MONTREAL — Mona Rutenberg, an art therapist at the Jewish General Hospital, has come up with a novel way to help patients cope emotionally with a terminal illness: casting their hands.
These life-like reproductions can be left for their loved ones to remember them by.
Using a common moulding technique and a dental product called alginate, she can create a plaster-casted copy of a person’s hand gesture that has a startling resemblance to the original.
“These realistic representations can help patients leave potent, meaningful legacies for family members,” Rutenberg said.
The process of making them is also therapeutic.
“Working on these hand sculptures becomes a part of a ritual. As we grieve the coming of our own death or that of a family member, this process can help bring closure and resolution.
“Our hand can be perceived as a signature of ourselves, and working on these hand sculptures can leave a profound mark on patients and provide a lasting image for their family.”
Rutenberg, an accomplished sculptor with over 25 years of experience, has been casting hands outside of her JGH job for some time. Usually, her clients are seeking an unusual keepsake of a happy occasion.
Valérie Lebeau, a master’s student from Concordia University and a former intern of Rutenberg’s, said the hand casting project “empowers” patients who otherwise, in a hospital setting and facing substantial losses, can feel a lack of control and self-esteem.
She describes the time spent making the cast as “a confidential space where patients can express any emotion they need to. That’s why it’s such a beautiful experience to help them through the process.”
Hand-casting is just one type of art therapy Rutenberg uses to complement patients’ medical care.
JGH offers individual art therapy sessions to those who have received diagnoses of serious illness such as cancer or heart disease. The patients and their family members can work through their feelings in a structured setting using an array of materials, including paint, pastels, clay and collage.
“Most often, the patients we work with are experiencing some sort of life-altering illness, immense stress or significant loss in their lives,” Rutenberg said. “Art therapy helps them redirect their emotions and cope with their symptoms.
“My hope is that, with my guidance, I can help individuals open the door to healing and self-awareness through artistic expression.”