Celebrating 20 Years of Using Creativity to Fight Cancer

Audacious Creating.  Amazing Support.  Contagious Healing.

Circles of Life: Making Art, Creating Communities of Hope

Healing Icons has offered art-as-healing practices to cancer survivors in Columbia and throughout South Carolina for over 20 years. To honor our courageous participants and those who care for them, share our mission with the general public and give it an experiential understanding of why art is important, and to pay tribute to the healing arts of Tibet, which have been a deep inspiration for Healing Icons' offerings, Healing Icons produced a 20th anniversary exhibition and celebration of art, healing, and community.

The sands of the mandala are poured into the flowing waters where their healing energies are carried throughout the world.

Roots in Tibetan Culture: Sacred Arts and the Art of Release

Tibetan Buddhist culture views art as a form of meditation - a sacred act in itself, not merely a means to a finished product. Founder Heidi Darr-Hope first experienced this approach in action in the spring of 2000. Her journey had a deep impact on her perspective as an artist, as she visited northern India's Tibetan Bonpo Men-ri Monastery to view a funerary ritual that would help to usher a deceased spirit into the next realm:

Click To Read About Heidi's Journey

The monastery grounds were filled with monks creating all sorts of visual delights – beautiful amulets, talismans, mandalas, prayer flags, and small paintings. This had been going on for over a year... Sacred mantras were constantly chanted while the monks created these ritual objects. Being in the middle of all this felt wonderfully otherworldly. In case you aren’t familiar with the word mantra, it  is simply a brief powerful prayer composed of sacred syllables.

I assumed all of these carefully crafted objects would be used within the ceremony and then given to all those in attendance. From my western worldview, these beautiful objects were art, meant to be cherished keepsakes. What a meaningful, inspiring way to memorialize someone’s life, I thought to myself.

Translating from Tibetan into English is not always easy and the information came slowly. When I realized what was being said, I was shocked and mystified. I couldn’t fathom that all this work, all these beautiful creations were going to all go up in smoke. Yes, they were all to be burned within a funereal ritual. Wow! The Buddhist tenets of non-attachment and impermanence were exquisitely demonstrated in this practice. The more I thought about it, the more I understood that the finished product, the object itself, was not something to be prized or coveted but stood as a living, breathing symbol that held a specific energetic intention. I began to feel that spark of inspiration.

As I slowly digested this new way of looking at the purpose of creating, it began to feel more like home, more like something I already knew but had forgotten. For most artists, it’s the process of creating that is of utmost value, not the end product. I love the feeling of getting so lost in the making of art that time disappears. As a young practicing professional artist, I had experienced this phenomenon but had not really put much value in it. It was just the way it was.

After returning home from India, my own art making practice began to shift as I slowly began to see this time of total absorption as form of mediation, a time when I was truly in the moment. Unlike the Tibetan monks who have a specific intention when they create, I began to allow a space to open, a quiet time where I could begin to hear another kind of language, a silent soulful language where the still, small voice within could be heard. The Tibetan sacred arts helped me get to this place.

The way I create my art has always influenced the way I teach. I realized that in the teaching practices I was developing for Healing Icons, trusting the process was one of my basic tenets. I was teaching cancer patients about the healing powers of creating. I was urging them to trust the process and pay attention to what came up for them while being creatively engaged. I encouraged them to be unattached to the end product. I advised them to try to stay present in the moment, to get lost in the creative trance. This is where healing can take place.

These are the values and perspectives that Healing Icons seeks to impart and celebrate with our participants, and these concepts served as the focal point of our 20th anniversary celebration.

A Stunning Exhibition of Hope and Healing

In a series of meetings with the board of directors, it was decided that Healing Icons would present an exhibition including various, interconnected elements that would encourage community participation and an observance of the roots of our art-as-healing approach in practice. Vista Studios/Gallery 80808, home to Healing Icons and Heidi Darr-Hope's personal art-making workplace, served as the location for the event from October 30–November 7th.

The exhibition had five elements that unfolded over the week-long exhibition:
  • Art created by courageous cancer survivors during our classes
  • The Mystical Arts of Tibet photographic exhibition, Magical Land of Spiritual Wonders, a Richard Gere and Drepung Loseling Monastery sponsored production,
  • Our traveling exhibition, Sometimes Words Are Not Enough,
  • Three fun, hands-on, Tibetan-inspired activities, and
  • A space for the Tibetan monks from the above-mentioned Drepung Loseling Monastery in Atlanta to create a Sand Mandala of Healing
Completed Mandala
Survivors' Art
Visual Journals
Healing Icons
Talismans of Healing
Prayer Flags
Tibetan-Inspired Community Art
Survivors' Art

Often, words alone fail to communicate what is necessary, and we are left feeling alienated in many ways, most of all from ourselves and our own experiences. When we are left speechless, wordless, with a burning, deep desire to express and record what is happening in our lives, we require another language with which to communicate our hopes and fears of life, death, and what really matters to us. This is where visual art can help us in ways that no other expressive medium can. The stories told through the various methods taught in our workshops and classes are the very foundation and expression of Healing Icons' mission and vision, and we celebrate them.

