Brush on Paint, Swirl in Some Glitter, And Suddenly Everything Looks Better

By Alice Reid
Monday, December 31, 2007

"Pink glitter, please!" said Michele Pinczuk, eyeing all the artistic possibilities arrayed in containers spread across her hospital bed.

Children's Hospital art therapist Heather Stemas produced the desired medium, and Michele finished decorating a tile that will become part of a ceramic wall decoration in a hospital corridor.

Stemas's visit to Michele's bedside was probably the highlight of the Silver Spring 14-year-old's day. For a half-hour or so, she could forget about how bad she felt.

"When Heather came in, it was like a lifeline," Michele said.

Stemas and fellow Children's art therapist Nora Stinley are lifelines for a lot of youngsters facing some of the most trying times of their lives.

"It really helps to give children an opportunity to express themselves during what can be a painful, exhausting and lonely experience," Stemas said. "It also gives them an opportunity to play, to be a normal kid."

In a place where doctors are delivering some of the world's most advanced medicine, art plays an important role in the healing process. Along with Stemas and Stinley, Victoria Payton-Webber also works with patients, using music. The team tries to involve kids in everything from puppet shows to dance, to exhibits of the works they create.

"Art and the use of art is extremely healing for children, whether they're looking at art or working with an art therapist," said Tina Lassiter, who oversees the hospital's art therapy programs as well as the institution's art acquisitions and even the colors on the hospital's walls and floors.

"Children are so free. They do their thing, and you get a look at what's going on inside," she said.

Stinley has just completed a project in collaboration with the Phillips Collection. Using reproductions of more than a dozen of the museum's paintings, including Picasso's "Bullfight," Paul Klee's "The Way to the Citadel" and Georgia O'Keeffe's "Red Hills, Lake George," she urged patients to talk about what they saw in the works. Then she encouraged them to create their own interpretations.

Then the Phillips framed 30 of those works and hosted an "opening" this month for an exhibit of the youngsters' work. The exhibit runs through January at the Phillips.

Just about any patient at Children's who feels well enough can participate in art therapy. Therapists get referrals from nurses and work closely with hospital social workers, who often know about children who could use a few hours of painting or drawing or writing poetry.

But being an art therapist is a far cry from helping out with finger painting at a nursery school.

"I once had a cancer patient, a 3-year-old. I walked in and said, 'Would you like to do some art with me?' She immediately threw up," Stemas said.

But tummy problems didn't stand in the child's way. Stemas remembers the little girl plunging ahead with her project, pausing occasionally to grab her vomit basin.

Stemas has had dozens of patients, including Michele, working on her tile project, which will comprise more than 200 ceramic squares that together will be a mosaic depicting seven different trees. The black outlines of each tree are already glazed into the tiles. The children decorate the squares with tempera paints and any variety of other media.

When all the tiles are decorated, Stemas plans to assemble them into what will be known as "Our Healing Forest."

The willow tree that Michele was working on was the last tree to be decorated. By the time she finished, the willow on her tile was outlined in blue and green. Next to it were a peace sign and a pink-and-blue rainbow.

Michele finished the job with a special message: "Shalom," the Hebrew word for peace.

How to Help

Healing involves more than medicine, and Children's Hospital understands that well. Hence the clowns who roam the halls urging even the sickest youngsters to laugh and art therapists such as Stemas who show them how to create something from their souls. Nothing that spells childhood is missed at Children's.

To help deliver that kind of full-range care to area children, even those whose family insurance falls short, please contribute to The Washington Post's annual campaign in support of Children's. Our goal is to raise $500,000 by Jan. 18. So far, your generous gifts have raised $136,339.31. Write a check or money order payable to Children's Hospital and send it to Washington Post Campaign: P.O. Box 17390, Baltimore, Md. 21297-1390.

To donate online using a credit card, visit http://www.washingtonpost.com/childrenshospital.

To contribute by phone using Visa or MasterCard, call 202-334-5100 and follow the instructions. All gifts are tax deductible, as allowed by law.

Thank you!

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