POTTERY AND PAINTBRUSHES BRING HEALING TO HOPSITALIZED KIDS
THURSDAY SEPTEMBER 8th, 2011
“At the deepest level, the creative process and the healing process arise from a single source.” Rachel Naomi Remen, MD
The truth of Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen’s words can be found in a unique partnership between Detroit Medical Center’s Children’s Hospital of Michigan and Pewabic Pottery in Detroit. Started in 2004, the Children’s Healing Arts Program pairs Pewabic Pottery artists with young patients at Children’s Hospital.
Their canvas is everything from bed sheets, pillowcases, torn paper and pinch pots to tiles, clay beads and colored sand. “One of their favorite projects is to paint pillowcases for their beds,” said Grace Serra, Art Advisor for the hospital and the Program’s Coordinator. “It really helps them make the hospital room their room.”
Serra, who was hired to bring art into the hospital, soon found it meant more than putting artwork on the walls. It required creating a healing environment. She turned to Pewabic Pottery, Michigan’s only historic pottery. “We’ve had a longstanding relationship with Pewabic,” said Serra. “This was just another way to grow that relationship.”
“It’s great for people to know about our historic pottery,” said Meredith Duckworth, Supervisor of Community and Youth Programs at Pewabic Pottery, “but we do much more than fabrication. Pewabic has always done a lot of community outreach. A big part of our mission is to bring art into communities that normally wouldn’t have it.”
According to Serra, about 75% of patients at Children’s Hospital are Medicaid eligible. “These kids come out of very difficult situations. Most don’t have art programs in their schools anymore. For many of them this is their first exposure to art. The artists plant seeds in the children and provide them a skill. I often hear a child talk about how they went home and taught their brother or sister what they learned.”
With a special grant from Detroit Medical Center (DMC) and the Ronald McDonald House, what started out as a once a week program is now being offered on Mondays and Thursdays. The art happens bedside or in the hospital’s activity room. While bedside art is used for children who can’t leave their rooms, in the activity room anything goes. In addition to the patients, you will often find parents and siblings working on pieces.
Research has long demonstrated the positive effects of art on the healing process. “Not only can it help the patients heal, it can also heal families,” said Serra. “It’s especially important for the parents,” said Duckworth. “The stress is so great when you have a sick child. Doing art helps take the parent’s mind off things.” Duckworth described a mother who arrived in the activity room crying and very upset. Her child was soon to have major surgery. The artist on hand got the woman to begin painting a clay pot and in no time she was lost in her work. The art is also helpful for siblings who are also struggling with the emotional effects of a brother or sister’s hospitalization.
“Art centers you,” said Serra. “When you’re sick or stressed it’s important to be centered. The program focuses less on the therapeutic movements of doing art and more on the creative process. It’s more art-making than art therapy.”
For Serra and the Healing Arts Team (volunteers, child life specialists, nursing staff, and artists) things are beginning to pay off. “We’re starting to hear from physicians who are impressed with the program,” said Serra. Recently, a physician stopped by to watch an artist work with a child. “The doctor was really moved to see the child doing what any other child would be doing,” said Serra.
Today, the majority of hospital’s artwork is done by patients and children in community – some from a single artist and others done collaboratively. Serra described a large piece where patients made self-portraits and mandalas that were fashioned into tiles. Another painting was created at the bedside by patients and their families using a bed sheet. It depicted a famous painting by Andre Derain and was created on a grid. Each little square was painted then the sheet unfolded to reveal the entire work.
One of the most compelling art projects for the kids is called ‘Making Milagros’ or in english ‘Making Miracles.’ The patients and kids in the community create visual depictions of their wishes that are then adhered to a large star. “Sort of like wishing on a star,” said Serra. “It’s amazing what happens when the children are given the opportunity to be creative.”
As one of the only hospitals in Michigan with a bedside art program, DMC was recently asked to partner on a research project with Karmanos Cancer Institute. We’re working with kids who are in on-going cancer treatment,” said Serra. “For them, coming into the hospital is not fun. So, we’re administering art before the procedure, in an effort to shift the child’s focus.” Serra recently talked with a parent who said this was the first time her son, who worked on a torn-paper collage, had not cried before the procedure. “The mother said she wished every time they came there could be an artist,” said Serra.
With a background in retail and marketing management, Kay Willingham started working with Pewabic Pottery eight years ago. For the past two years she’s been working as an artist with the patients at Children’s Hospital.
“Every week is something different,” said Willingham. “I work mainly in the activity room, so whoever walks or rolls in is your client.”
Willingham’s mother, a longtime teacher and Supervisor in the Detroit Public Schools, always encouraged her daughter to get her teaching certificate. “I said I would never be a teacher,” said Willingham. “But this work is different. It’s not like teaching math or science, or social studies. I get to hold a hand, look a child in the eye, and encourage them to do more so they can come back next week. This program allows me to teach these children a host of life lessons – patience, trust, to not be afraid to express themselves.”
Willingham recalled one of her most memorable encounters with a patient. “I had been working with the child before her surgery and she just loved to paint. But after the surgery, for some reason, she was no longer able to see. I was worried about how I would work with her. But in no time, I saw her incredible spirit was still there. I let her feel the different pots and select the one she liked best. She got a larger brush and just began to paint.”
“Learning how to interact with children with disabilities is an important part of the learning process for us,” said Duckworth. “We have so many different types of students who take our classes at the Pewabic site.” In addition to the on-site classes they also offer Saturday workshops, a summer camp, and off-site sessions where they go into the classroom. “We learn a lot from them and they learn a lot from us,” said Duckworth.
“Art is a wound turned into light” painter and sculptor George Braque once said That light is reflected in joy of the young patients at Children’s Hospital, in the memories of Pewabic artists like Kay Willingham who guide their young spirits, and on the canvases and collages that decorate the walls of a hospital that understands how art can and does help heal.