Healing heart of art: Local artisan shares her love of painting with cancer patients
Written by Mary Beth Hislop - Town Crier Staff Writer

Plastic cloths line two tables, disposable plates mark the place settings and the music of Enya fills the air as students from as far as Gilroy and Santa Cruz and as close as Los Altos and Palo Alto enter Room K of El Camino Hospital’s Park Pavilion.

All have come to partake in a feast of fellowship and food for the soul. Their hostess: Tehila Eisenstat, a professional artist and teacher; the menu: a caldron of camaraderie, a heaping dish of enthusiasm and a plateful of passion; and the venue: “Creative Expressions,” art classes founded by Eisenstat more than eight years ago for El Camino Hospital’s oncology patients.

For the next two hours, Eisenstat’s students will chat, learn new painting techniques, critique each other’s artwork and forget they have more in common than their weekly visits for art instruction – all are being or have been treated for cancer.

“I thrive on Tehila’s energy,” said student Jane Gibson. “It makes you smile to walk in the door.”

Armed with a lifelong love of art – “It seems like forever … I always painted,” said Eisenstat, who studied French Impressionism at the Art Academy in Israel – the Los Altos resident approached El Camino’s oncology nurses and hospital officials about teaching painting classes as a healing therapy for cancer patients. Her husband, Dr. Saul Eisenstat, is a surgical oncologist there.

“Art takes me to a place where no one can enter but me ... a wonderful space,” she said. “I know what it does for me … I want to share it.”

From two students, a tiny room in the hospital and a homemade brochure, “Creative Expressions” has expanded to two classes each week with more than 35 students.

Healing art

Just as painters confront a blank canvas before they begin a project, most students who walk into Room K for the first time have never painted a day in their life.

“I love to teach and I prefer students not to have a (painting) background,” Eisenstat said.

Staring at that blank canvas, many of Eisenstat’s novice artists doubt she can teach them how to paint.

“I’ve been an artist in many other ways, but not in drawing,” said Joan Manchester, who has dabbled in weaving and ceramics. “I never thought it was in me.”

Barbara Capron “dabbles” in engineering and mathematics.

“This whole class is out of my comfort zone – painting is using the other side of the brain,” Capron said. “I’m used to doing things in a structured way. Tehila tells me to ‘be loose, be loose.’”

“She makes everybody feel they can achieve a beautiful painting,” said Regi Topol, another student. “She just brings the best out of everybody.”

Eisenstat encourages budding artists to express their own styles and interpretations in the paintings they create.

“Perfection is the enemy of creativity,” she said.

From canvas to colors, from dark to light, to the way an artist holds the brush, there is deep symbolism in the painting process that helps lighten the load of life for Eisenstat’s students or anyone, for that matter.

“There are enough unpleasant things in life that are ugly,” she said. “I want to bring the beauty in.”

Beginning with colors, Eisenstat teaches her students to mix the primary and secondary colors.

“Nice, good, happy paintings – not muddy colors,” she said. “Colors can really take you to a special place – it’s (yours), it’s secret – a place of joy and happiness.”

A student since 2004, George Gill is happy with a yellow-gold he mixed for the class’ mandala project.

“It just gladdens my heart,” he said. “There is a vibrancy that captures a mood.”

Eisenstat has another rule, “We paint from dark to light.”

“Art washes away from the soul the debris of everyday life,” she said, quoting Pablo Picasso, and stops to show Cindy Davis a wider brush stroke to add highlights to her single flower.

Jinny Newberry is working on a landscape as she demonstrates what Eisenstat taught her about developing texture and three-dimensional depth.

“Oh, I’m not supposed to do it that way,” Newberry said, turning the brush in her hand. “Holding the brush a specific way gives you control.”

The mind-body connection

Beyond the standard protocols of chemotherapy, radiation and surgery for treating cancer, Dr. O. Carl Simonton pioneered the concept that patients’ minds – or thoughts – could improve their outcomes.

As a radiation oncologist, Simonton wondered why patients with similar cancers, treated with the same dose of radiation, had different outcomes. Simonton established a psychosocial oncology program at Travis Air Force Base in Fairfield, where he was the chief of radiation therapy.

