Tracy’s Story

The Tracy’s Kids Art Therapists have been writing about how they came to the field of art therapy. My path, like most of theirs, was a winding road. When I was eight years old, the thought came to me “I am an artist.” Not, “I want to be an artist when I grow up,” but I am an artist and I always will be.

I come from a long line of teachers—specifically early childhood educators—so I always assumed that would be my profession. Having arrived on the planet at the tail-end of the baby boom, by the time I graduated from high school the early boomers were already into their careers, and there weren’t a lot of opportunities on the horizon, even for teachers!

Since there wasn’t much point in going into education, I decided to follow my heart and major in art. Art school was tough—much tougher than most folks think—and the mid-late 1970’s were a time of transition in the art world. But I earned a BFA in Painting and Printmaking from Virginia Commonwealth University in 1978. My BFA mainly qualified me to wait tables, work retail, and cashier at a ski lodge–and do art.

After several years of doing seasonal work and continuing to develop my art, I was hired to be the first County Arts Coordinator in Watauga County, NC. My duties included supervising all the arts-related programs for the county Parks and Rec. Department, and starting and directing a community Arts Council. I held the job for four years, learned a lot, and worked with many wonderful artists in the community—but because it was successful, the workload grew and grew. I found that I was regularly working 70 hours a week, and no longer had time for my own art. I gave up the Arts Coordinator position and became the Secretary at the Mission School Conference Center in Valle Crucis, NC in 1984. That was a mostly nine-to-five job in a pastoral setting, and it allowed me to again focus on my own art.

During the two years I worked there, I had a one-person show at a local gallery and got back into woodblock prints—one of my favorite media. Since I had more free time, I joined the church choir—and it turned out the choir director’s day job was as a Music Therapist! I had never heard of such a thing, but I asked her if there was something similar for visual art. It sounded like a profession that resonated with my personality and my reasons for making art. She put me in touch with the American Art Therapy Association, and by August of that year I was enrolled in the Art Therapy Master’s Program at GWU—ten years after I earned my BFA!

As part of my training, I was lucky to have a second-year internship at Georgetown Hospital that included Pediatric Hematology-Oncology. I loved the work immediately—setting up with a plastic basket of art supplies in the clinic waiting room, engaging patients, siblings and parents and supporting them through the ups and downs of treatment.

I treasured the experience, and when the opportunity opened up for me to help write a grant to start an art therapy program back at Lombardi, I jumped at the chance. I started out part-time in September 1991, and the Prevent Cancer Foundation in Alexandria, VA, started funding the program full-time in January 1992. They supported the program for many years, until Tracy’s Kids became a free-standing non-profit in 2009.

Today, with programs in five Pediatric Hematology-Oncology treatment programs, staffed by eight art therapists, Tracy’s Kids is much bigger than Tracy—but it is wonderful to see the model I developed at Georgetown adapt so beautifully in others’ hands. The profession of art therapy is all about using one’s inner resources to meet life’s challenges, and it is my daily privilege to help with that process in whatever way I can.

 

Art Can Be Anywhere

Last month, Methodist Children’s started doing renovations on our Hem/Onc/Transplant unit, so we temporarily moved to another floor.  Up until then, afternoon art therapy groups were held in the family room – the only common area we have on our unit because space did not allow for a playroom – so  I had to get creative about space on this new floor where there would be no common rooms at all.  The kids and parents were really concerned that there wouldn’t be a place to do art in our temporary home, and doing art only at the bedside was not a substitute.  They love to get together with other families!

Luckily, I have some experience finding space where there is none.  Most art therapists have worked in places where they had no office, no desk, and sometimes not even a decent table to do art on.  I have worked in wonderful dedicated art spaces, but I have also crammed myself and participants at tiny tables in waiting rooms.  As a student, I worked one year in a private office full of art supplies, and another toting around a large plastic bin of supplies and paper and perching wherever I could find a customer.  Right now, I have a little bit of both.  The clinic has a playroom that I share with Child Life, and I can easily facilitate art groups in there.  In the afternoons, I roll an art cart over the the unit and either go to patients’ rooms or run groups in the family room, as I mentioned.  Personally, I enjoy the challenge of coming up with ways to make space – or lack thereof – work.  Honestly, I think the families do, too.  Sure, they would all love a spacious play/art room, but they also enjoy coming together and rising to that challenge.

