Artists Help Keep Young Patients’ Minds Off Medicine

Works by hundreds of young patients from Rush University Medical Center and other local hospitals will be on display next week at Snow City Arts‘ Gallery Night 2010. We spoke to two Snow City artists-in-residence, visual artist Allison Spicer and filmmaker John Lyons, about the event and the roles they play at Snow City and Rush.

Snow City artist-in-residence Allie Spicer with a patient

Why do you think what you do is important for kids here in a hospital?

Spicer:  I think what’s great about our job in the hospital — and we’re probably the very few that get to say this — is that we don’t see sick kids. When they come into the idea lab and into the studio they’re just lively kids. There’s times when they’ll get tired, and it’s a reminder that — oh, that’s right, they’re ill — and there’s a reason they’re here, but we get to walk into the room and be these people that are just there to have fun with them and make something of the day, make something out of anything that they want to do.

Lyons: We engage with them in a completely different way, besides their family and friends or whatever visitors. We’re probably the only people who walk through their door that aren’t asking anything medical of them — How are you feeling? How’s your medicine? Does it hurt here? Or we’re going to do this procedure or that. It’s really got nothing to do with that. So while the hospital and while the sick kids are sort of the thread that runs through everything that we do here, other than that it really doesn’t come up at all. There have been times, it sounds funny but there are times when you almost forget that you’re here, like you almost forget that you’re in a hospital.

Is that the most important thing — to keep their minds off  the other things that are going on with them?

Spicer: For us I think we’re trying more to teach them something for that day.

John Lyons working on a video with a student

Lyons: I think that happens organically when we’re working with them, they don’t forget why they’re here, they don’t forget that there might be something painful going on with them at that moment, but it becomes less important and there is something else to focus on.

When you work with these patients it sounds like it’s clearly more than just keeping them engaged while they’re here in the hospital. It sounds like you want to encourage them to be artists.

Spicer: Absolutely.

Lyons: It’s not like we say we want you to follow in our footsteps or become artists. Art, I think, is more than a profession. It can be a useful way to engage and communicate with people while they’re here.

Can you tell us a little about Gallery Night?

Spicer: It’s a celebration for the kids. So every year we have one night where all of the children and the families are invited, and then also we sell tickets to the event so all of the outside world is invited to come and see the work of the kids. That’s really the time that the kids get to see their work up on a real gallery wall, and it’s kind of a big deal for them.

Lyons: It covers all of the artwork that we do and the medium that we work in, so there’s photography and visual art that usually takes up a big portion of the show, but there’s also films, theater pieces which are usually filmed, music, poetry and creative writing — sort of a sample of everything that has happened throughout the year with all of our kids.

Why is this important for the kids and families?

Spicer: It’s pretty much part of the creative process because it’s an open critique, because their work is being shown out to the public. It’s good for the kids to learn that part of the process is to show their work and get feedback  on it and to talk about it.

Lyons: Even though we emphasize the process itself, in a place like this, what we’re always working toward is a final presentation of that work. And also, it’s from the kids’ point of view. It lets them be identified by something other than as a patient, something other than whatever disease they have. It’s letting them be evaluated by something completely different, which is the quality of their artwork

Tell us a little bit about yourselves, what you do as artists and what you do here as artists.

Lyons: I graduated Columbia College in 2005 with a film degree, specifically in the area of documentary. Toward the end of my time there I was becoming more and more interested in teaching as well as pursuing my own work, and I was lucky enough that there was an opening in one of the teaching artist programs for me to get started in right after I graduated. I was in that for a couple years where I was teaching how to make videos in Chicago Public Schools, and an opening happened here at Snow City. It’s a fantastic non-profit, it’s got a really good reputation and I’m happy I’m here, but I’m still also teaching at Columbia and working on my own and that’s true with all of the artists. This is not the sole job for anyone.

Spicer: I graduated from University of Michigan with an undergraduate degree in political science and I was going to go to law school. I had actually deferred law school for a year and I came to Chicago and I decided to go back and get my master’s in art education. I’m mainly a painter, but I’ve been getting into more drawing.  I think that working with the kids helps with my own process, especially because most of the kids that we see here have never painted before or they don’t know anything about drawing technique. So I’m always teaching the fundamentals and the beginning steps, which is good for me as an artist to always have an open mind when I’m doing my own work.

Gallery Night 2010 will be on June 25 at Floating World Gallery, 1925 N. Halsted St. in Chicago. It features more than 200 works by patients from Rush, Children’s Memorial Hospital and John H. Stroger Hospital, including photography, movies, visual arts, music and writing. For more information, visit

One thought on “Artists Help Keep Young Patients’ Minds Off Medicine

  1. This is a wonderful program. I am a former teacher and entertainer in Children’s Theatre. Would there be a place for me in this organization?

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