Resilience. I can remember vividly how my Bucknell psychology professors explored this concept in their class- rooms. But it wasn’t until I was a junior, and far from Lewisburg, that I truly began to understand what it meant for a person to suffer through
trauma and attempt to heal.
As a double major in psychology and studio art studying
abroad in Uganda, I asked two groups of high-school seniors
to paint a mural about their futures. The first group, in southeastern Uganda, had persevered despite living in crushing
poverty. They literally lifted each other up to reach the top of
a colorful mural titled Think Big. They worked collaboratively
to depict themes of hard work and hope.
A month later, in war-torn northern Uganda, I met the
second group, which had survived traumatic abduction by
the Lord’s Resistance Army. The teens worked separately to
paint what they hoped to become: a soldier holding a bloody
knife, a nurse holding a blanket. I realized as I bicycled along
a red-dirt road to my hostel that resilience and trauma were
no longer classroom concepts; they were reflected in how and
what people create as art.
Nine years after that realization in Uganda, I push a cart
laden with art materials through the sterilized hallways at The
Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. I do not bring medications
or needles into the room, but as an art therapist and licensed
professional counselor, offer a chance for overwhelmed parents
to take a break and for patients, ages 3 to 30, to create. There
is learning, sharing and oftentimes a rather colorful mess,
but there is something much deeper happening, too.
Art therapy combines psychological theory and the artistic
process. By creating and verbally describing artwork within
the context of a therapeutic relationship, patients can express,
organize, create meaning and achieve insight. Individuals
enduring the trauma of a life-threatening illness and extended
hospitalization find their lives disrupted and independence
taken away. Endless medical information and a lack of privacy
can leave a patient feeling more like a diagnostic puzzle than
a person. The goal of art therapy is not simply to “have fun”
but to empower patients to engage in life as whole and capable
human beings again — to help them face mortality and then
face the day.
During a typical workday, I’m in the oncology unit meeting
with a teenager who is struggling with heightened anxiety, fear
and a painful course of treatment. I suggest that she draw a
boat journey to represent
how it feels to be in the
hospital. I emphasize there
is no grade; this is not art
class, and the artwork does
not need to be happy or
perfect, just honest. As she
works with colored pencils,
I ask her how the water around her feels, where she is going
and what the weather is like. Her answers reflect how she
sees herself in this moment. Is she alone in a rowboat without
oars, helpless against the winds? Is a storm raging, or is the
sun peeking out from beyond the clouds?
I validate and normalize her emotional experience by
encouraging her to consider the support available to her as
she journeys and to imagine the destination of her voyage.
In art therapy, we do not find perfect answers, but we
recognize the difficulty patients face and reflect on their
innate capacity to withstand storms. Drawings become
tangible reflections of patients’ inner resilience, a resilience
that will carry them through.
Hope Heffner earned the Class of 1905 Art Prize at Bucknell. She is a
board-certified art therapist and licensed professional counselor at The
Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. She earned an M. A. in art therapy
from Drexel University.
Art therapy helps people with life-
changing illnesses muster inner strength.
By Hope Heffner ’08
“There is learning,
sharing, and oftentimes a rather
colorful mess ...”
Hope Heffner ’08 with
her art cart.