When faced with no room to do art, I, along with the families, decided we could just roll the bedside tray tables out in the hall and work there.  Sometimes kids put paper on the walls and paint, others face each other in pairs on the small tables and get to know each other.  Though it’s a little strange to invite families to a BYOT (Bring You Own Table) art party, it is fun to see these big groups out in an unlikely place.  The nurses and doctors love having the kids and families out in the open where they can all interact and see what the kids are making.  I am looking forward to our renovated unit, which will now have a more functional, kid-friendly,  multi-purpose activity room, but I have really enjoyed getting the families out in the hall together to make art, talk, and change the boring hospital hallway into the social center of the unit.

Another art therapist is born

 I loved art as a little kid and I have many happy memories of standing at the easel painting outside on my front lawn.  My mother had found that parking me on the lawn was an easy way to lessen the amount of clean-up from my painting projects.  Streaks of paint are actually still visible on some of the rocks on my parents’ hill from those warm summer days.

 I was however, educated in a public school setting where I got to attend art class once a week throughout elementary school.  After the age of ten, you had to choose what your elective arts class would be and you only got one; because I played the flute I always ended up taking band.  After I left the 5th grade I never got to take another art class again and art kind of fell to the wayside and became a hobby that I loved and enjoyed, but rarely had time for. 

 When I went to college I majored in Literature because I love to read and I have always enjoyed writing creatively.  While I was there I was required to take an arts class for one of my core education class requirements.  I enthusiastically signed up for a painting class.  Right before I started the class my boyfriend of the time, who I had been with for the past 3 years, was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.  I remember tearing up on the first day of class when we did a round-robin introduction and had to mention something that was important in our lives.  That painting class became a wonderful relaxing refuge for me.  I could go there and just enjoy the feeling of the brush on the canvas or re-working a certain portion of the piece again and again.  I remembered the joy that I had experienced as a small child painting on my front lawn and once again I became enamored with making art.  I signed up for another art class every semester after that and I ended up minoring in art.        

 Then I graduated from college and came to the shocking realization that I would actually have to somehow support my self with a degree in Literature.  I began doing temp work, where they actually made me sit in the supply closet and do data entry because there were not enough desks in the office.  I actually used to beg to be given stapling and filing assignments.  Anyways, after only a few months I snagged a job working as a behavioral therapist with preschoolers with autism. 

 I loved a lot about the time I spent at work and I found the children to be truly enjoyable to be around.  But I didn’t really like the strictness of behavioral therapy and I kept wondering if there was a way that I could be doing something more creative with the kids.  Maybe I should be an art teacher at a special education school I thought.  One of the kids I worked with was a very high functioning little boy who was terrified of hair cuts.  He would scream and tantrum in the chair until it was nearly impossible to go anywhere near him with scissors.  I worked with him and we made a little puppet version of himself with long hair.  Then, he got to cut the puppet’s hair again and again.  When his mom took him in to get his hair cut at the end of the week, he didn’t cry or fuss at all.  He remembered from his puppet that everything would be ok. 

 After this experience I was talking on the phone to my mother and she began telling me that she had read this really interesting article on a thing called art therapy and that she thought it would be a really good fit for me.  I got off the phone and started looking into art therapy schools and the rest is history. 

 I went to school for art therapy inNew York Cityat Pratt Institute and worked in the city for another year afterwards in preventive services for child welfare.  But the home visits and numerous hours of documentation took a heavy toll on me and after 6 months I started looking around for other job opportunities.  When I came to Children’sNationalMedicalCenterin the spring of 2008 and interviewed for the art therapy position withTracy’s Kids, I immediately felt at ease and I knew that I had finally found a position that was a good fit for me.  I never cease to be amazed by the kids here and I am grateful every day to have found this job that I find both enjoyable and extremely rewarding.

How Art Therapy Found Me

My journey to art therapy was a winding road and then a final “aha!” moment. I was the recipient of art therapy before I ever realized what it was. Growing up primarily overseas, coupled with the normal angst of adolescence, lead me to rely on art making as a way to cope with, explore and understand my experience. I journaled, collaged, painted and sculpted my way through high school and then went on to take many art classes in college. I saw art as a way of life, but was not certain if it could ever be a way of making a living. After college I went into the world of fashion design, which I enjoyed for several years. Although I didn’t know it at the time, the parts of that work I enjoyed the most were some of the foundations of art therapy- creating, collaborating, and sharing ideas.

