Saturday, July 24, 2010

A Code of Many Colors

Every so often, the worst thing imaginable happens. A woman's voice says in clear distinct tones: "Code Blue, Davis 7"

My heart skips a beat, waiting to hear the floor. "Please," I say inwardly, "not Davis 7."  That's our floor, the kids' floor.

Code blue is called when a person's heart stops beating. Doctors, nurses, a pharmacist and a respiratory therapist are paged to do their best to revive the patient.

From the point of view of the people involved, it's a team effort. From the point of view of an observer, it is an otherworldly event. When it is successful, the rest of the day is spent picking up the pieces, literally and figuratively.

A code blue took place on our floor recently and by great good fortune, the patient was revived.
In this instance, as an art therapist, my role is strictly that of the picker upper, one of many who helps put the pieces back together for a family. In this case that meant working with one of the child's siblings, a ten year old girl.

I looked into my internal Mary Poppins bag of tools. What to do? What project would allow this child to process the swirl of emotions taking place inside of her and yet preserve her dignity, her anonymity? 

I came up with the "Inside Outside" box. It's a standard art therapy directive, using collage materials; magazine pictures, Mod Podge, buttons, gems, pipecleaners, stickers, feathers, small wooden tiles (everything but the kitchen sink.)

We spread these materials on a table along with small boxes. The idea behind the project is that you put images on the outside of the box that express the part of yourself that you feel comfortable showing the world, and on the inside you place those images and objects which are private; images that represent the parts of yourself you might share with family or friends, or perhaps no one.

I watched amazed as this girl took the small tiles, carefully wrote the name of each of her family members and added a colored gem to each tile. She then glued them to two sides of the box and added some feathers on the opposite sides. It looked very ceremonial, like some kind of memorial marker.

Next, she turned her attention to the inside. I looked over as she was about to flick the contents of a brush heavily loaded with chartreuse green paint. "Whew!" I thought, "caught her before that went ALL OVER everything." Knowing she had a huge amount of emotion stored inside of her after the code, I taught her how to "point and flick." She spent the next half hour flicking every color of the acrylic palette into the box. I could not have imagined a more perfect way for her to express and capture her fear, helplessness and uncertainty.

That's the magic of art therapy. Behind a seemingly simple set of directions, lies an opportunity for a person's psyche in a pure, uninhibited yet protected way. (Provided these simple directions are supported by appropriate training in art therapy). It's one of those moments where all the study, hours of supervision, and my effort to keep faith in the process bears fruit.

Perhaps fruit isn't the right metaphor. I'm a Virgo, one of the most service oriented signs in the zodiac and I'm guided by the one of the tenets of my Jewish faith, "tikkun o'lam, " which means repairing the world. In a vulnerable moment like this one, peering into this small maelstrom of a box, I feel a piece of our world has been mended.

Pictured above is one of my first "Inside Outside" boxes made in 1999 during a class in medical art therapy.  I call it "My Father's Box."

Saturday, July 17, 2010

First time around...

When my first SoulCollage® class at the UC Davis Medical Center ended, it was time for some reflection. Time to see where we'd gone as a class and where I might steer the class in the future.

It was our last meeting--a makeup class in fact. People came eager to share the vision boards that they had been working on and the cards they'd created in the intervening week.

Our class included women ranging from their late twenties to their early fifties, but despite the age differences they shared something in common.

They were peering around the corner in their lives, seeking the sense of adventure that they sensed lay hidden. Whether it was the courage to recover the brash physicality of girlhood, finding a new direction after divorce, or reconnecting to a rich cultural past, each was searching for a fresh perspective.

 We set out slowly, some of us skeptical of the power of images to guide. Over the weeks we flipped through a virtual surfeit of images, learning how to let our eyes and intuition pick out images rather than just our picky minds.

"... instead of cogitating about familiar images, scout for the unfamiliar. Your mind can't do this. Your animal/angel self can. Just page through a magazine (and walk through the world) noticing things that trigger physical reactions: a heart thump, a double take, a gasp.
The only responses involved should resemble these:

These 'thoughts' register in your stomach, your heart, your lungs—anywhere but your head. You can't produce them in response to cultural clich├ęs or abstract ideas. Nor can you always know why your body reacts to an image." Martha Beck

The women created cards that tugged on my heart in their poignancy and beauty. Toward the end of each group we would surround the cards we'd made, studying and slowly finding our way to the heart of the meanings they contained. At first, some would profess that they had no idea what the card held and as I stared at the images, tears would come to my eyes; there was so much beauty in front of us just waiting to be seen and acknowledged.

 Since it was our last session, I asked those who had finished their vision boards to make a card that they would give to someone else. Little did I know what I had unleashed.

Yesterday, one week later, I met with the director of our Cancer Outreach and Research Program, which had sponsored the class. I'd asked Liza, the volunteer from our group to join us. A bit reticent initially,  Liza warmed up as the meeting went on. Suddenly she piped up, "Hey Hannah, Alisha said to give you a message." Alisha is Liza's good friend from childhood, an engineer who's used to depending on her logical and well organized left brain.

Alisha had spoken frequently throughout the class about her desire to go outside of the prescribed boundaries of her life. She'd also questioned the likelihood that something so seemingly simple as gluing images on a piece of matte board could hold unexpected power. Nonetheless, divers jumping off of high rocks and dancers leaping in a night sky appeared upon her SoulCollage® cards. I wondered at what point she would gather the courage to jump herself.

"So, Hannah, Alisha left this morning and she's on her way to Canada with her vision board in the back and the SoulCollage® card that Anne Marie made her in the front."

