Art Works Blog

Painting through the Pain

Last Friday, the White House hosted the National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Awards, which honored 12 organizations across the country for their outstanding work with children. One of the honorees was Project AIM, which uses the arts to engage with pediatric oncology patients receiving treatment at Providence Children’s Hospital.

Based in El Paso, Texas, Project AIM was launched in 1999 by Andrea Gates-Ingle and her now-husband Stephen Ingle. Every Tuesday through Friday, these young patients are able to distract themselves from the pain, boredom, and fear of chemotherapy as they create visual and digital art. Although the hospital was initially hesitant to host Project AIMAndrea and Stephen were college students when they founded their nonprofitthe program proved so successful that it helped jumpstart its parent organization Creative Kids, whose other arts programs target at-risk youth, children of migrant workers, and those with mental disabilities. A few days before the White House ceremony, we spoke with Gates-Ingle about the inspiration behind Project AIM, the healing power of the arts, and why it's so important to look beyond the face of cancer and discover a child's creativity.

NEA: What was the inspiration behind Creative Kids, and specifically Project AIM?

ANDREA GATES-INGLE: It was 14 years ago that we founded that program at Providence Children’s Hospital. My husband and I co-founded Creative Kids together, and Project AIM was our very first program we launched. We were two college kids, and we were just going around to anyone who would take us. A woman at the hospital—she was the head of marketing at the time—heard what we were doing and she called us in. The hospital was apprehensive; they'd never had a program like that and they were worried about liability and materials and paints. We convinced them to let us in and give us a one-week trial period. That first week, we literally had nurses and doctors and parents peeled to the windows of the art room. From there, they saw the impact it was making in such a short time. They offered us a contract, and they really were the ones who helped spark us and get [Creative Kids] going.

A painting of flowers in a vase

A painting created by Danashiya Pritchard. Photo courtesy of Creative Kids

NEA: Had you or your husband had experience working with oncology patients before this?

GATES-INGLE: No. At the time, we were both in college. I was teaching special education; I was doing my training block. So I was in a school teaching special needs kids, and he was an art student at University of Texas at El Paso—both of us were going there. I invited him to my classroom, and I said, “Can you teach them an art lesson?” They didn't have art in the school. So he came out, and that's when I saw things happening to these children that I'd never seen. Kids that were never speaking were actually saying the color red; I saw the transformation just by utilizing the arts. That night, we went out to dinner and were talking, and I said that it would be really cool to do something like this on a bigger scale, and let's start a nonprofit! We had no idea what a nonprofit meant. We sketched the logo that night on a napkin. From there, that night, we said we'd try to do this for more kids, because I was amazed at what we saw.

NEA: You talked about the impact of the arts on children with special needs; can you tell me about the impact it has on pediatric oncology patients?

GATES-INGLE: We're the only program at the hospital that utilizes their creativity and gets them out of their rooms. If we weren't there, they'd be staring at white walls all day in their room, thinking about the pain they're going through, the disease they're trying to fight. When we're there, we're able to bring them out, give them some inspiration and color and creativity. A lot of these kids have told us it's been very therapeutic for them—we're not art therapists per se, but it's a therapeutic process for them. It helps take away the thoughts and feelings of being in a hospital which is nerve-wracking; you get anxiety from just being there. The art-making process has helped them feel better emotionally, physically. They're able to get things out that are sometimes hard to articulate. One painting we have is The Chemo Coaster that one of our kids painted. It's this roller coaster of emotions that you go through throughout chemo. It starts off sick, sad, ugly, happy, crazy, confused, tired, mad, and then the very end it's relieved. It's a lot of what our kids go through on a daily basis, and they're there for weeks and even months at a time. They think our program is very important for their psyche, to not focus so much on the negative that's going on.

A lot of these kids throw themselves into their art. Our art studio time is three hours, and there are times we go past that to four or five hours. This program works because they want to be there, and they want to be there longer. When you see kids waiting outside the art room for it to open, you know you're doing something right.

A pediatric oncology patient painting

Miranda Luna creating artwork as part of Project AIM. Age 14, Miranda is now in remission for leukemia. Photo courtesy of Creative Kids

NEA: I know that part of this program includes exhibiting patients’ work. Can you talk about that the benefits that exhibition brings?

GATES-INGLE: An important part of this process is showcasing their artwork. At Providence Children's Hospital, we have the Imagination Gallery, and it has over 250 pieces of art. We also have our own gallery downtown, the Olo Gallery, so we showcase their work there, as well as at the El Paso International Airport. [Exhibition] is an important part of the program because for the kids to see their work up in a setting gives them a sense of pride and accomplishment. I always like to say that amid the great adversity that they're facing, art connects us all. People always connect with their artwork. The focus isn't that they have a disease, or they're dying; it's really focusing on their inner being and their creativity. So many times people go, "Oh how sad, that kid's sick," without focusing on the person that they are. They're all amazing human beings, so we like to showcase that they each have their own independent spirit and creativity. They know they're sick; we want you to see what they have inside of them. 

NEA: For those kids who are still with you, what do you hope they take away from the program once they're finished with chemo and moving on?

GATES-INGLE: Paul, who did The Chemo Coaster, just graduated from college and nursing school. He decided to give back and do the same thing and become a pediatric oncology nurse. He was talking with me the other day, and he said, “If it wasn't for your program during the time I was in the hospital for two years, I can't imagine what I would have done with myself. I think I would have gone crazy.” Our end result isn't to make these kids artists. Yes, the end result is a beautiful painting, but that's not really what we're there for. It's the process to have them feel better. We hope down the road, it was something that helped them during a difficult time.

Another thing about artwork is the legacy that's left behind. Whether they're alive or passed away, it's a legacy from that moment in time, and a reminder of how courageous and brave they were in fighting, and that they got through it. We're not expecting any of them to go into the arts. It would be nice, but it's not the goal.

Artwork of flowers in a vase

Artwork created by Miranda Luna. Photo courtesy of Creative Kids

NEA: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

GATES-INGLE: It’s crazy to look back at 14 years and to think about all these kids that you've helped. The one thing they've taught us is our life and our problems, the things we always complain about, are completely insignificant compared to the things they go through. Being able to create art with them is an amazing gift, and I'm just happy that we are able to provide something like that. They're a true inspiration, and it’s a privilege to be a part of it. 

Add new comment