“What do you think you’d want to draw that’s at home?” asks Gary Vasgerdsian, an artist who today is wearing his volunteer hat, participating in a unique program called Kids & Art. The two youngsters he is addressing are Bay Area kids who belong to a very special population of children. Their lives have been touched by cancer. Looking around the room here at the Peninsula Museum of Art, it might not be apparent who in this group is undergoing cancer treatment. At first glance, you might think these are kids doing an “ordinary” art workshop. Just by looking you might not be able to tell what each of these children may have gone through, is going through.
Gary is at one table. I wander away as he asks the child across from him, “Do you want to make the roof pointy?” I look down at the pre-drawing one of the students has made, a perfectly conceived peaked roof house with heart-shaped door and four heart-shaped windows.
Next, I check in on what I will call the DJ table. There, Arjun Shah is doing a collage. He is wearing orange Crocs and sporting a variety of wristbands and bracelets, including one, also orange that reads: Cancer Sucks. Art Heals. More on that wristband later. Arjun’s iPhone has a rather esoteric playlist. The music he’s picked for us is mostly by Chinese Man, a French trip hop band influenced by funk, dub, reggae and jazz.
At Arjun’s table, I look over the shoulder of another artist volunteering today. This Brazilian children’s book author, who goes by the name Raquel Rabbit, has slightly different aesthetic intentions for today’s workshop theme, which is home. At the other end of the table is a utility chest. Labeled Little Things, it contains a curious assortment of objects being freely distributed to the kids assembled at her table. The kids here are creating a sphere in the center of their canvases and painting out to the canvas perimeter. In the center, they are to find a way to display some things they have in their own homes, in their rooms perhaps. Raquel, whose real name is Raquel Coelho, advises them to use Tacky Glue, which is useful for attaching objects to a surface. Here, the images of home are three-dimensional, mixed-media collages.
Later, a mother of one of the children at Arjun’s table will study what her son has created. Clearly, she is pleased, not just with the way the piece looks, but for what she sees underneath.
“I really see that he is showing here what he can’t express through words,” she will tell Purvi Shah, founder of Kids & Art. She confides that she is noticing how much he now needs to feel protected.
Receiving this diagnosis at such a young age has meant that this boy has scant recollection of a time when his life was without the interventions that are part of Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia (ALL) treatment. This cancer diagnosis is not what is on his mind here while he is on this artistic adventure, though. Here is a place he can just be. Do a project. Talk to the others at his table. See something he has created come to life.
As Purvi explains, having an ordinary kind of day is important to children whose lives have become an endless calendar of interventions; the time-consuming routines of treatment make normal childhood activities recede. Kids & Art tries to restore some normalcy. In the Kids & Art credo, heal the child, these somehow prosaic moments supplement the purely medical interventions and care of medical professionals. They add value, improve well-being. This is complementary care in action.
When children meet at a workshop, they may look into each other’s eyes and say nothing directly, but they know these kids are “like me.” Art making together forms bonds between the kids. Artists and other volunteers assist the children, bringing high-level art teaching to the table, but the art making is more than just the mastery or execution of particular techniques. The artists set goals, but whatever happens that day is fine.
Giving Tuesday seemed an appropriate, though accidental, date to meet with Purvi. At the start of the month, Kids & Art had posted a campaign titled Cancer Sucks. Art Heals, the slogan on Arjun’s wristband. Indiegogo, the crowd funding site that is hosting the Kids & Art campaign no doubt saw a significant traffic spike on Giving Tuesday as folks across the globe turned up their generosity. As of this writing, the campaign is at 103 percent of its $25,000 goal with 10 days to go.
Organizations like Kids & Art give year round. To get more people in on the act is just what they need to support the group’s mission to heal the child not just the disease. The non-profit is expanding to bring workshops to Family House, which is open to families receiving care at Benioff Children’s Hospital in San Francisco. It will also be rolling out a series of on-site wellness care services to help parents.