Visual Journals

Diaries, day-books, and journals are written accounts of how we experience our personal world or perhaps envision it. When trauma sets into our lives, we can lose a vital connection with our soft-spoken inner voice. It is easy for our tender, interior landscape to be overpowered by the loud, overwhelming voices of stress and anxiety. Visual journaling can kickstart a conversation with our inner voice that allows us to quiet ourselves into meaningful reflection and contemplation.

The language of the visual allows us to go deeper than words, unfolding an open and comfortable place within us, where we can discover and reconnect with who we truly are.

Healing Icons' approach to visual journaling was inspired by the way in which Tibetan sacred texts are bound and stored for safe-keeping. The journals created by our participants reveal their struggles to make sense of and find peace within a world that often feels out of their control. It provides glimpses into their fears and grief; their hopes, memories, and dreams; and most of all, their courage and determination to live fully and freely.

Healing Icons

The word icon derives its meaning from the Greek word eikon, meaning "likeness." When we create art, we are making a likeness of how we see and experience our lives. Art helps us tell our stories about what it is to be human.

In our various offerings, we guide participants through various creative methods to shape a physical likeness that represents their unique wisdom, strengths, and restorative processes. These objects -- hallowed icons created by brave individuals facing a life-threatening disease -- are intimate treasures discovered within a deeply personal wellspring of resilience.

Many of the Tibetan Buddhist sacred objects have influenced our art-making practices. The Tibetan Ghau opens to a concealed inner space, which is traditionally used to hold a picture of their favorite deity or Lama, a folded-up scroll of sacred mantras, special herbs, or sacred relics. The Ghau is used as an amulet to help the wearer to ward off negative energy and attract blessings. Our Healing Icons have borrowed from this tradition.


Mandala, the Sanskrit word for circle, is an archetypal symbol of balance, wholeness, and unity. They have been created for centuries as meditational symbols that, when contemplated, lead to self-awareness, insight, and peace. Think of stained-glass rose windows in cathedrals, moon gazing, Sufi dancers, and Buddhist sand paintings.

Tibetan monks prayerfully create mandalas with a specific purpose in mind – loving kindness, compassion, healing, etc. An image that represents the overarching theme of the mandala is housed in the center. When completed, these mandalas are not only used to convey Buddhist teachings, but they become a visual symbol on which to mediate for spiritual growth.

Creating mandalas is an ancient practice that Healing Icons has revamped for new times -- our time. The goal of our mandala-making is not an intellectual path but a journey that trusts and supports a willingness to open into the playful intuitive mystery of the creative process.

The mandalas we create begin prayerfully with the theme of hope and healing. When we quiet our minds, we open ourselves to the creative process, providing the space for our inner voices to speak. The mandalas created in our healing practices are visual testaments to the wisdom gleaned through the cancer journey. I am thankful for the inspiration the Tibetan mandalas have given me.

Guests of our exhibition were invited to add to our Community Mandala of Hope and Healing. Everyone selected a piece of chalk, placed their hand within the large circle, and traced its outline. Then they were prompted:

“Now have fun and fill your hand with lines, patterns, using as many colors as you desire. Use the surrounding ones as inspiration. You are leaving your mark, your joy, your energy of hope and healing within this circle to be joined by others.”

At the end of every day, I would photograph these incredibly intricate community mandalas and then erase them. The Tibetan Buddhist principals of non-attachment and the impermanence of life continues to echo through all of our practices.

Talismans of Healing

Talismans and amulets are simply physical objects that are believed to have powers to cause good things to happen. They are tangible symbols that focus our thoughts on a specific idea or intention. Think good luck four-leaf clovers or horseshoes for protection. For the ancient Egyptians, it was the Eye of Horus; for Christians, the cross. All cultures and spiritual traditions have them, and we are inspired by them all, but especially the ones of Tibet.


When I visited the Menri Monastery in India, I was captivated by the practice of talisman-making. Herbs and seeds, each one holding a specific power and energy, were harvested from the surrounding fields and laid out to bask under the warmth of the sun. When dried, several monks would gather and begin the process of creating prayer bundles, or amulets. As the herbs and seeds were placed within a piece of cloth, the chanting of a specific mantra began as the fabric was rolled and tied into a bundle.

Many of our students' healing icons and visual journals have hidden spaces where amulets are hidden. In addition, students create talismans from found objects such as river rocks, herbs, flowers, thread, bones, sea shells, feathers. Whether these physical symbols are to protect, to empower, to calm, to bless, or to bring good fortune, peace, or serenity, they are amplifiers -- leading us into the power of mindfulness, closer towards harmony, quietude, and tranquility.

