Austin art therapist hopes second lady’s visit will promote work to help kids heal

Art therapist Elizabeth Hendley puts the final touches on the patient gallery hanging at Dell Children's Medical Center in Austin on Tuesday, Nov. 14, 2017. (KXAN/Chris Davis)
Art therapist Elizabeth Hendley puts the final touches on the patient gallery hanging at Dell Children's Medical Center in Austin on Tuesday, Nov. 14, 2017. (KXAN/Chris Davis)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Second lady Karen Pence will be in central Texas Wednesday to showcase one of her passions.

Ascension’s Dell Children’s Medical Center of Central Texas confirmed Pence will observe an art therapy session with a patient at the hospital. Last month the vice president’s wife launched an initiative called Healing with the HeART to promote art therapy as “a mental health profession, and not arts and crafts,” the White House website states.

Pence, a watercolor artist herself, will also tour a public gallery of a few works produced by patients at the hospital.

“I’m very excited,” said Elizabeth Hendley, the art therapist at Dell Children’s. She updated the wall of artwork with new nameplates Tuesday in preparation for the visit. “I’m going to be the tour guide.”

Pence will see the 11 framed pieces; Hendley will be there to help her see behind the works. She pointed out a mosaic pig hanging in the hospital hallway; the artist’s name is listed simply as “Brian, age 16.”

“He had a hard time regulating his behavior and his emotions,” she explained, “and so it was really amazing when he did this piece because he was very focused.”

In the children’s hospital setting, Hendley’s job is often to help kids cope with unfamiliar and scary situations. “Anxiety reduction, pain management, trauma, processing trauma,” she said, “That’s a really big one.”

“Everywhere I go I see new uses for art therapy,” Pence wrote last month in explaining why she chose the Healing with the HeART initiative. “From cancer, anxiety, PTSD, traumatic brain injuries, eating disorders, autism, end of life issues, abuse, and much more. In fact, anyone can benefit from art therapy.”

Usually the process is private, the works of art reserved just for the young artists, Hendley said, “but every once in a while we’ll get a child who really is excited about displaying their work.” That’s how the gallery started. Some of the children benefit in physical ways from the therapy, too, she said, like the girl with fluid building up painfully in her brain.

“And so as she’s doing artwork,” Hendley said, “her pressure actually gets back to normal, you can see it on her monitor.” Less pressure means less pain.

“That’s just an incredible blessing to me. I just love to see that day in and day out.” Hendley hopes now, the world will see it, too. “It’s changing people’s lives and, you know, helping kids to heal. That’s really the message that I want to get out and I think Mrs. Pence’s visit will be really a great way to make that happen.”

Pence appears to agree, writing in that message last month, “I am honored to have this national and international platform to shine the light on art therapy.”

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