College of Fine Arts

Over the past couple of years, artist Rebecca Thompson (BS ’85) has conducted two studies exploring and advancing the relationship between the arts and health. 

With the support of several research grants, each study – one with the Gospel Rescue Mission’s Women’s Recovery Center and the other a collaboration with the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum – were carried out with the goal of showing how community wellness thrives through art and creativity.

Rebecca Thompson. Image by Rainbow Southard courtesy of the Gospel Rescue Mission.

Thompson is a Ph.D. student in Applied Intercultural Arts Research of the University of Arizona Graduate Interdisciplinary Programs. She earned her MFA in sculpture from Cornell University.

Thompson is an established public artist creating large-scale artworks. By using sustainable materials such as rammed Earth, which is a mixture of natural aggregates, she contributes to environmental and individual wellness and shows how humans and nature can impact each other. Her public works and sculpture are displayed across the nation. In Phoenix, she created “The Phoenix,” a gateway to the downtown area and in Tucson, she and Lauri Slenning built the “Tucson WWII Memorial” in Armory Park, among many others.

It wasn’t until returning to the University of Arizona that Thompson began to dive into the idea of how art can improve the future of public healthcare settings.

“I believe the arts are an essential component of health and well-being and wish to find ways to reinstate the arts within every component of the health care industry,” says Thompson.

>> To see more of Rebecca Thompson’s work, visit her website.

Video edited by Daniel Paz (BFA ’20, Film and Television)

Advancing the relationship between the arts and health

Briana Gonzalez choosing plants for the garden at the Mesquite Valley Growers Plant Nursery. Image by Sarah Frias.

In her first study, Thompson, alongside graduate psychology student Annalysa Kelly Lovos, collaborated with the Arizona-Sonoran Desert Museum to develop a video that will play in the waiting rooms of the University Cancer Center. The video includes beautiful stills of the Sonoran Desert by photographer Jay Pierstorff and music from Native American flutist, R. Carlos Nakai of Arizona, and Maxi Larrea, a guitarist from Argentina. Using statistics from the study that revealed changes in stress levels, Thompson and Lovos will analyze how images and sounds can result in stress reduction.

As a part of the study, Thompson conducted private interviews to ask the participants how they use nature to cope with illness. “We love the mountains, my wife and I,” one participant said. “My phone is full of photos with the mountains during sunrise and sunsets and desert scenes and cactus. Taking these photos is great therapy for me.”

Thompson worked with women from the Gospel Rescue Mission: Women’s Recovery Center for her second study. The study involved the women designing a community meditative garden from scratch. With the goal to create a haven for themselves and their children, the women brainstormed what they wanted to see in the garden. This included things like a fishpond, colorful flowers, and soft nature sounds. Beginning with nothing but sand, the facility, the women, and Thompson took an empty space in the complex and transformed it into a beautiful garden based on the women’s design.

One participant, Kim Diaz, talked about how the study improved her mindset. “We don’t have to focus on addiction, we can focus on who we were on the inside before our addiction took over and it lets us start relearning. That is what this project did for me. It reminded me what I need to do,” said Diaz.

The garden has become a safe space that is available to the women 24/7. Not only did they work together to design something special, but they used the individual art kits they were provided with to create their own artwork and teach art to their children. Thompson sees the project as successful because of how the women felt valued as a community of leaders, teachers, and creators.

“I want to move people into the future and let them know they are creative…they don’t have to relive their trauma through art and can create a new vision instead,” states Thompson.

With these studies, Thompson hopes to inspire artists to apply their artistic skills however they see fit. “I want artists to know they don’t have to do their research one way. You can be a researcher and a storyteller … I want artists to be encouraged to change the world in unlimited ways.”

>> Dr. Jennie Gubner discusses new intercultural research program