Prayer Flags

For over 2,000 years, Tibetan Buddhists have created prayer flags to honor their spiritual traditions. They have hung the flags over mountain passes and rivers to benefit all who would pass underneath, as well as outside their homes and in places of spiritual worship.

Every flag holds holy spiritual symbols and prayers. The prayers of a flag become a permanent part of the universe as the images fade from exposure to the elements. Just as life moves on and is replaced by new life, Tibetans renew their hopes for the world by continually mounting new flags alongside the old. This act symbolizes a welcoming of life’s changes and an acknowledgment that all beings are part of a greater, ongoing cycle.

Every time I passed by a gathering of prayer flags throughout my journey in India, my whole body felt a deep spiritual connection. I adored every aspect of these colorful flags and wanted to give our community a chance to experience the power and beauty of this spiritual practice.  

Our student ambassadors, survivors who have been in our classes for many years and serve as mentors to our new students, created hundreds of prayer flags for this exhibition. They hung throughout the exhibition, radiating their peaceful, healing energy.

Blessings sent out into the world with each and every breeze, silent prayers of compassion and healing spoken on the breath of nature, bringing good will to all beings.

Tibetan-Inspired Community Art

I created three fun, easy-going, hands-on Tibetan inspired art activities for all ages. When visitors came to see our exhibition, they were invited to make something that would become part of something larger. We were creating public art. Our signage throughout the exhibit urged everyone to simply play, unwind, and have fun.

Add a stroke of color and become part of creating our Mindful Chalk Mandala.

Wrap a stone with beautiful thread to contribute to our sacred sculpture of Kuan Yin, Goddess of Compassion, by creating a visual offering, a Talisman of Healing.

Add to our Prayer Flags of Hope by writing your own personal blessing or prayerful intention on a small paper flag.

In light of our community’s suffering from the "100-year flood," these participatory art-as-healing practices reached a much larger population than we anticipated. People from all walks of life, of all ages and races, came together to witness and be a part of our Circles of Life.

Generosity and Healing

A Community in Need

Several school groups come through our exhibition.

This event couldn't have come at a better time. Three weeks before the Tibetan monks were to arrive from the Drepung Loseling Monastery, our city was devastated by what has been termed a ”100-year flood.” Extremely heavy rains caused our rivers to overflow, which caused many dams to break, which wrought huge devastation throughout our community. Homes were destroyed. Our water supply was compromised. Our roads collapsed. It was catastrophic. Our community pulled together to support one another, but the damage will take years to repair. Our community needed healing now more than ever.

Initially, we were paying tribute to the courageous cancer survivors who had participated in our offerings, but the event grew into something much larger.

We are so thankful to all of the businesses in our community who pitched in to make this happen, including Baker and Baker, Lexington Medical Center, Blue Moon Pet Sitters, and White Rose Artisans. The newly opening Hyatt Place, right next door to the studio, gave us a terrific rate so that the monks could walk to “work.” Our local health food establishment, Rosewood Market, donated lunches for the monks. One of our community sponsors, The South Carolina Dharma Group, provided them with scrumptious dinners.

Midway through the week, Bill Grant of Cinema Couture Film wandered into Vista Studios/Gallery 80808 during his lunch break and was beyond surprised to find a crowd gathered around a couple of Tibetan monks creating a sand mandala. He was so “wowed” by what he saw, he asked if he could quickly put together a video story for us. Naturally, we said yes!


Healing Sands Mandala: the Meticulous Creation and the Sweeping-Away

The rains had stopped for our ceremony. Filled with a light spirit and a renewed heart, we all knew we were really, really going to miss "our Monks."

Ripples in the Water

The effect of our exhibition was deeper and more pervasive than we'd imagined. Our participants and other community members learned new ways to play and speak with art, rediscovering that still, small voice within. It was a richly rewarding experience for everyone.

“The experience of watching the monks as they worked and the energy they brought help me to find a calmness and peace of mind at a very difficult time for me as I was undergoing chemotherapy for ovarian cancer. During this time I also found a new direction in my life that I am hopeful to journey on in this New Year as I move from cancer patient to cancer survivor.” - Sandra Spears via Facebook

“Energy… The beauty in it’s movement…. And it’s stillness.  The healing that comes from using that energy… In being patient and mindful.” - Rachel Taylor via Facebook

"It was an experience of tranquility and mindfulness, as well as extraordinary beauty. There was love there too, which the monks reflected out to those of us keeping them company as they did their work so patiently and cheerfully.” - Yolanda Cardenes Ganong via Facebook

"What a wonderful experience this was, not just for the cancer survivors, but for the community as well! Each day as the monks were carefully working on the healing sand mandala there were people from all walks of life quietly observing and feeling the calmness of the monk’s process. Some would leave and return later only to be in awe as they saw the mandala blossom. School children were able to experience and learn of a new culture. Columbia was greatly enriched by Heidi Darr-Hope’s exhibit." - Linda DeLeonardis via Healing Icons' blog