You've just visited a cancer treatment center and your soul swellswith strong emotion--hope, fear, prayerfulness, sorrow, or any combinationof the above. You know that the parking lot, and the workadayworld beyond it, are poor places to process the raw emotion. What to do?

At the Center for Cancer Treatment and Research of Palmetto RichlandMemorial Hospital in Columbia, S.C., an altar stands to serve yourneeds. Conceived by artist-in-residence Heidi Darr-Hope and placed in agallery space where cancer-patient artwork is on view, the altar fairlyshimmers with blessings and prayers. Passersby are invited towrite their thoughts on slips of paper, then tuck them within the altarwalls. Several hundred are received every month, says Darr-Hope, most ofthem expressing a prayer of healing in the name of a cancer patient.

Altars are usually associated with religion rather than with medicine. But for Darr-Hope, age 47, offering a place for prayerfulness where it's needed most makes sense.

"An altar encourages reflection, release, renewal," says the artist, who since 1995 has led art workshops at the hospital. In 1998, when considering activitiesfor a day commemorating cancer survivors, she decided to propose a groupaltar-making project for patients and other participants. She fitted anantique trunk with shelves, bought bags of silver milagros, and assembledmaterials to arrange inside, along with paper on which people could inscribeprayers.

"People enjoyed the constructive, positive aspect of making a real,physical object," she remembers. "So much of processing emotion is abstract.This had a nice, concrete quality to it."

Dealing With Emotions

Darr-Hope knows from experience the risks of not processing difficultemotions. When she was 11 and her little brother died, the family closeddown emotionally. A few years later, her best friend was killed in anautomobile accident. "At the time, I had no vocabulary for bereavement," sheremembers.

She heard the words, "This is God's way, blah, blah, blah," but stoppedlistening, indeed, stopped attending church with her family. Alone oneSunday, she finally found solace in Mahler. "The grand and poignantoutpouring of sadness" and the "raw power of his music" gave her hope thatthere was a way to express the emotions that language can't contain.

Patients emerge with an icon.a talismanic object that can induce a state of prayerfulness.

After earning an MFA at Columbia College in her hometown, Darr-Hope foundherself pursuing the "business of art," traveling up and down the EastCoast, selling her framed mixed-media collages at shows and throughgalleries. Then, about 10 years ago, she began having nightmares, disturbing andrecurring dreams of snakes wrapped around her body. Darr-Hope stoppedtraveling and switched her focus, eventually completing a two-yearcertification course in Jungian dream analysis. Part of her traininginvolved holding workshops, so Darr-Hope starting leading brown-bag-lunchgroups for people interested in dreams.

In retrospect, the groups she led and her fascination with symbols combined at some point, and she started exploring art as a means of working with profoundly disabled children. That work evolved into a grant for initiating a hospital-based art program, and she found herself on the phone with the vice president of the Center for Cancer Treatment, where she works today.

"He was extremely supportive," says Darr-Hope, who could offerthe hospital her services and full funding for a "no-red-tape" programthat would invite cancer patients to create "healing icons,"mini-altars, similar in spirit (but more individual) to the large altarnow on display in the gallery.

In her six-week-long "Healing Icon" workshops, Darr-Hope starts by givingpatients a homework assignment: They are asked to fill a small box withrandom objects that please them--peach pits, buttons, shells, whatever.