A Decade of [P]ARTnership

Artwork by Eliana, age 11

Art With a Heart in Healthcare retrospective celebrates ten years of exhibits at MOCA Jacksonville

For ten years the art of healing has been on display at the Museum of Contemporary Art Jacksonville (MOCA). Each year young patients at area hospitals have seen their artwork on museum walls, thanks to the partnership between MOCA and the extraordinary nonprofit Art With a Heart in Healthcare (AWAHIH). The artworks’ themes and approaches vary with each exhibition, but what is always abundant is an insightful self-awareness and confidence that art brings forth in young people faced with challenging health issues and changes to their environment. AWAHIH’s in-hospital art program gives these children and teenagers the chance to articulate their experience as well as communicate their uniqueness beyond their current situation. It is truly the power of art that is on display.

“Humanizing the high-tech atmosphere of the hospital environment, it helps the young patients regain a sense of self, helping the healing process,” says MOCA Senior Curator Ylva Rouse. “By having their work displayed at MOCA, the patient artists gain a sense of accomplishment and pride.”

Artwork by Jonathan, age 11

Since its 2001 founding by cousins Lori Guadagno and Lisa Landwirth Ullmann, AWAHIH’s artists-in-residence have guided patient-artists enduring long-term hospital stays. Today, AWAHIH artists visit patients at Jacksonville’s Wolfson Children’s Hospital, Nemours Children’s Clinic, Mayo Clinic, Baptist Health, and St. Vincent’s. Through AWAHIH’s provided art activities, young patients’ hospital experiences can change dramatically. The participants are given the option to create a work based on a chosen theme each year for the annual MOCA exhibition. These themes are developed to encourage self-reflection and expression, while fostering new skills in art media and giving patients time with their thoughts and keeping their hands busy. Past themes have included “Selfie,” which sought to show more than a quick self-portrait would normally reveal; “Un-Mask,” when participants were asked “What’s in your head?”; “A World of Their Own,” in which patients illustrated their ideal world; and last year’s popular theme, “Animal-Gamation,” which asked the artists to create a hybrid animal as a new form of self-identity that houses their personality and stories.

Joshua Junior Ribeiro, age 12

The AWAHIH artists-in-residence generate the themes and associated art approaches. Many of these artists-in-residence are students in art and art education programs at the University of North Florida (UNF) and University of Florida (UF). Retired UNF Professor of Art Louise Freshman Brown helped connect some of the first student interns to AWAHIH, handpicking over 90 interns over the years. Associate Professor of Painting and Drawing at UNF Jason Johns  currently acts as the UNF intern coordinator. Several of UF’s Master of Arts in Art Education graduates have become full staff members after interning with the organization. This program is a special link to the community’s universities and artists.

Some former AWAHIH participants are now art students at these universities. Keilana Hoffstetter is currently a fine arts major at Florida State University (FSU) with a primary focus in painting and a secondary focus in digital media such as animation and generative coding. “My art-making with AWAHIH reignited my passion for art and made it a dominant element in my life once again,” Keilana says. Read about her experience on page 26.

During the initial months of the COVID-19 pandemic, AWAHIH staff artists were unable to visit patients at the area hospitals due to the strict visitation restrictions. “We knew we needed to keep seeing our wonderful patients so we quickly switched gears and went to a virtual platform to be able to give the gift of art to as many people we could,” says AWAHIH Executive Director Christy Ponder. As early as March, they began to post online art tutorials and project ideas on Facebook, provide hand-drawn coloring pages by their artists-in-residence on the AWAHIH website, and hold bedside Zoom sessions with their patient artists.

AWAHIH artists-in-residence work with patients using handpans

Ponder says that the feedback from hospitals on this digital content has been very positive, and is encouraged that videos help further AWAHIH’s mission by increasing its reach into the community. Anyone can do these projects now, and regular Facebook Live sessions have brought artists together online to create and share their work in real time. Ponder cites over 1,000 views of their videos and 13,000 impressions, or deliveries, to individual feeds. Teachers are using them as well, and the Tom Coughlin Jay Fund Foundation, which provides support to families tackling childhood cancer, is actively sharing the videos with their families. A fun extra offering is an online raffle drawing—Facebook Live participants that post their artworks to the site are eligible to receive mini artworks by local artists.

In early 2020 AWAHIH grew its exhibition space by adding a gallery of patient artwork to the walls of Nemours Children’s Specialty Care, in the THE PLAYERS Lobby, supported by a gift from Florida Blue. AWAHIH states that among the benefits of art services, young patients experience improved cognitive skills, pain management, and enhanced emotional and physical well-being. The behavioral health component to art therapy is well-documented, and AWAHIH expanded its services this year to provide art sessions to both pediatric and adult behavioral health patients. They also added music as a tool for healing, sharing the work of local handpan musician John Guinta.

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