Twenty years ago, I was sitting with a mom who was facing the unimaginable. Her seven-year-old son, David, had just been diagnosed with cancer. I listened as David’s terrified and devastated mom described what the doctors had told her about the two years of treatment that her little boy was about to endure. Tears welled up in her eyes when she asked, “How am I going to explain all of this to him? How do you describe what cancer is to a little boy?
A couple of days later, little David and I put on our grubby clothes, grabbed some paint and a big piece of butcher block paper. We described with words and colors what was going on inside his little body.
As Thomas Merton said, “Through art we can find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time.”
We drew big happy circles for the good cells and little nasty circles for the bad cells. We laid out the cells – good ones and bad ones - all over the butcher block paper. David grabbed a big glob of red paint in his left hand and said, “This is my blood.” Then, he grabbed a glob of purple paint in his left hand and said, “This is my guts.” Smashing, whirling and swooshing the paint all around the paper between the good cells and bad cells, with the force of a determined seven-year-old, he yelled, “My body’s going to kick butt!” … and it did. David survived his cancer and has grown into a young man.
What also grew from that day was a vision for using art as a compassionate modality to guide conversations about the unimaginable.
When two-year-old Maddy’s cancer was taking over her little body, she would sit wearing only a diaper and a port catheter and paint; painting clay pots became her legacy. Maddy’s clay pots and David’s blood and guts forged the way for hundreds of children with cancer and thousands of their family members to connect, express and heal through a program named in Maddy’s memory: Art from the Heart, Celebrating Maddy.
Now, twenty years later, Art from the Heart is a quarterly expressive arts event, with activities for children with cancer and their entire family to express what living and dying with cancer is like when the cancer patient is a child. Through Art from the Heart, children and their families can communicate ideas and feelings that may be difficult to put into words. The use of the expressive arts in a therapeutic setting multiplies the avenues by which a family struggling with a serious illness may seek meaning, clarity, and healing.
Over the years Art from the Heart has grown and Jacob’s Heart’s trained volunteers work alongside our clinical counselors to facilitate expressive healing activities such as drawing, journaling, drumming, drama, creative movement, music and play. Together, family members of children with cancer of all ages express their thoughts and feelings in a manner that transcends verbal communication and has unique properties as a therapeutic intervention.
Research supports the use of the expressive arts to help seriously-ill children, their siblings and parents cope with the distress of hospitalization, better express themselves, reduce stress, and find meaning during one of the most difficult times in their lives.
So, next time you’re faced with a situation too difficult for words to describe, grab your grubby clothes and throw your blood and guts onto the canvas and into your life…maybe, like little David, you’ll find your strength.
Kids & Art Foundation is thankful to have a vast community of artists who create with us. Our artists share their passion for art and their commitment to make the world a better place. Without them we cannot heal pediatric cancer through art.
If you believe in the healing power of artists then please support our artist stipends with your donations and corporate matching. All donations are 100% tax deductible and our EIN is 27-1415727