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.

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.

A Bear & A Healing Garden

Over the past two years, the Tracy’s Kids art therapists in the Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders have collaborated with other art therapists at Children’s National Medical Center to create two large murals which now hang prominently in our hallways – bringing the children and teenagers who worked on the murals a great sense of pride and accomplishment.

The art therapists first pieced together blank canvases of various sizes and drew the basic outline of the mural image. The canvases were then taken apart again, so that patients and siblings all over the hospital were each given their own piece of the mural. Without knowing what the final image would be, children of all ages (and with all different kinds of diagnoses) painted, glued and collaged the canvases.

Collaborative Mural of A Healing Garden

Each canvas stands alone as a beautiful artwork, but once the individual pieces were put back together, the results were even more amazing. Our first mural depicts Dr. Bear, the mascot of Children’s National Medical Center, and the most recent mural shows our “Healing Garden.” Once each mural was displayed, patients and siblings marveled at how their small piece of artwork contributed to the larger mural. The murals created a great sense of community – even though many of the patient-artists had never met, they became more aware of other children who share their experience in the hospital by collaborating in this project.

Care for the Caregiver

 

All staff members in the Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders work very closely with families and patients, some of whom we have known for months or even years.  Working alongside these families, staff members naturally witness and experience a large range of emotions.  As a traditional workday on the unit doesn’t always allow for very much downtime, theTracy’s Kids art therapists host regular Care for the Caregiver sessions for staff members in the art therapy room. 

Care for the Caregiver sessions allow a time and space for any and all staff on the Hematology/Oncology unit to take time out of a busy day for themselves.  During this time, staff members are encouraged to draw support from one another and to use the art materials provided to facilitate the process of relaxation and reflection.  Mandalas, or circle drawings, are a very popular choice amongst staff – the containing and centering qualities of the circular form have long been used in cultures around the world. During a sometimes hectic workday, the art making creates an opportunity for self care that enables staff members to continue to provide first class care for patients and families.

“I Don’t Know What I am Making, But I Like It!”

As an art therapist, I often hear people say “I am not creative” or “I am not good at art”. These statements are not surprising as art is often judged by the final product and many of us feel like we fall short when it comes to creating something that can be called art.  While product- focused art making can be valuable, the desire to create a “good” work of art can also get in the way of experiencing the creative process. Creativity can be stifled by focusing on what the artwork looks like rather than what it feels like to create.

One way to focus directly on the process of creating art is through the intuitive painting process, which was originally developed by Michele Cassou.  We incorporated this process into our summer workshops by inviting the kids to “just paint” until they felt the picture was complete. We worked in an outdoor space at the hospital, turning a brick wall and a picnic bench into our own artist’s studio. Paper was taped to the wall and cups were filled with colorful paints. When one painting was finished a new paper was offered. The kids ran back and forth from the table of paints to the paper with dripping brushes in hand. Some kids splatter painted, some created meditative circular forms, while others painted people and animals. There were even a few participants that got so much paint on themselves that they became the artwork! As the kids painted they laughed and asked questions. Many commented on their own process saying, “I don’t know what I am making, but I like it!”

Stepping into a process in which the focus was on how something was created rather than what was created allowed the kids to let go. They enjoyed the messiness of the paint, explored how colors dripped down the canvas and pondered the wonderful and unexpected images that emerged onto the paper.

Making Masks

Children, teens and young adults in the Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders at CNMC have made hundreds of masks over the course of this summer. Creating masks is an incredibly popular project for everyone who comes to the art therapy room – parents and staff included! The initially blank masks serve as an amazingly poignant starting point for our patients and their families to express and examine emotions and experiences throughout the course of diagnosis and treatment for cancer and blood disorders.

Patients receiving treatment for Sickle Cell Disease made masks for a hospital wide exhibit in recognition of World Sickle Cell Day – a day dedicated to promoting a better understanding of Sickle Cell Disease and how it can impact children, adults and families around the world.  Some of the masks created by our patients now displayed prominently at Children’sNationalMedicalCenter. Hundreds of people pass by the bright and colorful exhibit every single day. The young artists’ masks are not only an attractive addition to the hospital but also a wonderful way to bring more attention to the challenges faced by children with this diagnosis.

Always Happy No Matter What

One important facet of the Tracy’s Kids philosophy is that art-making can empower children to be active in their treatment, alleviating the passivity of being a patient. When most people think about hospitals they imagine sick people laying in beds, but this painting perfectly illustrates how art can transform the treatment center into a place of wellness and activity. Created by the 10-year-old sister of a patient, she said the following about her art work:

Even though the kids here are sick, they still have fun and do things. There is a big rain storm, but they don’t care. They are painting and playing anyway.”

This young girl had never been with her sister to the hospital before, and it is incredibly gratifying to see that the art room made her view the entire hospital as a place where kids are happy and getting well.

Tools of the Trade

As Tracy’s Kids art therapists, we are lucky enough to be able to offer the kids a wide array of art supplies every day. In addition to these hand-selected fun and colorful tools, as medical professionals we also have access to a whole other world of resources – medical supplies! Kids love nothing more than to blow up latex gloves and make puppets, or throw rolls of exam table paper on the walls for a mural, or squirt paint onto paper with a new syringe. The novelty of using these supplies always gets the kids excited, but it also gives them the opportunity to interact with the medical environment in a positive way.

From Children’s National Medical Center

The art therapists from Children’s National Medical Center are very excited to be a part of the new Tracy’s Kids blog and hope to share some of the very special things that happen here every single day!

The Tracy’s Kids program at the main campus of CNMC is very lucky to have four master’s level art therapists – two full-time, one part-time, and one Summer position.  As we are fortunate enough to have this many therapists, we are able to provide art therapy services to inpatients, outpatients and their families in the Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders six days a week.

The mainstay of our services is the art therapy room (pictured below), a very popular place for patients and siblings to visit during their time at the hospital.  After finishing a new artwork, children and adolescents often request that their piece be displayed.   As a result, every available surface in the art therapy room is decorated with unique artwork.  When patients and family members return days, weeks or even months later, they are excited and touched to see that their artwork still has a place of honor in the art therapy room.  Just yesterday, a mother commented about how happy she was to see her son’s artwork still displayed prominently, nearly a year after his bone marrow transplant.

Art Therapy Room

 

The art not only provides the patients and families with a unique way to express themselves but also helps us to make a beautiful and welcoming space in the art

therapy room!  Displaying their creations in the art therapy room gives patients and siblings a sense of belonging and ownership in the hospital, and creates a sense of lasting connection with the staff members who supported them through their treatment.