Duke Children’s Hospital patients unveil artwork in downtown exhibit

Jul. 20, 2013 @ 01:35 PM

Seven-year-old Mary Catherine Buyck stood next to a larger-than-life version of herself, a portrait decorated with swirls of paint and a bright pink cupcake on her shirt.

“That’s my whole body!” she exclaimed with a small smile. Her photo, along with photographs of other Duke Children’s Hospital & Health Center patients, filled an Arts for Life gallery exhibit Friday evening in the Venable Center downtown.

Arts for Life is a North Carolina nonprofit organization that brings art education programs to children undergoing hospital treatments. For patients like Mary Catherine, who was diagnosed with a brain tumor at 14 months old, making art inside the hospital’s walls has been a colorful positive to the pain and sometimes fear of what it takes to get better.

This special gallery exhibit and fundraiser was a first for downtown Durham. Arts for Life has held only one similar event in the past, in Raleigh in December. Rachel Zink, who has served as Art for Life’s executive director since January, said volunteers have visited the waiting rooms, bedside tables and treatment areas of Duke Children’s Hospital since 2003.

“Duke is sort of our smallest and mightiest chapter,” Zink said. “…Duke is really special because we see kids not only from the Triangle area, but all over the country and all over the world.”

She said 12 Durham-based volunteers and interns visit the hospital every week, and patient projects range from drawings and paintings to sculptures and mixed media. Art has broken down language barriers and brought an uplifting environment to children undergoing treatments such as chemotherapy or infusions.

That Friday evening, patient art pieces lined the walls, ranging from newspaper birds and hot air balloons to King Kong knocking a helicopter out of the sky. “Sold” signs started to appear underneath the creations within a half hour of the doors opening.

Caroline Buyck, Mary Catherine’s mother, said that they’ve been driving to Duke from South Carolina once a month since her daughter’s surgery in December. Mary Catherine started treatments at such a young age, that Arts for Life volunteers started her lessons with finger paint.

Mary Catherine walked around the room, pointing to familiar photos of doctors and nurses who’ve treated her. The children collaborated on an art project where they took photos of different members of their care team, then assembled them as giant mis-matched bodies on shipping boxes. Visitors could arrange the boxes, so a Duke doctor would suddenly be wearing the skirt of a little patient or a Duke nurse would have the face of an 11-year-old.

Mary Catherine has gotten to know the Arts for Life volunteers and staff for six years, ever since she was diagnosed. She is good friends with the Durham Arts for Life program director, Mary Margaret Fulk.

“She taught me how to draw a cat,” Mary Catherine said.

Fulk was a volunteer with the Asheville Arts for Life chapter before she became the Durham organizer. She said the program gives children an opportunity to gain self-confidence through sculpture. Passion through painting. Creativity through collage.

“Just giving them an outlet to kind of be whoever they want to be and process things while they’re there is really important to them,” Fulk said.

Many parents have told Fulk that this is what gets their kids in the car to go to their appointments.

The children sometimes surround the art table, hooked up to IVs. Some are receiving transplants. Others have tumors. No case is exactly the same, but when they grab the paintbrush or start to draw, they get to escape everything for a little while.

“One of the most important things is we want to honor the children that feel that art is a really important part of their life and their hospital journey,” Zink said, “and to be able to offer that recognition and include them in something exciting like an art show, that really means a lot.”

Arts for Life has four chapters, in Asheville, Charlotte, Durham and Winston-Salem, and the organization works with 5,000 patients annually across the state. The staff, interns and volunteers teach art to patients for more than 250 hours each week, according to the Arts for Life website.

To make a donation or to learn how to become a volunteer, visit aflnc.org.