The art doctor is in
Chico painter shares the healing power of art with children in crisis
Six children, ages 8 through 14, sat around a table in the comfortable activity room at the Chico Boys and Girls Club. At first glance, it wasn’t obvious that each harbored a terrible secret fear.
A closer look, however, showed that their expressions were tinged with anticipation, nervousness and hope. All appeared a bit serious for their ages.
Their faces were turned toward a slender woman wearing flamboyant clothing, like a splash of paints at the foot of the table.
Her name was Cindy Schildhauer, and she was there to help them. As diverse as these children’s ages and appearances were, they had something in common: Each had a parent who was sick with cancer—in this case, as it happened, their dads. Each had lain awake at night wondering if his or her father was going to get better or—get worse.
Schildhauer, an art therapist, pointed to the binders on the table in front of each child. “This binder is your container,” she explained. “For the next four weeks, you can use it to write or draw anything you feel like, or something particular about having a dad who has cancer.”
One boy immediately began to draw. Schildhauer placed more colored pens by his side.
So began the opening session of a four-week art therapy group Schildhauer was recently hired to conduct as part of VIVA!, a free support program for youth living with loved ones who have cancer. VIVA!, which means “Alive!,” was created by the American Cancer Center in partnership with the Boys and Girls Club and Enloe Cancer Center.
Schildhauer explained that she didn’t want to “beat around the bush,” which is why she kicked off the first session by immediately talking with the kids about why they were there. “My fabulous assistant, Ruth Hantelman, and I put that out on the table really quickly—and it was an amazing experience, because the kids were very open to the idea of talking about what they were going through,” she said.
After culminating that first session by helping the kids use art supplies to personalize their binders, several of the youngsters hugged Schildhauer, and she knew they were on their way to doing some good work together. “The primary goal was to bring information out in the open, answer questions, and help the kids realize they’re not alone in the difficulties and sadness that go along with having an ill parent,” she explained.
During the second session of VIVA! Schildhauer and the kids took a tour of the Enloe Cancer Center. They talked with social workers, viewed cancerous cells under a microscope, looked at books that explained cancer and viewed the area where people receive chemotherapy. “Some of the kids wanted to sit in the chemo chairs, so they each had a turn,” Schildhauer recalled. They also visited the radiation area, where cancer patients lie on a “donut-shaped” table to receive radiation treatment.
It’s hard for anyone to talk about cancer, Rebecca Senoglu, Support Services coordinator at the hospital, said. “At VIVA! we break the ice. Fun projects are the emphasis, and trained personnel are available to help. As kids become able to ask their questions, express their feelings and meet other kids in similar situations, they gain the understanding and strength that helps them to cope with cancer in the family.”
After a round-table discussion following the tour, the children showed Schildhauer pictures they’d drawn in their binders since the first session. One girl had drawn a picture of her dad with no hair, which stimulated a discussion about parents who have lost hair, an experience all the children had in common.
“A picture can say a thousand words,” Schildhauer commented as she remembered this incident. ”It can feel safer and easier to talk about a drawing instead of oneself.”
Schildhauer, a multi-tasking artist who has her paint brushes in many palettes, has helped numerous people in the Chico area use art for self-expression, to deal with challenging situations or else simply to open up a path to personal growth.
Schildhauer grew up in the East Bay Area and then moved back east, where she earned a master’s in expressive art therapy from Lesley University in Cambridge, Mass. Since living in Chico the past six years, she’s earned a second master’s degree in studio painting from Chico State University, and now her bold encaustic paintings light up the walls of galleries, private homes and businesses.
Recently she has begun to paint Butte County landscapes, and several of her interpretations of local geography are available at The Chico Paper Company.
Schildhauer works with other groups, too, the Chico Art Center as well as directing the Open Arts program for the Community Collaborative for Youth (CCY), which is geared toward assisting disenfranchised teenagers.
Last summer, for example, she led a CCY program she called “Get Real!” in which kids 11-19 participated in inventive art projects geared toward self-reflection and personal identity. Currently for CCY, she’s developing an in-depth community program using the visual and theater arts to address the pervasive problem of bullying and its effects on children and families. She’s also working on a community art project proposal for the city of Chico.
“The arts are so incredible with regard to healing people, and I don’t even do the work—the process takes over!” she observed. “I just set the stage.”
Schildhauer also teaches art classes that are simply for art’s sake and are not therapy-oriented.
The work she does with clients goes a lot further than simply addressing everyday problems and issues. She emphasized that her personal philosophy embraces art as a means for “being involved with The Mystery—with that mystical part of ourselves and the world that can’t be explained.” She cited Thomas Moore’s Care of the Soul as one of many books that have influenced her work.
A final art project consumed Schildhauer and the children during the third session, when they made a three-dimensional sculpture called “Helping Hands.” It consisted of plastic gloves and other kinds of gloves stuffed with batting.
The “hands” were attached to a large, heart-shaped board. The children eagerly added their own special touches to the project, Schildhauer recalled, and together they made 43 “hands” in just two hours.
“The ‘hands’ were a metaphor for asking for help, and we discussed how you can ask for help with your hands without words,” she explained. “Then we talked about the many different ways you can ask for help.” Finally, Schildhauer had the children list the people in their lives to whom they could turn for assistance (teachers, relatives, people they met at the Enloe Cancer Center and so on), and they added this handy list to their personal binders. The “Helping Hands” project now hangs in the foyer at the Enloe Cancer Center.
Reflecting on the “hands” project, Senoglu praised Schildhauer’s creativity and originality, noting it was exactly the kind of project the VIVA! team was looking for. They wanted to do expressive art that was more than just drawing pictures with crayon, she said. While drawing can be a powerful way for kids to express things they cannot say, Senoglu and other VIVA! coordinators wanted something different for the project. Making the helping hands using the wire and the batting and the glue guns was fun, she recounted, and the end result was impressive.
“Cindy did a great job with that, and the kids feel very comfortable with her. She meets them at their level—I think she still knows how to be a kid herself.”
Schildhauer’s final session with the children ended with a potluck for the kids and their families, where good eats were shared and everyone had fun. Afterwards, the art therapist had the children make five copies of their hands—by outlining and then cutting them out—with their phone numbers on them. Then, the hands were exchanged among the group members. “The parents were really grateful,” Schildhauer said. “The four sessions helped everybody ‘be OK’ with not being OK.”
Schildhauer recalled how she’s seen many people open up through exploring their art. “The process of painting and art-making is an unveiling,” she said, “an opportunity to pay attention to a part of ourselves that we abandon, and then to show it off.”