I finally came upon the field of art therapy a few years ago when a family member was hospitalized for a long period of time. The months spent at my love one’s bedside, hearing the experiences of the neighboring patients and getting a window into the world of healthcare got me thinking about how I could use art as a tool for healing. After some research I had my big “aha!” moment when I found the incredible field of art therapy.

After a lot of hard work, I graduated with my M.A. in Art Therapy from The George Washington University and have been privileged to work for Tracy’s Kids since May 2011. Often staff and parents will say to me, “You have the best job ever” and I certainly agree!

Another Fateful Journey

While every art therapist has a unique story as to how he or she became interested in the field, there always seems to be at least one similarity – everyone seems to have that seemingly fateful moment or some kind of epiphany that leads to the realization that art therapy embodies two passions into a real job!

In undergraduate school, I experienced that typical identity crisis approaching adulthood, trying to decide who I was going to be and what I was going to do with my life… I found myself regularly glaring at the college form that was going to (at least in my mind) determine my future. I needed to “officially” declare my major… and I had to choose between psychology and studio art. They seemed to be such different fields, but I truly loved them both and could not imagine finding personal satisfaction in a career that focused on only one.

Then, I found my path to art therapy – I majored in studio art and essentially double majored in psychology, perfectly combining my two passions to prepare myself for graduate school.

My interview at the graduate art therapy program at the George Washington University (GW) provided me with another fateful opportunity. I had always wanted to do something in pediatric oncology – a combination of additional interests, children and healthcare. But I knew there was absolutely no way that I would ever have a job providing art therapy in a pediatric oncology setting…

Until I met a graduate student interning at Tracy’s Kids during my interview at GW – I finally knew that my dream job existed and felt that I had truly found my place. I was lucky enough to have my second year graduate school internship with Tracy’s Kids at Children’s National Medical Center. I was then fortunate enough to be able to transition from student intern to full-time employee. It has been a truly wonderful experience that completely validated my fateful journey to the dream job that I could not have ever imagined would actually exist. And now, I get to do something amazing every, single day.

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.

 

The Greater Good

Our beautiful silk hoop and origami mural at Life With Cancer

Patients and their family members often create art and then leave it in the art room to be completed or displayed. Pieces of origami and an assortment of silk hoops wait to be strung with beads to create a hanging art piece or a mobile. Sometimes interest in one technique or medium is shared by many kids and parents at the same time. This is often the case with both folding origami and painting on silk. When this happens a variety of artists often agree to combine their pieces to create a larger group art piece. Unlike the individual art pieces that reflect each artist personally, these group pieces represent the parts of their lives that they share; specifically the common bond of creating while waiting during weekly visits to the clinic for treatment. These group pieces become a beautiful representation of the collective group and they reflect the combined efforts and inspiration of the all the children, teens and parents who contribute pieces. The art making process helps to provide a different spin on this weekly experience. When the individual pieces join together they reflect the connection, cohesion and support that the children and parents provide to each other during this time. It is moving and beautiful, and it is an honor to witness.

The final piece becomes a legacy of those connections and experiences as well and a means to inspire others to create and explore.

"It is moving and beautiful, and an honor to witness."

Happily Hungry: Smart Recipes for Kids with Cancer

Author Danielle Navidi has turned her experience as the mom of a kid with cancer into an amazing resource for anyone who wants to cook and eat healthily!

 I first met Danielle when her 11 year old son was diagnosed with cancer. He and his siblings were active participants in the Tracy’s Kids art therapy program at Lombardi throughout his treatment and recovery—creative, open, bright and funny despite the intrusion of cancer into their family’s life!

 She was already a caterer, but something Fabien said shortly after he finished treatment inspired her to pursue an MS in nutrition. One night at dinner Fabien said, “This is my new favorite soup, Mom. It tastes like someone is taking care of me.”

 Happily Hungry

While the recipes were in development, Danielle did cooking demonstrations in the clinic at Lombardi—filling the whole clinic with the colors, smells and sounds of delicious food being prepared. Kids would take a break from their art-making to help Danielle chop vegetables or prepare smoothies. The kids and their parents gave Danielle feedback on her recipes—“not sweet enough;” “it tastes healthy”; “I like it, but I didn’t think I would!” and she chuckled and encouraged them to keep an open mind.

