Art with a Heart: Illustration Students Collaborate with Patients at DeVos Children’s Hospital
It’s clear from the moment you first set foot inside Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital that this is no ordinary hospital environment.
At every turn, colorful murals, enormous paintings, and interactive sculptures await, radiating an atmosphere of vibrancy and life that fills the air. Creativity thrives here, especially in the brave young patients who call this building home, and a recent project undertaken by adjunct Illustration instructor Lisa Ambrose and her students aimed to share that creativity with the community.
Each KCAD student was paired with a patient for the project, and after getting to know one another, the pairs went off to begin creating. The children were asked to create a self-portrait that reflected their personality and their interests, while the students were asked to create portraits of the children that did the same.
“Everyone has a vein of creativity,” said Ambrose. “This allows an outlet for that creativity and gives the patients a bit of time to think about something other than their treatment.”
Given the immense challenges these children face each and every day, that creative outlet is more than just a diversion. According to Rhys VanDemark, one of the hospital’s child life specialists, it’s essential to the patients' treatment.
“We have a space here dedicated to arts and creativity that’s staffed by volunteers,” he said. “The kids are always encouraged to create and draw and paint.”
This is the second time the hospital has collaborated with Ambrose and her students. The first came in May of 2013. Like that first iteration, this project culminated in an exhibition at the hospital where the students gathered with the patients and their family and friends to see the artworks displayed side-by-side.
“When we saw the final products, we knew we needed to show them,” VanDemark said of the first project. “It’s been a wonderful collaboration. The best part is that the artwork goes home with the kids. The pieces will be treasures for them and their families.”
The exhibition was also the first time the patients were able to see the students’ work.
Artwork from KCAD student Alistair Baxter (right) and Keith (left), a patient at DeVos Children's Hospital
One young patient named Keith stood proudly next to his self-portrait, which showed him lounging in his bed at home with his dog Blue at his side. “My grandpa taught me how to do 3-D shapes,” he said. “I like drawing because I can just draw whatever and decorate it anyway I want.”
But it was student Alistair Baxter’s portrait of him that Keith couldn’t take his eyes off of. “He just free-drew it,” he exclaimed. “I didn’t really tell him what I wanted; I just drew mine and poof!” Turning to Baxter, he remarked “You even got the sway in the hair.”
KCAD student Alistair Baxter and Keith, a patient a DeVos Children's hospital
Even in the brief time they’d spent together, it was clear that a bond had formed between the two. When asked how a project like this differed from his other work in the Illustration program, Baxter smiled and replied “More pressure. I really took the time to work on it. I wanted it to look nice, not that I don’t feel that way about everything, but this was special.”
After getting to know a patient named Maddie, student Amber Heaton found that the two shared a common interest. “I really liked working with Maddie, because she likes Disney® and princesses and all that stuff, and so do I, so it was a perfect match.”
KCAD student Amber Heaton and Maddie, a patient at DeVos Children's Hospital
In Maddie’s drawing, her dog is next to a towering castle, both of which sat under what she revealed to be a blood moon, much like the one that lit up the night sky in late 2014. “That’s why I made it – because I didn’t get to see it,” she said.
Heaton’s portrait was an idyllic depiction of Maddie and her dog surrounded by serene clouds and beautiful flowers. Though it appears to be composed of colored pencil, the piece is actually a painting. “It’s all paint?” Maddie asked in disbelief. “We were trying to figure out what it was.”
Artwork from KCAD student Amber Heaton (right) and Maddie (left), a patient at DeVos Children's Hospital
Maddie couldn’t have enjoyed meeting and working with Heaton more. “It’s amazing,” she said of Heaton’s artwork. “The dog is perfect.”
That kind of admiration was common on both sides. The patients were thrilled to become the subjects of these talented artists. The student volunteers, who also included Erica Hansen, Jim Towe, Joanna Lenau, Phil Cragin, and Rachel Mindes, were clearly touched by the passion the children put into the project, and emerged with a heightened sense of how their art can create impact.
“It gives the students a purpose, because there’s a reason for their project,” said Ambrose. “It’s not just homework; it gives them a chance to give back.”