Symbolic Runner

During our biweekly psychosocial rounds the social worker and I will collaborate on a staff art directive and one psychosocial aspect of our patients.  Our most recent meeting centered on the Ghanaian culture.  Having a multicultural patient population means the staff is often exposed to a variety of Faiths, practices, and social manners unlike their own. The best way to help give appropriate care to each family is to learn some of the customs.  the social worker and I became aware that we had quite a large group of families from Africa, particularly Ghana.  We decided that while she gave us a brief overview of the culture, focusing on their medical practices and beliefs, I would have the doctors and nurses stamp a runner.  The stamps were created from foam using an Ashanti symbols template.  After I explained the meanings of the various symbols, the staff were allowed to pick any of the stamps to add to the runner.  The next day two different staff members commented on how the addition of art with a cultural spin really enhanced the meeting.  They also requested more art directives during the meetings.  I know activating both sides of my brain, with art and learning, helps me to remember the learning.  I hope this symbolic runner helps us to be more culturally aware.

Bob and his dog, Bob

When a person has cancer most people’s thoughts go towards the physical and emotional hardships the person and their loved ones will have to endure.  What is an afterthought is the financial hardships.  When a child is diagnosed with cancer the treatment is started quickly, often very intense, and fluctuates as to how much time is spent in the hospital or the clinic.  At least one parent/guardian needs to be with that child at all times. It is not uncommon to hear of a parent losing their job due to missed days. If that parent is the sole breadwinner, or insurance carrier, the financial strain is devastating.   If the family has enough support a fundraiser in their hometown can be a huge help with keeping them on their feet, or even in their home.  One such family recently had a fundraiser where another guest of honor happened to attend.  Meet Bob and his dog, Bob.


Gretchen’s Story


As I sit at the art table with children and their parents, they often ask how i came about this work. Initially the questions will center around art therapy; its role, purpose, and education. After those questions the parents often want to know my personal story. Why did I choose to work in this profession? One where the outcome can be heartbreaking.

The truth is, i did not initially want to work with children. I wanted to work with adults, to help them regain the joy of childhood. 20 years ago in undergrad as a anthropology/sociology student i took an expressive therapies class. While the music and the dance were not enjoyable to me, the art was. I realized i was using art as an emotional release for myself most of my life. I even chose not to take art classes because my creations were too close to my heart and my feelings.

After graduation i traveled the country with a friend and met a woman in California studying art therapy. As we lay in our tent on the side of the road talking about our futures i had an epiphany. I wanted to become an art therapist and work with adults who were HIV positive and/or suffering from AIDS. I had a purpose and a plan. I rounded up a few friends to move out to California so i could get residency and go back to school. Ah the best laid plans…

Ten years later I find myself as a single mother in Maryland with the chance to go back to school. As The George Washington University was right in D.C. and had the oldest Art Therapy program in the U.S., I knew the time was right. I had talked with Tracy at Georgetown to get a feel for the program and the profession and decided to take the plunge. I still wanted to work with adults, until my internships exposed me to the joys of working with children. By the time the Children’s clinic in Falls Church had an opening I had gotten my Masters in Art Therapy and my Graduate Counseling Licensure. I was ready for Tracy’s Kids. What i love best about this program is the whole family work I am able to do. Helping adults and children brings me joy at the end of each day.

Clinic Kaleidoscope


Sometimes patients must come to get treatment every day, often for hours, for weeks on end. When that is the case it can tax the creativity of both the patient and the art therapist. I try to keep acquiring new ideas and new skills through various blogs, classes, and books. However, sometimes the old ideas, ones long forgotten, can spur on a new creative endeavor.

About 20 years ago I worked in my Aunt’s stained glass studio where we had two kaleidoscope kits. They were tedious to assemble and difficult to sell. The other day the idea of a kaleidoscope came back when a teenage patient, who had been at the clinic for weeks, was looking for something new to do.

 We managed to make this one using a paper towel roll, small mosaic mirror tiles taped together, medical tape, and parts of a few urine specimen containers. As my memories of how the kaleidoscope was assembled came flooding back, our design gradually took form.

 When we completed one and displayed it in the art room, many other kids wanted to make one too! As we began to run out of the supplies we originally used, the children found ways to alter the first design and create other masterpieces with the materials on hand.



The Tree

Working with art materials everyday is exhilarating and exhausting at times. It can be easy to get into a rut and pull out the same materials for the same projects time and time again. I am constantly searching for new ideas that will interest the patients I see at the outpatient clinic. One project I recently found was to wet an unprimed canvas and spread watered down acrylic paint on the canvas. This project caught my eye because I happened to have a roll of unprimed canvas. I decided to try a group project of a large tree to hang on the wall. I drew and cut out a tree on the canvas, filled cups with watered down acrylics, and placed syringes in the paint cups. While I was setting up a teenage boy and his mother stopped in on their way to the teen room. I told them I was making a tree and would they like to help. The mother seemed interested, but I thought the boy would not be. I was definitely wrong! Not only did he show interest in the project, he stood in the art area, connected to many pumps and monitors, and waited for me to finish setting up. I had met the boy and his mother two days before and found them both to be very nice and very quiet. The simple availability of the art project brought them out of the dark teen room where they engaged with other families and enjoyed themselves. At one point the boy exclaimed “This is fun”! I learned a lot from the family during our time with the tree. With my simple questions they opened up to tell stories of their family and how the illness is affecting all of them. I was even able to remind them of ailments they mentioned to me when their doctor stopped by to see what everyone was making. The ability of the art to engage, relax, and bring about further communication is what draws me to art therapy and pushes me to always find new and fresh ideas for the patients.


Mixed Media Stars

Working in a hospital clinic often means an abundance of out of date magazines. As a mixed media artist it is hard to just toss them out, even when the boxes start to pile up. Although there are always a few people interested in collage work, the number of old magazines far outweighs the images used. One patient and her parent introduced making layered flowers out of magazine pages, and that was fun, but, while the flowers were pretty, I decided to find other uses for our old magazines.

I wanted to make a star banner for the fourth of July. I made three star-shaped templates in descending sizes out of card stock. I then started to look for interesting colors and patterns in the magazines. When we had made a lot of cut-out stars, I asked people to pick out two or three. We started by folding each spoke of the star in half lengthwise towards the center, folding in to the wrong side, giving the stars dimension. We then glued a circle of foam between the layers to keep them from collapsing.

While this project was easy for many ages, the parents were the ones most invested. Parents accompany their children to outpatient appointments, so they too spend long hours with little to do. They would start by using the stars I had cut out, but then they moved to searching for images. The parents really liked having something to do at the art area without having to “create”. Although this was creating, it seemed safe and non-judgmental. Many parents said they liked the activity because even though they were not creative people, they could explore color and texture through the images.

A few parents moved on from the safety of the stars to more individual work as the clinic days rolled by. Although my intention for the star banner was for the younger patients to create, I was glad the parents took over. It brought more families to the art area to talk, share stories, bond, and create.