Tape-imals

The art room at the Methodist Children’s clinic is currently overrun with tape animals (and a few other interesting creatures), and they have created quite a buzz among everyone who sees them!

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A young college student visited our clinic one day to learn more about art therapy and specifically how Tracy’s Kids operates.  While she sat in the art room, getting to know some of the kids, she showed us how to make sculptures out of paper and masking tape.  The kids and I were enthralled.  The construction is simple, but really require a lot of patience and problem-solving to get the desired effect.  It’s a great project for families to do together, because sometimes you need extra hands.

All you need is paper, masking tape, and paint.  Regular masking tape works the best.  We started with painter’s tape because I had it on hand, but it doesn’t stick very well (by design), even though it IS  a fun blue color.  The paper is easiest to sculpt if it’s on the thin side, like copy paper.  This could be a great use for extra sheets of paper that are often floating around hospital clinics.  Crumple the paper and work it with your hands until you get the desired shape, then wrap in several layers of tape.  If you do make an animal – or anything with limbs and parts that stick out – it works best to do it in pieces, and then join them together.  Most kids decide to paint the sculptures at the end, but it’s up to them!

I am a big fan of any art that is cheap to create.  As an added bonus, despite their use of simple materials, the end-result looks really special.  I love the attention they get from everyone in the clinic – doctors and nurses and everyone who happens by all “ooh” and”ahh” over them, to the kids’ delight.

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Yes, that is the Pillsbury Doughboy!

Friends of Tracy’s Kids

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Often times we have families and friends of families ask to give donations specifically to Tracy’s Kids. Not only do people love the program and see the benefits every day, but they love that the money will go to something very visible and tangible – art supplies! Obviously, the donations help pay our salaries and make our jobs possible, as well, but seeing the product of their contributions – the kid’s wonderful art – is very gratifying for the donors.

Last month, I was surprised instead by one of our staff members – an awesome nurse named Anita – and her book club with a check for $100. The individuals in the club – the San Antonio Rowdy Readers – donate $1 each meeting, then give whatever they collect at the end of the year to an organization or cause that they want to help. This year, that recipient was me and Tracy’s Kids! It was such a treat and a testament not only to the impact of art therapy on patients AND staff, but also to how dedicated our nurses are to improving our kids’ lives.

Thanks Anita and the San Antonio Rowdy Readers! And thank you to everyone who gives to our program.  It makes a difference you can see.

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.

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.

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.