Two sisters united by a PaintFest

 

It’s been six months since we wrapped up our last stop of PaintFest America. The trees are bare here in Marietta, Georgia, and the sweltering days of summer are far behind us. Winter is here, or at least it visits from time to time, and the hustle and bustle of countless preparations for our 50-state bonanza is becoming a distant memory.

 

All of the murals that were painted in each stop across the country have been touched up and are now hanging in their respective hospitals. But as we learned in mid-December, PaintFest America isn’t over. It will never be over.

Just before Christmas, we received an email from a participant who wanted to express just how much the project meant to her and her family. Tears were abounding as each member of our team sat down to read her sentiments.

 

And now we share this story with you.

 

When I called Bonnie Griffith of Louisville, Kentucky for an interview the other day, I was received by a jubilant and cheerful woman who had just finished chopping up celery for her lentil stew. She informed me that she was part of a soup swap, as well as a juicing club; and I immediately started imagining the smell of wheatgrass and the thundering pulse of blenders ringing in my ears. Soon thereafter, I learned that Bonnie was originally from Western Massachusetts; and with the Falcons and Patriots Super Bowl match-up around the corner, she said she was a little worried about bringing up football on our call. Fortunately for her, she was safe with me. I’m originally from New England too.

 

But, we didn’t set up a call to talk about wheatgrass and the Pats, although, those are fun topics. Instead, we arranged to speak because of the way that Bonnie and her sister Connie’s  PaintFest America story had touched us.

 

When I asked Bonnie how she first heard about PaintFest America, she told me about her journey as a cancer survivor, and the benefits that her hospital provided for her during her treatment and continues to provide for her now. She was offered free massages, yoga classes, tai chi, and art therapy classes, among other things. But as soon as the word art came out of her mouth, her energy shifted, and her passion was clear. Til this day, Bonnie goes to art class every Thursday, and it was her teacher Emily that had promoted the PaintFest America event that would be taking place in their hospital (Norton Cancer Institute) on July 21st.

 

Now this is where the story gets fun, because the 21st of July is Bonnie’s birthday! However, she battled quite the predicament, because as a devout Patriots fan, she spends every birthday at training camp watching her beloved team prepare for the upcoming season. What to do! As it turns out, this year the Pats would start training camp a little later in the month, freeing up Bonnie to participate in PaintFest America. So she gathered up a few of her friends from her juice club, painted the day away, and got some fresh juice across the street to cap it off.

 

And then she had a thought.

 

Her younger sister Connie, a self proclaimed “handicapable” woman, would love this. The timing would work out perfectly. Bonnie would go up to Foxboro for training camp and visit her sister. PaintFest America would roll through Dartmouth in New Hampshire on the 16th of August and she would bring Connie to the event. When speaking with Bonnie, I was touched by her devotion to her sister. Being housebound, Bonnie expressed the importance of getting Connie out and about as often as possible, whether from her apartment to the grocery store, a scenic car ride, or in this case, PaintFest America.

 

But wait, there would be training camp on the 16th! Once again, Bonnie faced a predicament. Being a Boston sports fan is not for the faint of heart. But alas, the fates were in her favor, and that would be an off day.

 

So Bonnie and Connie loaded into the car at 6 am on the 16th of August and made their way to New Hampshire for a day of painting at the Hitchcock Norris Cotton Cancer Center. On the phone call, as we were recounting the event, Bonnie kept mentioning “this nice couple”. Immediately I knew who she was speaking about, our long time, super volunteers Sheila and Lamont Glover. She was floored by their kindness, and spoke of how they were “a dream to work with”.

 

All in all it was a wonderful day, one that the two would cherish henceforth.  Look at those smiles!

 

Unfortunately, we would learn from Bonnie’s Christmas letter that soon after their wonderful day at PaintFest America, Connie had started to decline in her health. “She was in and out of the Hospital, and I spent all fall and winter visiting her, it made me so upset, especially after all the fun we had in the summer, she was doing so well.”

 

Despite struggling with her health, when asked what her favorite memory of their visit together was, Connie listed PaintFest America as number one; and for the first time ever, she decided to include a photo on her Christmas cards… a photo of her holding the panel of “America the Beautiful” which she had painted in New Hampshire.

 

 

 

Inspired, Bonnie followed suit and included a photo of herself from PaintFest America.

 

 

Fortunately, Bonnie informed us recently that Connie is doing much better as Spring approaches, and that she is in a rehab center and has been eating, breathing and talking on her own now.  It is a long process.

 

The two sisters have made it their goal to make it back to the Norris Cotton Cancer Center to see the mural that they painted hanging on the wall. “Hopefully we can get up there by the time training camp rolls around.” I was so touched by their desire to bring PaintFest America full circle, and I can’t wait to hear about the day that they make it happen.

