Art With a Heart in Healthcare’s Annual Patient Exhibition
When cousins Lori Guadagno and Lisa Landwirth Ullmann founded the 501(c)(3) non-profit Art with a Heart in Healthcare (AWAHIH) in 2001, the goal was to enhance the healing process for hospitalized patients and their families through art experiences. AWAHIH has since served thousands of families at Wolfson Children’s Hospital and Nemours Children’s Specialty Care, as well as recently at St. Vincent’s Medical Center and the Mayo Clinic under the leadership of Executive Director Christy Ponder (read The Conversation with Ponder on page 38) and MSW Director of Operations/Artist in Residence Lori Presto.
AWAHIH’s focus is on enhancing the healing process through personal expression. “Art expression helps humanize the high-tech atmosphere of the clinical settings while diminishing fear, pain, boredom and depression associated with hospitalization,” states the organization on their website. “Art can empower a patient and their family member when faced with a sometimes powerless situation.” Seven days a week, a team of staff artists, community volunteers, and University of North Florida (UNF) student interns visit medical facilities to lead art-making at patients’ bedsides and in groups, and record art programs for in-room viewing. The art projects are varied, tailored to each individual. “Together we create art that helps to reclaim the child from the illness.”
Each year, one project is uniformly approached by participating patient artists to present in exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Jacksonville (MOCA Jacksonville), a Cultural Institution of UNF. The AWAHIH team prompts the artists with a question, to be answered in a piece of art with specified materials and dimensions that creates a unified story of individuality and self-esteem. Each piece is completely different, dictated by each artist’s personality, interests, story, and stylistic eye.
Presto says that when their team of artists brainstorm each year to come up with the project
and question, there are unique factors to consider. “We get excited, and a bit apprehensive, in figuring out an exhibit that is appropriate for patients five to twenty years of age that can be done in the hospital … there are very strict rules for what materials we can use with the patients in the hospital,” she says. Also, they must consider the time it will take to complete a piece. “Sometimes we may only have a day to get the piece done, photos taken and consent forms signed by the parents/caregivers,” says Presto. The most important factor of all, though, is that the project be something that will inspire creativity and participation, and show the child, not the illness.
For this year’s exhibition, A World of Their Own, sponsored by Capital Bank, patients were asked, “If you could create your own world … what would it look like?” With the help of AWAHIH artists, each child created a circular, papier mâché (sculptural paper pulp) ‘world,’ applied to the center of a canvas, then let their imaginations run free with paint to create the appearance of the world and its surroundings. Creative, fine art exercises like this promote self-awareness and self-confidence, which is heightened by seeing the finished works on the museum walls. Opening with a reception on Sunday, August 5, A World of Their Own will be on display at MOCA Jacksonville through early December.
Presto says that every child who participates in the show volunteers to be in the exhibit and donate their original piece. “It is our strict policy not to take artwork from any patient artist, so approval to have the original is very important to us,” she says.
One of the artists-in-residence who worked closely with patients on this project is Jill Olmo, who came to AWAHIH while working on her Arts in Medicine M.A. at the University of Florida. She says, “All the kids I got to work with seemed very genuine and open to talking about themselves and what was shaping their view of the world they were creating.” This particular theme allowed patients to focus on what they find comfort in, she says, which is unique and positive.
AWAHIH artists helped participant Macy, age eleven, create her piece in-room because she wasn’t able to leave for long stretches of time. “The [AWAHIH] artist was wonderful – helpful and directive, but encouraged Macy to be creative,” says Macy’s mother, Jenny Lee. “She got Macy talking and thinking about something other than feeling bad. She connected with her regarding sports and she allowed Macy to take her time and produce a painting she was so proud of.”
Another patient-artist’s mother agrees that the impact of the art experiences on her daughter, Janice, age eight, is multi-faceted. “AWAHIH has been a temporary escape from the problems that my daughter has lived with daily while being in the hospital. Learning new crafts and simply drawing or painting takes your mind off of what you are going through at the moment,” says Shajuanda Sibert, adding that it did the same for her as a parent.
Further, “AWAHIH has helped my daughter find some hidden talents,” she says. “It really puts a smile on the kids’ faces and they always seem to be in a better mood after an encounter with the artists, so I am truly thankful for everything that the program does and stands for.”
“AWAHIH artists and the patients develop some wonderfully unique relationships during this art process,” observes Presto.
AWAHIH gives each child a professional photo of their piece and invitations to the opening for family and friends. Presto calls opening day one of her favorites in the calendar year. “Seeing these children with their families and friends at the opening and seeing them see their artwork on the wall of MOCA makes my heart and soul sing!” she says. “The pride they have as creative individuals, the pride their families have in them and just the honor of being part of such a precious experience is beyond words.”
An art experience like this can provide a lasting memory of their hospital experience that lifts and inspires, certainly upholding AWAHIH’s mission to enhance the healing process through art. “Art is so important in our communication, communities and in our very essence,” says Presto. “The need is universal.”
A World of Their Own will be on display through early December at MOCA Jacksonville, 333 N. Laura St., 366-6911. For more info on AWAHIH, visit www.artwithaheart.com.