"Oh my goodness. Alisha! The one afraid to set sail. "

"And she hasn't made any plans. She's heading to Vancouver." Vancouver, the city she'd made a card for last week: a big bright nightscape of a city. "Vancouver," she told us. "Vancouver is my soul place."

It takes a lot of courage to break out and break away. People asked me afterwards if she could leave her job, "just like that." I'm betting she didn't--that she was just in need of a vacation outside of the lines. She took her SoulCollage® card back to her soul place.

We'll be starting a new class, beginning on Tuesday, September 23rd. For more information about this class, offered free of charge to cancer and cardiac patients in my area (Sacramento, CA), you can e-mail me at

Top image: 4 Fold Path, Amelia McSweeny, ©2010
Middle image: Aloha Nui Loa, Amelia McSweeny, ©2010
Bottom image: Pink Dahlia, Amelia McSweeny, ©2010

Friday, July 9, 2010

Is the Past Younger than the Present?

Yesterday at the breakfast table, Monty, my husband, spoke about shooting a web video for a towing company which was his assignment that day as a videographer. An artistic soul, he was wondering how to coax inspiration out of this rather dense subject.

A picture arose in my mind's eye of our son as a three year-old, beaming as we drove down the streets of Berkeley, pointing with enthusiasm as he declared "guck, guck!" I'd look to see what he was pointing at and invariably it was a large, liberally enhanced truck.

I shared my image with Monty and we talked about re-inhabiting the mind of a three year-old for the job. 

Later that morning I sat drinking jasmine tea with a woman interested in buying my work. We drank our tea from flowered cups, a Villeroy and Boch pattern I remembered from long ago.  She shared a small, leather bound photograph album of her recent trip to Chicago. I leafed through the pictures, imagining myself back in Chicago, walking along Lake Michigan, heading toward the Art Institute.

That imaginary walk on the pier came back to me during our art group that day, as a young boy worked on notching skill sticks together to create three interlocking towers. To him, they were an imaginary surf shop. To me, they were the buildings I passed as I strode toward Millennium Park.

There is tremendous power our imagination, that as artists, we are constantly drawing upon. I'm trying to put imagination and memory to work in this same way in my studio. My assignment: to create a series of paintings of "objects" for an upcoming exhibit entitled: "Lessons from Things."

Not normally a painter of things, I've had to reach back in my memory to my student days when anything in my surroundings was grist for my mill. Whether it was kitchen tools on a pegboard, two fine russet pears, or an arrangement of bottles a la Morandi, painting my life onto canvas was as fresh as my son spotting a tow truck.

I'm reaching back into those days now and drawing out the enthusiasm, pulling it through a tunnel of years into my present. I absorb an elegant little still life I've set before me consisting of a white raku vase, jade-colored beaker and a palm-sized, brass Aladdin's lamp. The magic begins.

Still Life with Jug, ©2010, Hannah Klaus Hunter

Friday, July 2, 2010

Shining Star

Arms filled with supplies for that afternoon's art group, I arrived at our hospital's playroom. Three children and a grandmother were waiting by the door, champing at the bit to come in. Regretfully, I told them it would be a few more minutes, that I had to get some more supplies. They looked at me woefully. And after another few minutes of shuttling supplies, I explained we were short staffed and Grandma explained that they were having a hard time getting through a 10 hour surgery for her grandchild.

"Trumps my story! Come on in!" I said. Seriously though, its a constant balancing act between staff and patients. Shortly after the siblings arrived, in skipped Natasha, nine year old sibling of Jeremy who's been hospitalized for the last several months. It's rare that we have siblings coming daily for several months but it does happen. Natasha is a joyful child, always skipping, looking out for new friends in the children that arrive and depart, and unerring in her observations about me, noting my quirks with a shrewdness often reserved for one's own children.

Because of kids like Natasha, I try to keep the projects for our art groups varied during their stay. This requires some fun sleuthing on my part and I recently discovered the blog creative jewish mom. This former Manhattan designer turned Israeli citizen has a fantastically cross referenced blog, easy to navigate and filled with inspiring and eco-friendly projects for kids (and adults).

I picked out a sunburst project--it seemed day camp like. Although many of our kids may not have been to camp, nevertheless we like to pull in familiar associations to summer; ice cream, water play, lemonade and the like and use these to create experiences that evoke a camp style comaradery and closeness between kids.

With a little fast glue gun work by my colleague and I, we created a series of 10 or so sunbursts and opened up shop. The kids came crowding in, eager to dip their brushes into the paint and cover the rays of their suns in rainbow hues. For one five year old hadn't painted before, the discovery of paint's ability to cover a surface was revolutionary. Another three year old considered each choice of color like a seasoned pro, painting the spokes with his favorite shades of green and blue.

My focus was on Natasha. She takes each project to heart, finding a way to tailor it so that she can later present it to her brother. It tugs on my heart each time I see her brother's initials or name appear. After the initial rush was over, Natasha and I sat together painting. It occurred to me that I knew very little of what she does after the staff and volunteers leave for the day. I don't know why I hadn't asked her before, but I did then.

She told me that she often read to her little brother, or drew in his coloring books for him, or simply watched a movie together. Her words touched me immensely and I woke up this morning thinking of her.

Instead of wondering about "what I had to do today"--or which things might not be going my way, or even what I might be able to accomplish, I thought of this child's courage, her indomitable spirit and her ability to remain hopeful, inspired, inspirational and loving in spite of all that she's seen.

I recently read something the Dalai Llama said, "It is very important to generate a good attitude, a good heart, as much as possible. From this, happiness in both the short term and the long term for both yourself and others will come."*

*Many thanks to Iona Drozda for this quote
SoulCollage® card above by Anonymous