Five Questions for H. Lea Gaydos

Associate professor, Beth-El College of Nursing and Health Sciences, UCCS

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Not everything in life is happenstance, but there are occasions when the universe simply takes over.

When H. Lea Gaydos was a child, she had visions of a job that revolved around artistic design, perhaps in fashion or architecture. But as an undergraduate, she found herself majoring in biology. She was unsure what to do with that degree, especially with a child to support. There were enough credits on her transcript to earn a nursing degree, but three years after graduation, she still was not happy in her chosen profession. She couldn't find her place, she says.

By coincidence, federal money became available to study psychiatric nursing, and she jumped at the opportunity. That move turned out to be the "exact right place" for her. Still, she had a crisis of conscience, wanting to pursue nursing but also her artistic endeavors.

Now, Gaydos is an associate professor at Beth-El College of Nursing and Health Sciences at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs and an accelerated program coordinator, teaching an essential advanced clinical course. She also serves as the undergraduate department chair and devotes an enormous amount of time and energy to the role.

And she's found the perfect way to incorporate art into her research and nursing: She tells people's life stories through paintings and investigates concepts in nursing through symbols.

— Cynthia Pasquale

1. You have said that you are dedicated to the power of art as a healing force. Do you believe healing also is affected by other outlets such as the power of positive thinking?

I have seen the power of art to heal in my own life and the lives of others. Recently I've been looking at it in a broader way, the whole issue of arts in health care. Healing is a hard thing to define. I know when it happens; I've experienced it. For instance, I work with nursing units who operate in troubled conditions or have transitional issues. I use the arts — mainly collage — and it's been successful not only as a research strategy but as a healing process. Creative processes release chemicals that give you happiness and a feeling of satisfaction. And that contributes to healing.

I have a friend who is a sculptor and who is bipolar. The depression is hard for her to manage. One day she realized that depression had a shape in her head. She felt that if she could just get that shape out, she could see it and deal with it. So she created a sculpture that she could manipulate, and poke and make fun of. She had power over it. That's a great description of one way in which art heals.

Healing happens in four ways: physically, psychologically, interpersonally and in relation to the context in which you live — environmentally. Positive thinking also can heal. A distortion of thought causes suffering. By changing those thoughts, we can heal.

2. What can be done to increase the number of nurses in the country? Do you think the economic downturn will affect the shortage?

The reasons for the nursing shortage are multiple. One thing that has contributed to the problem is that women have more choices. Ninety percent of nurses are women. I think more young people would choose nursing if they realized what an incredible, diverse profession it is. And many of us are retiring. The bulk of today's nurses are in that age range or close to that age. That's especially true of nursing faculty, where the shortage is even more severe than in care giving. We didn't grow enough young nurses into academia, mostly because it is not as well-paying as the clinical setting.

The economy certainly has changed things. Some nurses who were going to retire are putting that off and part-timers are moving into full-time positions. People that have been in other fields and are now jobless are seeking out nursing programs.

We have an accelerated program here where you can get a second degree in nursing in 16 months. This year, we had 90 completed applications for 24 slots.

3. How would you describe your art and in what mediums do you work?

My work is primarily figurative and symbolic. I've done a lot of investigation into the meanings of symbols and use them with figures to represent the abstract. I work in mixed media. I used to work in pastels and tempera, but now I use collage, metal leaf, inks, colored pencils ... whatever is handy that I think will get the message out there.

I've developed a visual language for myself, using the meaning of symbols based in art history from the Italian Renaissance on. The star is otherworldly and magical and represents self-esteem or the individual. The nautilus means change and renewal. Birds represent freedom. The checkerboard illustrates the light and dark aspects of life. Various animals have symbolic meaning.

Most recently, I did a piece that has an eagle, an ermine and the bear. The bear symbolizes motherhood and nurturing; the eagle symbolizes vision; and any animal in the weasel family, such as the ermine, symbolizes playfulness.

I love meshing the symbols with figures that almost always are female. They represent humanity and the human condition, and I often paint nudes because of our vulnerability.

I used to do a lot of shows and was in several galleries in Texas. I don't have any trouble giving up the pieces I've created, but I don't have as much time now with my chairmanship job.

4. What do you find most enjoyable about being in the classroom? What do you want your students to take away from the classes?

Teaching is the joy of my life. I love teaching; I love students. I could have given up the teaching because of my department role, but I just love it too much. I love watching the lights go on about certain ideas, and I love the content I teach. I love to see that people are seeking and searching and trying to know more.

There are three things I want students to take away from the classes. First, caring is not optional, it is a moral imperative. Second, mental illness is truly painful and causes great suffering that is just as real as the pain of cancer or any other disease. And third, nursing is great.

5. Tell us something about yourself that most people don't know.

I love football. I've been a Cowboys fan for years ... and I'm really liking the Broncos. I love the gladiator aspect of it. And I love indoor cycling.

I also think that most people don't realize that my real name is Honey. I would love to be called Honey or Honey Lea.

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