 

I think it’s worth sharing the way that Bonnie ended her letter to us…she said, “Thank you for organizing that whole affair. You will never know how much it meant to our family and our sister  Connie’s healing.”

 

But the funny thing is, that’s why we exist, to inspire hope and healing… and it means so much to us, to know that our mission is being fulfilled.

 

 

 

PaintFest America – Washington State

Okay for all of you who are wondering, I’m here to give you a first hand account of what’s going on inside our PaintFest America tour. It’s time to dig in to the magic.

 

So, I’m going to take you back a few weeks to our 19th stop, to recount an absolutely unforgettable day. First of all, Seattle is an extraordinary city. Whether or not you have been to Seattle, you probably know that it has a reputation for precipitation. Well, the two days we were there, the sun was definitely showing off, as we didn’t encounter rain until the morning of departure. We enjoyed the stunning landscape, bright and alive with green rolling pines, snowcapped mountains (even in July) and sparkling sounds.

 

But the real beauty, with which the mountains and sounds could not compete, was found within the Swedish Medical Cancer Center. Having been a part of the Foundation for less than a year, this was only my second time painting in a hospital, so it was a very special experience to get to paint with the amazing and inspiring patients, doctors and staff that were there that day.

 

The Swedish Medical Center team that coordinated and facilitated the event were superstars. They had promoted the event within the hospital for months and created an incredible amount of buzz among patients. The PaintFest was scheduled to start at noon, but as we were setting up early in the morning, several patients stopped and declared how excited they were to paint once their appointments were through.

A cancer survivor in Seattle

Cancer-free and ready to paint!

 

A great example of this was when Debbie, a cancer survivor, and her son James came through the lobby around 10 o’clock. She had a check up that finished around 11am. The two then waited an hour just to participate in the PaintFest. You would have thought that a starter’s pistol for a race had sounded off by the way Debbie sprang out of her chair when the PaintFest started as the clock stuck 12. She scampered over to a hummingbird panel and stayed there until it was finished two hours later. Debbie and James had to be two of the coolest folks I have had the pleasure of meeting through this work. After chatting with James for a while, mostly about the Seattle Seahawks, I learned that Debbie had battled an aggressive form of pancreatic cancer the year before. They had come in that day for a routine check up, and the two of them stayed and painted to celebrate a year cancer free. I could hear the admiration and pride in James’s voice as he spoke about his mother. He said that there were a lot of obstacles that she had to overcome in her journey toward recovery. We both looked over at the other side of the room and smiled as Debbie worked away. I could see the light in his eyes as he watched his healthy mother paint.

 

Then there was Connie, an effervescent woman with bright red hair and even brighter clothes. She had on the matching blues and greens of our peacock design, which she would later paint. She too came around during setup, and we chatted about the Foundation, our mission, and her story. You know that a hospital is doing something right when a patient decides to make the commute for treatment from another state. Having beaten cancer once before, and retiring in Northern California, Connie was recently re-diagnosed with breast cancer. But the way she spoke about her doctors and the Swedish staff, you could tell that she felt as if she had a team of champions behind her. While the road may get difficult at times, there was no one else she would want to walk it with.

 

It was her attitude that gave me hope. Knowing that she is in a place where she feels sincerely cared for, and hearing her reasons for sticking around…4 grandkids and another on the way… “It’s all about attitude” she told me. A positive attitude may be the best medicine. So when she left, I took comfort in knowing that she is as well prepared as she can be.

 

Along with the wonderful patients, doctors, nurses and staff, we also had the great pleasure of having the support of the Seattle Reign (NWSL professional women’s soccer team) for part of the afternoon. They came straight from practice, and their presence lifted the energy of the room to heights I didn’t know were possible. Everyone was so happy to have the athletes there, and the players really connected to our mission. It was such a special experience for all involved.

Let it Reign with paint

Let it Reign with paint

 

At the end of the day, when it came time to take final pictures, my mouth was quivering from smiling all day long. So often we, the Foundation staff, are thanked for what we do, for bringing light and hope to places of care…for impacting people in such a simple but profound way. We are truly thankful for the people we meet and connect with as we paint across America. We are inspired and blessed.

 

As I laid in my hotel bed that night, the sun was still glowing orange along the horizon. I contemplated the great privilege that it is to do the work that we do. And my heart was so full of gratitude that I could not sleep.

 

Gabriela Juliano, Associate Artist, Foundation for Hospital Art

Painting with the Troops

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Have you ever been on a military base before? I’m sure some of you have, and know about the high security, or can recall seeing a tank or two cruise down the road. You may have seen a soldier or two… or several thousand.

