Dress-up for Grownups

For many of our children, Halloween is a festive and exciting time of year – one that can be especially disheartening for those spending it in the hospital. For some of these kids, the typical childhood “trick or treating” from door to door fades into a dream rather than a sugary reality. So, we make an extra special effort to transform the hospital into something extra special for the holiday – including fun decorations, a fantastic party sponsored by Hope for Henry and staff members who dress up in costumes hoping to get a good laugh out of the kids.

So, during the onslaught of Hurricane Sandy, I set to work creating my Halloween alter-ego…

Elizabeth & Katharine in their Halloween Headgear

It was so much fun putting my costume together – adding each detail and imagining the kids’ reactions. With my pile of felt and my hot glue gun (and a few mild burns), I felt like a little kid again. As art therapists, we typically spend a lot of our time and energy encouraging the children and teenagers we work with to find new ways to express themselves through the act of creating. It is especially wonderful (though not rare) when the children drive us to be more creative.

Reliving the simple joys of just “being a kid” during the rainy days of the hurricane also reinforced the importance of helping our patients to more fully experience their childhoods, especially when they are in the hospital. Each one of the children and adolescents we are privileged to work with is so much more than a diagnosis and a medical record number. The art therapists with Tracy’s Kids get to help children expand the world of the hospital and to cope more effectively through art making, a powerful part of childhood for so many.

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…

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.

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.

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.