As someone who is just beginning her relationship with Art from the Heart, I didn’t know exactly what to expect on my first day. Would making art with pediatric patients, their families and caregivers be fun, would it be stressful, or would it even be scary? I was very timid going into that first morning, not sure how I would react to the experience, or how the people I encountered would react to me. But, with my wonderful fellow volunteer, Tim, leading the way, my fears quickly dissolved. It became clear to me almost immediately how meaningful and important this program really is.
One interaction sticks with me in particular.
A young boy was sitting quietly with his mother in the Children’s Specialty Center, waiting for his appointment. He was visibly nervous and when we approached him to offer art supplies, he was very shy and uninterested. So, we sat down at the table next to him and began to draw pictures of our own, giving him space while also giving him the opportunity join in. Soon he was drawing with us, telling us about his school year and how excited he was for the Bruins to play in the Stanley Cup Finals. Next thing I knew we were throwing paper airplanes around the waiting room and he was smiling from ear to ear. It seemed to me that his nerves had disappeared, and so had mine.
This experience makes it clear to me that art is both healing and soothing, and it also makes me wonder what research has been done to support this idea. Sure enough, there are many studies showing the healing effects of art. What surprises me is how many studies use an art cart and techniques that are almost exactly like the ones used by Art from the Heart at the UVM Medical Center. We offer open-ended playful art making without the direction or interpretation of art therapy.
Two recent studies that used this approach found that making art while in the hospital significantly reduced symptoms. One study, done at Northwestern University in 2006, found that patients with cancer who made art one hour each day had less pain, tiredness, appetite issues and breathlessness than did control patients. Another study, also done at Northwestern but in 2009, found that patients with HIV or AIDS who were able to make art saw a reduction in physical symptoms compared to those who simply watched a video about art making.
Another interesting study done at the University of Miami in 2004 that featured an art cart worked with the caregivers of patients in the hospital. The caregivers who were given a project from an art cart, similar to the art kits used at the UVM Medical Center, had less anxiety and had an increase in positive mood than did control caregivers.
All of these studies are representative of the work that the volunteers at Art from the Heart do everyday. While these studies took months to carryout, it only took me one day with Art from the Heart to realize how special this program really is. But, it is even more encouraging to know that the empirical research supports the work being done at the UVM Medical Center as well!
Sarah Taylor is a summer intern with Art from the Heart, a program of Burlington City Arts at the University of Vermont Children’s Hospital at the UVM Medical Center. She studies Psychology and Studio Art at Connecticut College in New London, Connecticut.