Visiting the Kids & Art campaign page, I come to know that the majority of these children learn about the workshops when they are referred by their hospital social workers. The young boy at Arjun’s table is among the organization’s primary target population, kids in treatment ages 3 to 18. Kids can invite best friends, siblings, or other members of their care circle to come along. Registration is also open to families touched by cancer who are not currently in treatment, cancer survivors, as well as children whose parents are undergoing cancer care.
Black Friday and Cyber Monday now crossed off the calendar, I sat down to talk with the group’s founder after participating as a volunteer at two recent Kids & Art workshops in Silicon Valley, so I could experience the workshop as a volunteer might.
Purvi describes how the art is auctioned. Kids can take their art home. They can also donate it. Kids & Art is thankful to the children and families for helping add an artwork they can auction off at events they hold during the year, putting funds back into the non-profit. When the works are auctioned, typically it is the parents who take the pieces home, but not always.
Purvi shares with me that it is a challenge to convince others why providing art workshops to these kids is important. Kids respond to art in ways that make a difference today, now, this moment. This is the realm in which they really must live.
“It is clear,” she says “that some people don’t really value art now. So much excitement surrounds STEM instruction and enrichment,” she says.
She would like to see more support for STEAM, that A inserted there is an A for art. The Science-Technology-Engineering-Math (STEM) curriculum is so talked about. “Talk about art,” she says, “and you lose a lot of people who might be interested in helping.”
There are other reasons why an organization that does art with children in cancer treatment may find obstacles to gaining attention and resources. “A lot of people don’t want to be reminded. You say cancer together with children, and they turn away. They don’t want to think about it. Also, they are more familiar and comfortable with cancer research fundraising.”
I admit that before arriving at the Kids & Art workshop in October, I wondered if I would experience any difficult emotions. I also wondered if I would be able to add anything to an art workshop with these children, but the experience was what I would describe as soul enriching.
That day, we sat on the floor to do acrylic floral paintings. Among the first of the core group to guide me was Helen Cole Lew, a local art teacher with a lot of classroom experience, who serves as Kids & Art program director.
I felt privileged that I was going to be there to experience first-hand a workshop day from start to finish. The format would be a little different as pro tennis and basketball player, all around athlete-artist-philanthropist, Brendan Murphy, had come to California to the Los Gatos Children’s Museum to help kick off the workshop season. He had planned out a group project based on his large floral murals.
I appreciated the contributions of the artist’s lovable dog, who while he mostly slept throughout the day, also took turns circulating among the kids. I sort of expected him to end up a different hue. As for myself, a few days after, I still did not want to wash off the paint that had gotten on me.
With this first introduction to the organization, I was moved by the open and light mood. It was quite something to witness the young artists proud of what they had created. These kids, I wasn’t sure which kids, had cancer, and yet, I saw so many smiles. I also knew, as I could see it in a few of their tired faces, that here were some vulnerable children.
I was taken by surprise when one girl approached me with a great deal of vivaciousness and asked me to help her clean the paint off of her hands. I later learned that she was asking for help because she had lost some of the nerve function in her hands. Peripheral neuropathy is a common side effect of chemotherapy.
Getting close enough to really be there with these kids, subtle gifts seemed there for the taking. In a setting like this, one is reminded to appreciate what one has, perhaps a healthy child, the use of our own hands to help another. Witnessing such signs of our shared humanity–fragile and vulnerable–was instructive.
As I sit with Purvi, I think back to the workshops I attended. “Stress takes over the lives and routines of families facing cancer,” Purvi explains. “There is so much publicity about cancer awareness, but it tends to be about finding the cure. Who is focusing on the child?”
These observations are life lessons hard won by the mother of a son who did not survive his cancer treatment. This is a woman who, bearing witness to loss, has found a way to bring gifts from that loss, a truly great loss, to share with others.
Purvi Shah’s son, Amaey, passed away at age nine after battling Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia for six years, the majority of his life. Making art and being creative was a bright spot in his life. He loved to create. It was an escape from his clinical treatments.
Amaey’s brother, Arjun, the DJ in orange Crocs, who sports the Cancer Sucks wristband survives him. It is this brother of his who is honored each time a child walks through a Kids & Art workshop door.