Healing through the Arts: Creative and Therapeutic Arts Services at Children’s National Health System

By Ashley Shah on January 29, 2018

When you walk into the Children’s National Health System, or Children’s Hospital as it is more colloquially known by most Washingtonians, you can immediately sense the vibrant energy of the hospital and the staff.

Children’s National Main Hospital Lobby. Photo by Ashley Shah for East City Art.

Gregory Scott, Gallery and Exhibit Coordinator for the in-house Creative and Therapeutic Arts Services (CTAS), has been working hard to bring local and international artists’ work to patients. Scott and the CTAS team—Victoria Paytonwebber, Dana K. Morgan, and Heather Stemas—bring music, performance, and visual art therapy, respectively, to patients and the hospital community. Together, this small, yet impactful, group empowers the children to share their medical story through the arts. They utilize different forms of art therapy to transform the hospital environment to one that emanates healing and encouragement.

From left to right: Victoria Paytonwebber, Therapeutic Music Specialist/Certified Harp Therapist, LICCNA, Greg Scott, Gallery and Exhibit Coordinator, Dana K. Morgan, M.Mus, Piano, Performance Coordinator, and Heather Stemas, Med, ATR-BC, LCPAT, Arts Program Specialist. Photo by Ashley Shah for East City Art.

Specifically, Gregory Scott, over the past year, has incorporated a number of different galleries within the hospital walls. The ultimate goal is to fill every blank space in the hospital with visual art. On the main floor, there is a permanent collection that rotates every three months, highlighting different artists from local and international communities. Greg Scott began contacting artists in January 2017 and the first permanent installations were placed in June 2017. A portion of the sales from the artwork benefit CTAS and provides additional funding for art, music, and performance therapy programming. On the second floor of the hospital, Scott has created a separate gallery that shares artwork from at-risk youth art programs, community awareness art programs for children, and organizations that promote arts in healing for the human spirit.

Aside from these two larger gallery spaces, Scott has organized five mini-galleries in areas with heavy foot-traffic. When asking Greg Scott about how he decides where to place the artwork, he stated that he often aims to curate based on programs or amenities near the location. For example, one mini-gallery near the popular Bunny Mellon Healing Garden contains landscape paintings by local artist, Gary Fisher. The hospital has the capacity to add additional mini-galleries, welcoming any artists who are interested in showcasing their work at the Children’s National Health System.

Gary Fisher, Spring Reflections, 2016, Oil on Canvas, 25” x 21” framed. Image courtesy of the artist.

Throughout the visit, it became very clear how much of a positive impact the art programs have had on the patients, their families, and hospital staff. As Heather Stemas put it, “the most powerful thing is that it gives the children a new way to communicate and express themselves, especially when it may be difficult to share what they are going through in their medical journey.” It allows the patients to create positive, lasting memories with their families that go beyond the pain of treatments and hospital care. Examples of weekend activities that include patients, families and hospital staff include Dr. Bear Saturday Studio and Music on Sundays.

Victoria Paytonwebber holding a painting of a patient expressing “what music looks like” through visual art. Photo by Ashley Shah for East City Art.

CTAS has also formed lasting partnership with larger art institutions in DC such as The Phillips Collection, National Gallery of Art, and the Smithsonian Institution. These relationships bring more visible, popular exhibitions to the kids. It truly emphasizes that art can heal by transcending beyond geographic location and into the lives of those who may otherwise not experience “going to a museum” with their families.

Children’s modified version of Yayoi Kusama’s Obliteration Room, inspired by the exhibition at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. Photo by Ashley Shah for East City Art.

CTAS atChildren’s National Health System is always planning new, fresh and wide-ranging activities that adapt to all abilities and individuals.

For more information about CTAS and how to get involved, visit their website at  https://childrensnational.org/choose-childrens/deciding-on-care/support-for-families/creative-and-therapeutic-arts.