 Happily Hungry is already available on Amazon.com (click here to go to the link at Amazon). Here’s an excerpt from one of the online reviews:

 This cookbook is the most awesome cookbook I’ve seen in years. Of course, it was written with an eye for kids with cancer, but anyone who has a picky eater in their household can benefit from these great recepies and tips. I have made the chicken soup, the muffins and the smoothies. The kids and I have a plan to make all the recipes before the end of the year. The recipes are absolutely fabulous and the book itself is beautiful, moving, fun and enticing to both adults and kids.

 As an art therapist in pediatric oncology, I see kids and families dig deep and come up with the courage and resilience to fight through some really tough stuff. It is an incredible privilege to share Danielle’s story and the amazing accomplishment that is Happily Hungry.

Becoming the “Art Lady”

People ask me all the time how I became an art therapist. Most of the time they have never heard of art therapy, but they can tell I have a lot of fun and, frankly, are a little jealous that I get to make art with kids all day. Of course, there’s a lot more to art therapy than just making art with kids all day, but I do completely enjoy being with people in the art-making process. I get to do something I really enjoy for a living, something that comes very naturally to me, and for that I know I am lucky. But, to all those jealous people – I will never make a million dollars doing this. Keep that in mind before you quit your stockbroker job.

I have always been an artist. As a child, it was hands-down my favorite thing to do. Playing with Barbies was, admittedly, a really close second. I’m pretty sure I ruined a trip to Florida for my best friend when I was 8-years-old because I was more interested in drawing imaginary rock stars with my smelly markers than swimming in the pool or going to Disney World. Did I mention I was a strange child?

It was only natural, then, that I auditioned for an arts magnet program for both middle school and high school. It was never a question, really. I was always compelled to make art and I was good at it. I was also really, really bad at all sports, cheerleading, and most normal extracurricular activities. When I look back, though, I never thought I would be an artist as a career. I wasn’t necessarily prolific or driven to be an artist as a trade. I never imagined I would make anything that anyone would buy. I was very confused when I started college because while all of my artist friends were trying to get into art institutes, I was not really sure how to channel this ability. As if by fate, I came across a book at my public library – Approaches to Art Therapy by Judy Rubin, and I felt like I had found the perfect fit. I loved art and I was always interested in helping people and understanding human behavior. Also, Judy Rubin is awesome. Just a little bit of trivia – she was the “art lady” on Mister Roger’s Neighborhood.

Of course, like most people in their late teens and twenties, I meandered to my goal with a few detours. I was a psychology major in college and an almost art minor, because my last semester I spontaneously decided to do a politics program in Washington, DC and did not finish my art credits. One semester in DC and I knew I had zero political aspirations, but I’m glad I explored that avenue and got to know the city. After graduation, I still had art therapy on my mind, but just wasn’t quite ready for graduate school. I was a preschool teacher and then a middle school teaching assistant. I loved working with kids, but these were tough, thankless, money-less jobs. I’m not going to lie, this kind of work got me interested in going back to school VERY QUICKLY. I did some research and became interested in the George Washington University in Washington, DC. I already knew the city and the program has a rich history, founded by some of the most influential art therapists in the field.

How did I join up with Tracy’s Kids? Most art therapy graduate programs have at least two separate, year-long, intensive practicum components. My second year, I worked under Tracy’s supervision at Georgetown, though I was actually working with adult oncology patients. I loved my internship there, but more importantly I became familiar with Tracy’s work with pediatric cancer patients and I really connected with her style. Toward the end of my time there, Tracy’s Kids was on the cusp of expansion to Children’s National Medical Center. They would need an art therapist to lead that expansion, and I wanted that job. BAD. There was about a year between my graduation and when this job would be up for grabs, so I worked with a wonderful family as their nanny and hounded Tracy for information on a monthly basis until the job was posted. Luckily, the team at Children’s thought I was a good fit. In 2006, I embarked on the most challenging, rewarding job I have ever had, and I’m so thankful to still be part of the team today.

What I love about being part of this field is that people really believe in the work they do. I have met some very colorful characters over the years through school, conferences, and workshops and I don’t always understand everyone’s style, but I have never met an art therapist who didn’t truly care about the work they do and the people they serve. Art therapists are hard-working people who often spend a lot of time justifying their jobs to budget-cutters, explaining the importance of the work to people who don’t know the field, and fighting for licensure and equality with other mental health fields. And yet, almost every art therapist I know is energized by the art-making they see every day and the positive changes they see in the people they help. I am proud to be a part of this profession.

And for any men who might be interested in art therapy, there really are some guys in the field. At least one or two, I promise.

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.