Being Present

Often, as I hand materials over to my patients, I find myself wondering what they are going to make.  It is easy to get caught up in the final product- what something is “going to be” and what it will look like “when it is all done”.

That is why recently, when I handed a young patient a ball of clay and she replied, “Thanks, I am not going to make anything” she gave me a good reminder of why art making is so helpful in the first place. In our art space, just playing with the art materials is exactly what some of our patients need to be able to do.

A pioneer in the field of art therapy, Edith Kramer, believed that the process of making art, not just the creation of a finished work, could be very therapeutic. She advocated for art therapists to place equal value on the creation process as on the final art product. She trusted that therapeutic value can come from manipulation, exploration and experimentation with art materials.

As this young patient manipulated the clay she laughed and talked about how she enjoys the feel of the clay squishing through her fingers.  She described the color and smell of the clay and watched it change consistency as she saturated it with water. She also expressed how relaxing it is to just play with something, without any intention of making anything. The benefit for this patient came from just being in the moment. Encouraging our patients to use art to be present is an essential process, which allows them to recognize and experience their feelings.

Let it Snow! Let it Snow! Let it Snow!

Throughout the year, the Tracy’s Kids art therapists help children decorate their hospital rooms with handmade creations, trying to make a foreign place feel a little bit more like home. Not surprisingly, these decorations tend to become even more festive and prolific during the holidays!

Even after an otherwise very cranky afternoon, one little boy quickly agreed that he wanted to have a white Christmas in his room! Soon, sticker snowflakes sparkled in his window and paper snowflakes floated down from his ceiling. In about twenty minutes, his room and his mood had completely changed. He has been asking for more snowflakes almost every time we see him. A full blown blizzard may be coming in the near future!

Twisted Paper Snowflakes

For the children who have to stay in the hospital over the holidays, a few pieces of paper and appropriately applied tape can make a huge difference. Even when it is fifty degrees and rainy outside, it can be snowing inside Children’s National Medical Center.

Below is a link to directions on how you can make your own twisty paper snowflakes. They can be made in any size and with any color paper. We hope you enjoy trying these on your own, and you can see how quickly any ordinary room can become a real winter wonderland!http://www.wikihow.com/Make-a-3D-Paper-Snowflake 

Happy Holidays from Tracy’s Kids at Children’s National Medical Center!!!

Sock Monkeys Part Two

Here is the update on Operation Sock Monkey at Lombardi. So far we have two complete monkeys and one in progress. We are starting to get a lot of interest in the project,  so I am going to pick up some more colorful socks so the groove can continue. We have until December 10 to send them in. Bet you can’t look at the photos without smiling!

Sparkles & Sprinkles

Glitter… that rather playful material that tends to defy any traditional cleaning methods and frequently manages to sneak itself into places where it does not belong – including my purse, my shoes and sometimes even my hair. Anyone who has children or who works with children knows the dangers of introducing the sparkly substance into any kind of art project – even the best laid plans typically end up covered in a sticky shine or hidden beneath a heaping pile of glitter.

This is no childhood obsession – glitter can be just as enticing for adults, as evidenced by the amount of sparkle habitually incorporated into numerous holiday decorations and in the (somewhat) secretive smiles of parents as they help their children add a little “shimmer” to their artwork.

So, what’s an art therapist to do when someone asks (oh, so innocently) for “glitter,” “sparkles,” or (the most popular among toddlers) “sprinkles, please…”

Just watch a child’s face light up with pure joy as she enthusiastically shakes copious amounts of glitter onto a miniscule dot of glue… With that little extra sparkle, she has created something perfect and beautiful that she will proudly show off to any adult within earshot (and even beyond). In that fleeting moment, in the art therapy room, her feeling of overwhelming success and happiness make all of the sweeping totally worth it.

Elizabeth Burks: Becoming an art therapist…continued

Although I somehow knew in the back of my mind that art therapy was where I would ultimately find my place in life, the journey there was much less than straight forward.  After college, there was no way I was ready to jump right back into graduate school, so I worked for several years in retail position that required a large amount of creativity with paper goods.  My favorite part of the job was encouraging people to experiment with art materials and to help them feel empowered through instruction and inspiration in any art endeavor.  Eventually, I felt I needed to move away from retail and more toward the aspect of my job that had left me feeling fulfilled. 

I applied to graduate programs and was accepted to the Adler School of Professional Psychology in Chicago, IL.  I especially like the emphasis Adler placed on addressing issues of social exclusion, sending its students into underserved areas of the community for internships.  As I started practicing art therapy as an intern in my second year of graduate school, I was fortunate enough to be placed in an urban hospital working primarily with children.  It was here that I developed the desire to continue working with kids challenged by life-altering illnesses, ultimately leading me to find Tracy’s Kids!

Elizabeth Burks – How I became an art therapist!

For as long as I can remember, I have used art as a means to explore my self and the world around me.  I especially realized the value and benefit of art making as a teenager, grappling with the awkwardness and confusion that comes with personal growth during the transition to young adulthood.  I began to discover the power of art as a tool for communication.  It was so much easier to communicate my thoughts and feelings when I could refer to a tangible piece of expressive art. 

 In college, I had a very difficult time choosing a major – a decision that in retrospect should have been quite straightforward.  My parents encouraged me to pursue art, but to set myself up so that I could successfully support myself after graduating.  When I finally realized that all of the classes that interested me were in the psychology department, I had my answer.  I majored in psychology and minored in art, a combination that was a perfect fit for me. 

 Growing up, I had never known that art therapy was a professional field of work.  Throughout my own art making endeavors, I really felt as though I had stumbled upon something brilliant – the use of art as a catalyst for introspection and processing of emotion and life events, big or small.  I couldn’t help but wonder how the field of psychology wasn’t all over this!  It was not until flipping through a catalogue of graduate classes that I simultaneously had my “AHA!” moment and discovered that I had, in fact, not been the first person to discover art therapy.  

 To be continued…

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!