From 1974 to 1981, Simonton developed group therapy sessions for cancer patients that embraced meditation, mental imagery and participants’ open discussion of their disease. He concluded, “One’s state of mind could influence (his or her) ability to survive cancer,” and used his findings in two books he co-authored, “Getting Well Again” (Bantam, 1992) and “The Healing Journey” (Authors Choice Press, 2002).

Moreover, cancer patients’ quality of life improved. Until his death in July 2009, Simonton served as director of the Simonton Cancer Center in California, which offers retreat programs for patients and their families that provide the emotional support he believed complements the medical therapies that treat cancer.

The magic

While Simonton promoted patients’ focus on imagery to help them fight disease, Eisenstat’s students create the imagery: oil paintings of landscapes, flowers, birds, anything that provides her students with the serenity of a single focus to express themselves.

“When I paint, I just feel relaxed and comfortable,” Eisenstat said. “With relaxing music, it’s healing.”

With soothing music in the background, visits from Eisenstat’s greyhounds – certified as therapy dogs – and an occasional field trip to places such as Mary- knoll in Los Altos for inspiration, “Creative Expressions” works its wonders in many ways.

Eisenstat doesn’t look for studies or statistics to back up what she knows in her heart: expressing the soul on canvas can be as therapeutic as the drugs that treat cancer but without the side effects.

“I see when they come in, sometimes dragging themselves, and when the time is up, not wanting to leave,” Eisenstat said. “Always happy faces at the end of the session.”

“When you first hear the news you have cancer, it’s devastating,” Gill said. “For the one and a-half hours you’re involved painting, you forget that there’s anything wrong with you.”

Gills’ wife and daughter, Jeeti and Joanna, notice a change in George when he’s painting.

“Not only is his face focused – he glows,” Joanna said. “He lights up.”

Gill learned about “Creative Expressions” through brochures available in the waiting room of his oncologist, Dr. Saul Eisenstat.

Saul has come across publications in local and global medical journals that connect art-therapy programs with a more positive perspective on life.

“I’ve peeked in on the students – happy, smiling, laughing. They’re not the same as when they went in,” he said. “To me, that’s quality of life – it’s that important. It gives them a goal besides worrying about their illnesses.”

Saul remembers one patient who couldn’t move her arms after undergoing physical therapy for a bilateral mastectomy. The painting classes helped her move beyond her disability as she picked up a brush and her lessons progressed.

Moreover, “Creative Expressions” offers companionship and a sense of camaraderie. Audrene Rossi and Reiko Dickson are starting with blank canvases as they each sketch a hibiscus flower from a shared print.

“After a tiring day of chemotherapy … you get energy from your friends, the painting, the challenge,” Dickson said.

“It’s like two hours where you forget everything else,” Rossi said. “It’s good for us – it makes us relax.”


The art classes may help Eisenstat’s students to heal, but it’s her loving and nurturing spirit that brings them back, Saul said.

“The bond between Tehila and her students – that’s unique,” he said.

Christmas cards and other letters provide testimonials of deep and sincere appreciation of Tehila’s sweet, gentle and caring nature.

“You do have a very giving heart and do so much to inspire others; your kindness, patience and caring show through,” wrote one student.

“Creative Expressions” is one component of El Camino’s Healing Arts Program, designed to ease the recuperation process – art supplies and space are funded through the hospital foundation. Eisenstat also instructs a painting class for hospital personnel and is planning to add a class for heart and vascular patients.

“Anyone can benefit from art therapy,” she said.

In the meantime, a “Creative Expressions” art exhibit, “Painting Out of the Box,” is on display through Jan. 31 at Main Street Cafe & Books, 134 Main St. in Los Altos.

I love what I do with passion,” Eisenstat said. “If I touch someone’s life with colors, I feel that I touch the world.”

For more information about “Creative Expressions,” call 988-8338 or visit www.tehila-art.com.

Contact Mary Beth Hislop at marybethh@latc.com.