Q: Can you tell us about the Kids & Art Foundation, and how you got it started?
The foundation is focused on healing pediatric cancer through art. It came about because in 2005, my son, who was three years old, was diagnosed with cancer. At that time, I was a full-time creative director, and I decided to become a full-time cancer caregiver.
Our lives changed so much, we were spending more time in the hospital than at home, and our family was everyone inside the hospital. It was a crazy turmoil, and I felt I needed to have more control over my life. This project was selfish when I started, I did it for me, so I could be there for my two boys. I started doing art with my son, who was going through cancer, and his brother, older by three years.
We were spending all our time in the waiting room. In the first year after diagnosis, children and families spend many hours there. We were spending all our time in the waiting room. We were silly, we colored, we painted and we would forget where we were. That’s how it started.
Q. Then you turned that waiting room hobby into something magnificent. How did that happen? How was that transition?
It happened organically. In the hospital, you end up seeing the same people all the time. The parents connect –it’s a silent conversation, you don’t want to connect but you see each other and acknowledge each other. The children are three, four, five and they connect, they don’t care where they are. As we were doing that, a lot of other kids started joining us. The parents were happy to be free, and not worrying about the children, just watching them be happy. That’s how it grew from my two boys to a larger group of families.
My background is in graphic design, and my husband used to work at Pixar at that time, so we both have a lot of creative connections. I proposed these amazing professional artists to come to work with the children in the hospital, and with the families. We planned a one-time activity, I never thought I would keep doing it for eleven years. After that art experience, I started getting emails from families and artists who wanted to participate.
Q: How many hospitals do you work with now? How many kids?
When I started, I was a parent going through cancer with my son, and at that time it was 15 to 20 children. It kept growing and now we work with two hospitals -Stanford Children’s Hospital in Palo Alto, and UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital in San Francisco, and we go there every week. It’s 52 weeks of programming and the hospitals have different groups of families, so it can range from 20 to 40 people every week. Also, we bring 4 to 5 artists to come work for us each week –it’s one artist and four volunteers, but they’re artist volunteers.
Q: From what I understand, this art experience isn’t just good for the children undergoing treatment, but for their siblings and parents. It’s a way to go through the experience together
A little backstory. When we started this journey, my son, Amaey unfortunately relapsed, had to have another treatment, and that was another three years –making it six in total. Just as he was getting finished, there was another relapse with a chemo-induced AML, a very aggressive kind of cancer. He needed to have a bone marrow transplant. All of this happened in six months, and in the end, the transplant wasn’t successful. He passed away. In those six years (from age three to nine), my older son went through that with him, with us, and he saw this happening as he was growing up. I could see how it was affecting him and us.
I couldn’t continue Kids & Art after my son, passed away in 2011. But at that point, it was my older son who asked me to reconsider, to go back. I was amazed. He said Amaey would have wanted me to keep going, and as a sibling, he felt it had helped him connect with his brother and feel empowered because he was also helping other children. He wanted me to do this to empower other children, other siblings. What Kids & Art did for me was immense, it got me to put one foot in front of the other, and other families have benefited from it.
Q: You have experienced the power that art has of bringing people together in difficult circumstances. Art is a tool for inclusion because they’re not alone, they’re experiencing something together with siblings, with the other children, and create that sense of belonging community, and containment.
I’ve been thinking a lot about that. When we went in, we had a very clear understanding of what this is, because anybody can get cancer. It’s not age-related, it doesn’t depend on economic status or where you live. We spent so many years and days making appointments to see different doctors, that I decided Kids & Art would not be appointment-based. It would be inclusive in a way that we make it available for them, and if they don’t show that’s fine, we know how it goes. Anybody can come as many times as they want. They can be in treatment, they can be siblings or people in “care circles” –that’s a word we came up with after seeing grandparents, uncles, and aunts bringing children. It does take a village to care for one little child going through cancer.
That’s how inclusion became a part of Kids & Art. Sometimes parents don’t want to participate, and sometimes they’re the ones that start to create and push their children into it.
Q: There’s a lot of research right now –some of which you’ve referenced in your website– about the role art has in healing and wellbeing. What do you know about this research and the connection between science and art?
What we do is considered very small. People tell me I could make a bigger impact if I focused on research, and I reply that we’re focusing on the children and families who are already suffering cancer. The research will help everyone someday, and I hope that happens soon, but we need to think about the emotional and psychological aspects of what the treatment is doing to these families. I’m very happy that a lot more conversations are being had on this subject.
There’s research going out there, at big hospitals, which is bringing attention to parent self-care, the importance of thinking about yourself as a parent, taking some time out to just sing, dance or cook, for example; any kind of art can be healing. They’re finding connections even to exercise –a little time spent and will produce endorphins, clear-headedness.
