Celebrating the healing power of art

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07/01/2024

Medical Supplies

Riley art show explores the ways in which creating art helps patients and families process their emotions.

By Maureen Gilmer, Riley Children’s Health senior writer, mgilmer1@iuhealth.org

Art was the centerpiece of a weeklong display in Simon Family Tower at Riley Hospital for Children, but it was the feelings behind the art that took center stage last week.

Grief, joy, anxiety, fear, curiosity, connection, peace.

All are part of the human experience, and all were captured in varying forms during the fifth annual art show presented by the Riley Art Therapy team. There was collaborative canvas art from NICU parents, individual pieces celebrating a favorite character and a montage of medical devices.

“Yes, art is fun, but it’s also actually therapy,” said Lauren Servos, manager of Riley’s Creative Arts Therapies team. She delivered welcoming remarks to the crowd of parents, patients and team members who gathered Thursday evening for a reception and to view the dozens of artworks on display.

Among them were James Strickland and Katie Rappaport, parents of Rainer and Rose Strickland. Rainer was born in February at 24 weeks’ gestation and was just discharged from the Riley NICU last month.

“A couple of weeks before discharge, I went to a class for caregivers in art therapy,” Rappaport told the audience. “I was a mess.”

She shared how everyday in the NICU she and her husband were required to make consequential decisions regarding their son’s care, always worrying if they were doing the right thing.

In art class, she couldn’t help second-guessing her decisions about the painting she was creating, but the art therapist helped guide her through the project. Still, Rappaport was unsure about the finished work that was still wet when she had to leave in a hurry to pick up her daughter.

In talking with her sister afterward, Rappaport had a revelation.

“Oh my gosh, it is not about the art,” she said in mid-thought. “It’s OK that the final piece is not a masterpiece. It’s about the process and not the outcome. It’s about making my brain do or at least think in a different way.”

That experience and a similar collaboration with Riley’s music therapy team helped “shift the energy” in Rainer’s hospital room, Rappaport said.

“We are still using the art and music tools we received during our 132 days at Riley.”

Even in a children’s hospital, or perhaps especially in a children’s hospital, healing is about more than medicine, said Dr. Alex Lion, pediatric neuro-oncologist at Riley who also focuses on the integration of spirituality in patient care.

“Art therapy has this power to reveal what is hidden and to draw upon inspiration which cannot be controlled or forced but may be summoned as if in prayer – in the things we suffer and in the things we hope for,” Dr. Lion said. “Art therapy connects with the whole brain.”

He advocates for its use not only among his patients, but his medical students as well.

“It’s good for all of us. I see art therapy as contributing to our deeper worth, to not only be rid of disease, but to also be healed, to be made whole again, to flourish and thrive,” he said.

“Thank you to our art therapists, our creative arts team, for all you do to ensure that our children are not only cured of disease but that they also flourish in life.”