Catharine Balco’s ART ’07 expertise isn’t limited to the canvases in her studio. This painting student has a flair for making colorful window collages, simple pencil drawings and even sculptures of Kleenex and medical tape. And she hopes to bring such projects to Yale-New Haven Hospital starting March 1.
Balco has teamed up with The Creative Center, a New York-based nonprofit organization dedicated to integrating the arts into health care, to bring an artist-in-residence to the hospital. Set to begin next week, an art school student chosen by Balco and the Creative Center will work with cancer patients at Yale-New Haven in what Balco hopes will become an ongoing collaboration.
“I think that connecting art schools to communities is something which is of interest to people, and it’s hard to figure out how to do that,” Balco said. “So it’s exciting to think that this might be in some way a stab at that, a try at how to connect the two.”
Balco herself has worked with The Creative Center since 2004, when she became the artist-in-residence in the Bone Marrow Transplant Unit at New York Presbyterian Hospital and taught art to cancer patients there. The experience was so rewarding, she said, that she kept working in New York even when she started her graduate work at Yale in 2005.
But commuting to New York every week got tiresome, and Balco began to think instead about launching such a program in New Haven. The program will be valuable not only for herself and for the hospital, but also for art students in general, she said.
“It gives students an opportunity to share their creative practice, and not just the products of their creative work, with the community outside the art world, which is a very rare opportunity and is invigorating — it makes you feel that the work you do has meaning in a larger sense,” Balco said. “And also I think it really helps one’s practice, because when you’re teaching people who are not in an art context but who are really excited about learning about how to make stuff, you have to speak about your work in simple terms. I think there’s a tendency in art school to embellish and elaborate in an attempt to get to the point, but this reverses that tendency, which I think is really helpful.”
For the program’s patients, art therapy can provide a great deal of psychological relief, said Gerry Herbert, founder and director of The Creative Center.
“The arts are a wonderful way to bring a sense of normalcy back to people who are facing any kind of challenge in their life, whether it’s through mental or physical illness, and I think it helps the person who is undergoing that challenge remember that they’re not just a patient,” Herbert said. “The arts open all sorts of possibilities through tapping into one’s creative resources.”
Balco agreed that the creativity patients experience when making art can help them adjust to their environment in the hospital.
“When you have cancer, both the cancer and the treatment are destructive — the cancer is destroying you and the chemo is destroying you in another way,” Balco said. “The creative work is generative … The creative joy has a significant, measurable effect on people’s well-being.”
The artist-in-residence for Yale-New Haven has yet to be selected, but the program will pay the student to work for about six hours per week in the Chemotherapy Outpatient Unit.
Although many students at the School of Art were not aware of the project, they were excited about the idea.
Amanda Burnham ART ’07 said she had no idea what the level of interest would be among art students, since many students do not currently do community service, but the program is a chance to become more connected with the city.
“I think it’s a great opportunity, and it’s one that creates connections between the art world and the world at large and does some good, so I certainly hope people will participate,” Burnham said.
Officials at Yale-New Haven said they are excited for the artist to start working as they believe the program will provide a variety of benefits for patients receiving chemotherapy.
Sandra Watcke, the patient services manager for the Outpatient Medical Oncology Treatment Center at Yale-New Haven, said many chemotherapy patients spend four to eight hours per day sitting in the hospital, and she hopes the program will help make that time more fulfilling.
“A lot of it will be distraction and a way to occupy the time and a way to express the feelings that they have,” Watcke said.
Balco said she will assist the selected artist-in-residence adjust to the position before she graduates this spring. Although she herself will not be involved with the Yale-New Haven program after she leaves the city, she said her work with cancer patients has made a mark on her own art.
“The patients I’ve worked with have given me new ideas,” Balco said. “They’ve helped fuel my own practice. Through working with them I’ve come up with new ideas of my own.”