like a woman, King observed. 

Wyoming, on the other hand, is “very rugged and masculine.” King’s art explores the tension between those environments, and the personalities they nurtured.

Her “Animal Spirit” collection, she says, is more a reflection of her “masculine side,” while her “Reflections” collection, on display at St. John’s, is more feminine. Both collections, however, try to balance the contradictions in King’s life. “They compliment each other,” she said.

And that is what art is. It is outside surroundings reflected inward, and inner emotions projected out. “We have our surroundings here in Jackson. How do we reflect that on the inside, being in touch with nature?” King said. “And how do we reflect whatever we have on the inside, on the outside? That’s healing. I think that’s why we all live here.”

To have her “Reflections” series on display in the St. John’s professional building, King said, is “incredibly humbling.”

“To recognize that St. John’s and the Center are invested in me as an artist is so special,” she said. “Because I’m from here, but also because of what the art and healing program represents.” When the Center and St. John’s asked her to exhibit her work in the hospital halls, King says she got chills. “This is exactly where I belong,” she thought. “And, thanks, mom.” PJH

King’s talk is noon Friday, May 26 in the St. John’s professional office building conference room. RSVP with Rachel Merrell at

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