 

For those of you who are unfamiliar, as I had been up until a few weeks ago, all of the previously mentioned scenes were bewildering to me. But most striking of all was the fact that these places are their own little cities, made just for the military personnel and their families. Of course, the base is gated, and inside those gates are grocery stores…post offices, homes, lots of homes… and Burger King’s, notably. No one gets inside the front gate of a military base who is not meant to be there. I would know, I couldn’t find my ID, but that is a story for another day.

 

But, getting back to the point. Fort Stewart is a world of its own. A world that I was not only fortunate enough to see, but interact with on a personal and profound level.

 

Being a new member of the FFHA team, I am exposed to new and profound experiences on a regular basis. This PaintFest in Hinesville, Georgia, just west of Savannah, has been the most enriching and eye opening thus far.

 

The plan was simple, let’s paint and touch-up murals with 300 hundred soldiers. We had three different groups throughout the day, and painted with 100 soldiers and their families per session. Our level of need in terms of volunteer support is significant, and we literally had an army to help us. I thought that was pretty slick that we were able to say that.

 

How was the actual PaintFest event itself? Well, I was smiling from ear to ear the whole time, and so was the rest of the FFHA team. Being in a room with hundreds men and women who so bravely devote their lives to protecting the freedom of our country, was such an honor. Each face was captivating, every conversation riveting. We were in a room full of heroes, and the truth of their heroism was palpable.

 

As the day went on and each new group of soldiers and family took their seats, I couldn’t help but wonder about each person’s story. Where had they come from, what had they been through to this point…where were they heading? I got to know and interact with many of the service men and women, and some of those questions were answered, but the vast majority remained unknown. There was however one thing that remained clear all day. Painting is fun. Giving back is rewarding. The room was buzzing with color and cheer, and nothing else seemed to matter.

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Thank you Fort Stewart for the best PaintFest yet, and for helping our mission in an immeasurable way. But mot importantly, thank you for serving our great country. We truly hope to see you again soon.

 

Gabi Juliano

Associate Artist

Foundation for Hospital Art

 

Beyond The Traditional Hospital Wall

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One of the most impactful PaintFest events I have ever been a part of was in the Spring of 2014 in Evansville, Indiana, where we painted on the walls of a children’s psychiatric hospital. The facility was designated for children dealing with mental illness to be able to live in a safe and stable environment for a few months, while learning effective ways to communicate with others and learn positive ways to deal with difficult situations.

Many people might think our artwork is only donated to traditional hospitals, but our artwork is for everyone!

We drew and painted directly on the children’s bedroom walls. We spent 3 days drawing kites, animals, flowers, fish, and puppies on their walls! I personally feel that this is a great representation of the power of artwork. It is healing and personal to each individual. These children were dealing with real hardship. I was heartbroken over some of the stories. Each child after having seen the artwork, had the same reaction…joy!

One little girl was amazed at the colors of the flowers in her room and was eager to pick out her paint and start filling in the spaces. Another little boy got sport-themed kites on his wall, and loved that the ribbons on the kite were flowing directly over his pillow on his bed.

Each individual child found something they liked most about the drawings, and got to talk about those things with their teachers and counselors. It was such an incredible experience to see these children, dealing with grief and pain on a daily basis, respond so positively to the artwork.

Anna Kathryn Simmons

Painting in a Different Language

We stood in a room awaiting the patients arrival. Anticipating the looks on their faces when they saw the activity they would get to participate in and the wonder in their eyes of the artwork in front of them.

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This was my first international PaintFest. We were in Beijing, China, in a hospital much different than any hospital I had ever been in. The patients were children, escorted by their nurses and mothers or fathers. When they entered the room, I saw the excitement I was expecting to see in these little one’s eyes. All the canvases strategically laid out on the tables, with the paint bottles and brushes ready to be used by their little hands. They started giggling and looking around, eager for someone to tell them to start painting. But what I loved most about these little faces was not necessarily that they were excited for the event, but that they were quickly forgetting the pain and complications they were going through at the time. Instead, they were engulfed in a fun and creative activity. Many of these tiny patients were dealing with severe skin diseases, burns, or tumors. Most of these children were dealing with illnesses that you could see with the human eye, not just internal diagnoses. However, these children painted and laughed with a confidence about them. They talked with each other, and helped each other with their canvases. Many of them began painting silly faces and pictures on their disposable aprons and took goofy pictures with each other.

What I think was most enjoyable though, was to see the way the parents were lighting up after seeing their children paint and laugh and smile. They too forgot about the illnesses and complications, and became wrapped up in these couple of hours of painting and laughter.

Because the majority did not speak English, I did not know what they were saying, but they were all speaking with a huge smile on their face, which says a lot more than words sometimes.

This is what FFHA is on a mission for. To bring life to a place where a lot of desperation tends to live. Artwork is more than pictures on a wall. Each painting tells a story and touches another life. From one care facility to another, we spread joy!

 

Anna Kathryn Simmons