Whether you're a doodler or the next Da Vinci, the impulse to make art can't be denied. Art helps us explain ourselves to each other, whether it's a smiley face on a note or a poem to a lover. But art also can play a therapeutic role in our lives, helping explain us to, well, us.

A poem enables us to express emotions that are difficult to say out loud. Painting offers a way to lend focus to our imagination. Music is nice to listen to, but also provides physical and mental benefits when we perform, dance or sing.

Here are three arts projects that help people across the Twin Cities cope with the stresses of illness and age, providing a kind of therapy whose ripples reach beyond the artist.

Drawing to recover your life

Your eye follows the slender black line in one of Christi Furnas' drawings, only to be left staring into white space. Your mind fills in the blank -- it's a leg, or a hairline -- yet the fleeting challenge leaves you feeling both disconcerted and successful.

"I like to work with negative space," said Furnas, of Minneapolis, who is a peer support specialist for Spectrum ArtWorks, a visual arts program that provides work space and a sense of community for artists living with mental illness. Furnas is quick to note that, "it's not art therapy, but a safe space for expression."

Art, she said, is "an accelerated form of communication. When I'm in the throes of my mental illness, it's hard for me to come up with the words. This lets me express things other than just thoughts. I don't know why I do art, but I know if I don't, I'm lost. This keeps me focused and feeling I'm contributing to something in a way. I feel more of a whole person."

Spectrum's existence reflects changes in treating mental illness. "Thirty-five years ago, we didn't really talk about recovery," said Karen Hovland, a vice president at Spectrum. "We talked about maintenance and stabilizing. Art was a way to keep people busy.

"But when you're dealing with mental illness, it's a series of losses -- of family, of jobs, of home. It's our responsibility to be giving people hope. It's not like mental illness goes away, but you start taking back pieces of your life you lost."

To learn more about Spectrum Artworks, visit www.artworksatspectrum.org.

Letting a poem tell the story

Sometimes, you need the thousand words. The picture already is familiar, there in the mirror each morning, or across the breakfast table. For some people dealing with cancer, it helps to record their experience, maybe even make it into a poem.

"It opens a tap for some," said Karin Miller, a writer and editor in Minneapolis who discovered that poetry helped her cope after her husband was found to have cancer. She started the Cancer Poetry Project 10 years ago, collecting poems from across the country into a book that won a Minnesota Book Award. Now she's been urged to do another, honoring a therapeutic exercise practiced for thousands of years.

Many of the poets in the initial book were novice writers, "and I think that's phenomenal," Miller said. "We're dealing with a healing process." She noted how the medical community has become increasingly encouraging. She noted Dr. Rafael Campo, a poet and physician who practices in Boston and teaches at Harvard Medical School. His prescription: You do the chemo. You do the radiation. But you also read the poetry.

Poems provide a safe means of writing about cancer, Miller said, whether the poet is in denial or able to mine the humor in a situation. And the poets themselves may not be the ones with cancer, but caregivers, spouses, friends. The message that most take from the project is that they hadn't been able to explain their feelings until they put them in, of all things, a poem.

The Cancer Poetry Project now is accepting cancer-related poems for its second volume, with about 150 to be chosen. Deadline is April 30.

To learn about submission guidelines, visit www.cancerpoetryproject.com.

Life needs a soundtrack

Aging isn't a choice, so Jeanie Brindley-Barnett is determined that if it's inevitable, it had better be fulfilling. That means music, which she calls preventive medicine.

Sing, and your blood pressure falls. Dance, and you're less depressed.

"We shake it, but we don't break it," she announced in her Alabama twang to a group from the Jones-Harrison Senior Residence who arrived for the Music for Life program she founded at the MacPhail Center for Music. For a warmup, she led them through a serious of toe taps, shoulder shimmies and pelvic tilts, all to the rhythm of a song.

Her classes are for the brain as much as the body. She introduced the concept of the repetitive bass line -- called an ostinado bass -- in the old spiritual "Wade in the Water," then seamlessly segued into "Hit the Road, Jack" and finally into a bit of Peggy Lee's "Fever."

The tune hardly changes as everyone shifts to the next set of lyrics. People start to settle in, relax. Many seniors know of activities that can take a toll on their dignity. "Infantilizing them," Brindley-Barnett said afterward, with some heat. "We know that people continue to be creative as they age, so we provide a way for them to express themselves. It's about living a purposeful life."

Before the hour was over, several had two-stepped to "Sentimental Journey." One man was coaxed into singing a solo in "Unchained Melody," which just about brought folks to tears. Working with Elise Midelfort, also of MacPhail, the two bring the Music for Life program to about 10 senior residences in the Twin Cities.

Selma Johnson, 88, knows music; she relied on regular stints at her Steinway piano to recover from a stroke. "It's fun to see how people take to it, even if they've never done anything with music," she said. "And I enjoying seeing them enjoy it."

To learn more, visit www.macphail.org and search "music for life."