How Art Can Heal

Three patients at Shriners Hospital Chicago create pieces of beauty with a powerful message.

Art can bring out so many different emotions. For three patients at Shriners Hospital Chicago, recent class assignments — in photography, sculpture and graphic design — became an avenue for them to get very personal about their lives, and hopefully inspire others to look at the world around them and those with special needs differently.

A beautiful message

Growing up with a cleft lip and palate and treated at Shriners, Jocelyn Lee Williams definitely saw the weird looks and stares as well as the divide that grew between her and others too shy to talk to her. As a young adult, she now also knows the pity people feel when they see a child with cleft lip on TV.

So as a student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago challenged in class to create a sculpture depicting the body, Jocelyn, 20, of Gurnee, used it to model something more personal. The result, a sculpture depicting muscle falling apart and wire to represent the surgeries she’s had, moved her teacher to tears.

“It’s something very relieving about putting what you feel about how you look and how you feel and putting it into a shape that you can actually see and touch for other people to understand as well. It’s an interesting emotion,” Jocelyn says.

The message she hopes the sculpture conveys is that there is no reason to feel badly or fear or pity someone who looks differently. “It is beautiful and it’s us, and there’s nothing wrong with us so being able to express that from my perspective to the world is very powerful and really freeing,” she says.

She’s already planning more art with that empowering messages.

The takeaway, Jocelyn hopes, is for people to learn about more cleft lip/palate and start to see it differently. But even more, it’s for “cleft kids who think that something’s wrong with them and nothing’s wrong.”

Masked emotions

Sixteen-year-old Summer Nagele has been a patient at Shriners since she was 18 months old and diagnosed with infantile scoliosis. She says she came up with the idea of Masked Emotions for the final project of her digital photography class at Champaign Central High School.

“I knew it would be harder to get the photos taken, because I am immune compromised and quarantining, but felt it was important to show people that a mask cannot hide the true emotion of a person. I happened to have an appointment at Shriners while doing this project and many of the staff gladly helped when I asked,” she says.

While it started as a school project, Summer says it has turned into an accurate snapshot into the pandemic.

Among her favorite pieces were Bewildered, Dr. Kim Hammerberg, who she says goes above and beyond for his patients, and Happy is my Nurse, Linda Cree.

“I learned that the eyes could tell a story even in the most uncertain times. I also learned when asking if I could take pictures, kindness is still very much alive in people.

“As a 16-year-old who has been home since March 13, 2020, I had the opportunity to see real emotion, despite the mask that they were wearing to protect both me and them. This had a healing effect on my heart that has missed so much over the last year,” she says.

“I hope people will wear the mask and know that when they express themselves, others will not only see it, but feel it as well,” she says.

Graphic understanding

For most of her life, Natalia Villegas has had to find a way to help people better understand her super rare diagnosis of idiopathic multicentric osteolysis, a vanishing bone disease that literally causes her bones to disappear.

This year, when the 16-year-old needed to create a portfolio for her AP graphic design class at Elk Grove High School, she and her teacher came up with something intimately personal to do just that: She incorporated some of the many X-rays she’s had over the years in her designs. It’s both moving and meaningful.

The result, she hopes, is to help people better understand her rare disease and how her body must learn to adapt to what happens after the bones disappear. But even more, she says she hopes that it gives others a better outlook.

She’s completed 12 pieces for the portfolio, with three additional research pieces to supplement her vision.

Natalia, who has been in a wheelchair since first grade, says she has always been a creative person, using art as a way to work through the challenges facing her. “It kind of helps you emotionally to just help see everything and put everything together and if other people see it, you can kind of better understand what it is.”

Over the years, Natalia, who is kind and upbeat, says she’s learned that people need to help each other through difficulties in life.

When she graduates next year, she’s considering studying graphic design or radiology. The portfolio project has really sparked her interest in both.


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