It’s the same way with art. When I go somewhere where people are complete non-believers, I make them do this exercise: I tell them to take out a piece of paper and just doodle anything, just draw. It doesn’t matter if they know how to draw. As soon as the room gets quiet, after five minutes or so, all of a sudden someone says something like “Wow, I haven’t given myself permission to be doing nothing”. And that’s really what it is, permitting ourselves to just be. And for children, it’s about permitting them to be children. When they’re in treatment everything else is gone –they don’t get to go to school, no playdates, so this gives them a chance to take control of their selves.
My son Amaey used to say that cancer was an inconvenience for him, but art was something he could control. That in itself tells me that there is a whole philosophy behind feeling good and being able to move forward.
At a workshop we had with parents, we asked everyone to write about what art does for them. One of them said: “Freedom. There are no boundaries, no right or wrong. With art, you can just let go, relax and express yourself freely”. Some parents started with us when their child was only a baby, and now they’re 13 years old or so –they’ve used the program and they keep coming back because it helps them think clearly.
Q: On your website you talk about a book by Shaun McNiff, Art Heals: How Creativity Cures the Soul, in which he says: “…healing through art is one of the oldest cultural practices in every religion of the world.” and “Art adapts to every conceivable problem and lends its transformative, insightful, and experience-heightening powers to people in need”. Can you share your personal story in relation to that?
When I was in college –I grew up in India and went to art school there—I was part of a program where they researched the arts and crafts of the tribal communities. Their art is colorful, beautiful, intricate, really divine. In their homes, there was nothing modern available, but it was beautiful. Everything that’s in there –their table cloths, their bed covers, their pillows, the clothes they wear– is all handmade, intricate, and they’re very proud of that. Their homes are painted by themselves and made out of mud and rice flour, etc. They would tell me: “we don’t have much, but this is what we have and this makes us happy. Whenever we have hard times all the women get together and sew something”.
Art has been used for generations, it’s not a new thing. It always surprises me when people say artists are “nice to have”, not a must-have. In wars, for example, they would send soldiers to work in shops to disconnect themselves from the violence, so they could come back to the war. If you look at the past, at any time in which people have tried to connect in the world, it has always been through art.
Q: Therefore, it isn’t just the process of art that is healing at many levels, but there’s also the product of that process. It gives a sense of accomplishment, of pride, and it’s the proof of that effort. Then it can be used as a home warmer, or to decorate a community.
Yes. Any way you want to, whatever makes a difference. That’s something we added to our organization as well. Giving empowerment and enrichment was a big part of it. Like I said before, children have to leave a lot of things undone, unfinished, so we make sure that whatever amount of time we work with them, they get to start and finish what they started. Maybe that seems insignificant but it’s huge, it’s the most important thing. Plus, it gives them a chance to have a gallery show where they can even sell their pieces. Suddenly, they see themselves as something other than cancer patients.
That’s what art can do, it makes you forget about what you’re going through and makes you think about other alternatives and things life can bring. On that same note, we had one young adult who had just started college but got diagnosed and had to go home to finish their treatment. Her social worker asked her to come to a workshop with us. She came and talked a lot, which is wonderful, and afterward, she said to the social worker: “I never knew I had so much to say” –referring not only to the talking, but also the art she worked on. She got to come back to college, which was amazing, but also the social worker told me that knowing nothing about art, the student had taken it as a minor. And she keeps coming back, asking if there’s something else she can do. That’s what I mean.
Q: It gives you a voice you didn’t know you had, to express yourself, either verbally or non-verbally.
The student told us nobody understood her, nobody was like her or could relate to what she’d been through, so she started making art: drawing, writing. Then people started to see what she’d created and suddenly got it. She became more accessible to them and less vulnerable. I thought that was perfect, that’s exactly what it should be.
Q: I think it’s also about what you mentioned before: when you’re sick under those circumstances you have no control over anything –not the illness, the stay at the hospital or the treatment. But these activities are something patients can control. It has to be a very good way to balance all the impotence.
Absolutely. And there’s a group we haven’t mentioned, doctors and nurses. I had to go through a forgiveness process with them, because of what I lost, but they also need to go through healing. Especially doctors like the ones who worked with my son for six years and weren’t able to save him. They too can benefit from art, so we’re trying to figure out how to make it work for professionals.
Q: Investigation in this area must continue. There’s a study conducted by the InterAmerican Development Bank on the important correlation between creativity and art in innovation in the economic development. It has proven how it’s vital to include art in education, from the very early years.
Yes. Sadly, however, the first area that’s cut off when a school has funding problems is art. I always say that everything isn’t about STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math), and we should be talking about STEAM and let Art be the glue that holds everything together. Without that, it’s all fluff. We need people to be empathetic, to design products thinking in trust, in social impact. We need young people who are innovating to have left brain-right brain thinking.