The Healing Arts: The Restoring Power of Imagination

Art is a source of restoration and renewal, even as we age.

Models of successful aging highlight evidence of creative expression as key to health and well-being. Octogenarian Jimmy Mirikitani, resident of New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen, had his first one person show at the age of 86; his story is a testimony to life-long wounds from the trauma of war, personal tragedy and loss, and, ultimately, the healing power of art.

In a recent report on older adult artists, a 72-year-old homeless artist was quoted as saying, “Art is the only thing that’s left in the world.” For octogenarian Jimmy Mirikitani, once homeless artist and past resident of Hiroshima, painting became his one true lifeline and perhaps, salvation. He is the subject of a 2007 public television documentary movie and now lives in an assisted living home in Hell’s Kitchen where he continues to paint and on occasion, sing. Mirikitani was born in Sacramento, CA in 1920, but raised in Hiroshima, Japan. As a young man he returned to the United States to pursue a career in art and was living in Seattle when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Executive Order 9066 forced Jimmy to move to an internment camp in northern California. After the war, Mirikitani was held at the camp without charges because he was deemed “disloyal” to the US as were hundreds of other Japanese. He finally was released in 1947, but his US citizenship was not restored until the late 1950s.

In New York City during the early 1950s Mirikitani tried to resume his art career without success. Mostly he did seasonal work in resorts, summer camps and country clubs and reportedly met Jackson Pollock while working at a restaurant on Long Island. He eventually became homeless in the 1980s, living in New York City’s Greenwich Village and selling artwork to survive. In 2001, he met Linda Hattendorf who helped him eventually move into an assisted-living retirement center and made the emotionally involving film, “The Cats of Mirikitani,” about his art, life, and their friendship.

Jimmy Mirikitani’s story is complex, impacted by culture, politics, and the socioeconomics of an artist’s life. Arguably, one sustaining factor is Mirikitani’s painting and endless drive to self-expression. Increasingly, models of successful aging highlight evidence of creativity as key to health and well-being. Gene Cohen, psychiatrist and director of George Washington University’s Center on Aging, Health, and Humanities, has studied creativity and aging for more than three decades. His research on the benefits of creativity later in life is compelling, demonstrating that older adults who participate in the arts [singing, creative writing or poetry, painting, or jewelry making] reported better physical health and fewer doctor visits than those who were not engaged in the arts. The “artists” also helped to maintain independence and seemed to minimize risk factors that cause the need for long-term assisted care. Cohen notes that the arts may increase an internal sense of control and create conditions for social engagement, behaviors that may bolster the immune system. Researchers including neuroscientist Roberto Cabeza of Duke University corroborate Cohen’s notion that the cognitive activity involved in artistic expression stimulates cortical cell growth in the brain and creation of new neural networks even as people age.

Jimmy Mirikitani is, in essence, a story of a tenacious survivor of political persecution, disenfranchisement, and homelessness whose art became a creative means for day-to-day existence. But his paintings are also a message to all of us that as we age, art is one thing left to us in the world. To me, the beauty of art as a healing force is that it is generally an accessible, sustainable experience from childhood to later life. And ultimately, self-expression is not only an opportunity for improved cognitive and physical health, but also a source for personal renewal and restoration throughout the lifespan.



©2009 Cathy Malchiodi