VSA Arts of Nevada
“Here’s my bag of goodies,” says Emily Braunel. The art teacher’s large, canvas tote is full of paints, origami paper and other supplies that she brings to Washoe Med’s pediatric ward once a week.
The ward is quiet and orderly. Only a few people walk through the hallways. The ominous steel cribs are empty. A boy gets a lift in a red plastic wagon.
In the sunny playroom, Braunel and a 13-year-old named Rachell Jensen sit at a round table on tiny, sturdy wooden chairs, each drawing with a black pastel crayon. Rachell, who’s being treated for diabetes, wasn’t sure what she wanted to draw, so Braunel suggested the classic, 2-D-design class exercise: Cover a page with one bold, swirly line that keeps overlapping, then color each of the shapes made.
A few doors down, a curly-haired girl named Doreen Cramblet is sitting up in bed in a room she’s personalized with plastic horses and a stack of sketch pads. She presents a roll of papers, held together diploma-style with a rubber tourniquet, and unfurls them to show a drawing of a horse and a birthday card she’s made for a friend.
Braunel will come to Doreen’s room later, but the 10-year-old is already well acquainted with pencil drawing techniques. She shows off her contour drawings and careful shading. Doreen has filled up a lot of hours in the hospital by filling up her sketch pads with animals.
Back in the playroom, Braunel, 28, seems comfortable in the ward. She exchanges occasional comments with Rachell and offers to change the brush water when it gets too black, but she doesn’t hover. She’s here as an employee of VSA Arts of Nevada, an organization that offers art instruction in places like schools, hospitals and nursing homes. The blue-eyed, blond-haired Minnesotan is also an ESL teaching assistant and has taught art in grade-school and special-ed classes. So she has plenty of experience being patient and flexible, which she says is the key to success in this job.
“I don’t want to push anything,” she says. “But I’m there if they need a listening ear.” Her program allows the young patients to design their own art projects. She’ll suggest a material or an idea that’s appropriate for a child’s ability and age (her charges range from ages 3 to 17), then she’ll back off and let the kids do their own thing.
“Sometimes there are obstacles,” she says. Like an IV or a broken arm. Lightweight modeling clay is often the answer to those problems. If a child’s dominant hand is out of commission, it’s a pliable material that’s not too hard to use with the other hand.
The children, she says, are usually glad to have a chance to do something creative.
“Their hands are busy,” Braunel says. “They can take a break and work with their hands and get their minds off their frustration.”
Rachell puts down the black crayon, dips a paintbrush in water, then uses every color from Braunel’s watercolor set to make solid washes between the lines on her paper.
“I want to be a lawyer,” says Rachell. “I like to argue.” She’s dressed in street clothes and awaiting discharge papers, but she paints intently. Once she’s ruling the courtroom, she says, she wants to keep painting in her off hours.