Masks decorated with feathers, sequins and pompoms hung from the walls of the Robert Wood Johnson Center for Health Policy on Saturday, but one mask stood out from the rest.

It was half black, half gold, with carefully painted stitches and scars running along the forehead.

“This teenager had kidney failure, and he’s on dialysis three or four hours every day,” said Reina Baron, child development specialist at UNMH. “Somebody asked him, ‘What does this (mask) mean?’ He said, ‘It’s half black because I’m half dead.’ He felt like because he was there, he wasn’t really living a full life.”

Hundreds of child patients at UNMH painted masks between January and April, and some of them donated the masks to “Faces of Courage,” an art show hosted by the Child Life Program. The participating children were sick with everything from upset stomachs and tonsillitis to cancer and leukemia, but Child Life assistant Amanda Graham said that at first glance it’s difficult to tell that the bright, colorful masks were made under such trying circumstances.

“There aren’t many references to illness, they seem more happy,” Graham said. “They have a lot of personality.”

Sarah Davis, the mother of 7-year-old Andrew Davis, said art is an important distraction for kids in the hospital. She said her son, who usually visits the hospital annually for asthma complications, was crying in pain when he was given materials to craft a mask.

But then he was occupied for two hours, and painted a mask for both the show and his sister, which now hangs on her wall.
“I think it totally takes them away from their illness,” Sarah said. “These kids have such big imaginations already that it allows them to just be creative, and it helps them forget about what’s wrong. I think art is very therapeutic, both for physical illness and emotional illness as well.”

Andrew’s mask featured multicolored hair and had green pipe cleaners on its face.

“It’s painted, and it has feathers and it has sparkles on it,” Andrew said.

But 11-year-old Rose Messec, a patient who with irritable bowel syndrome, said she likes her masks more simple. Her mask had brown skin, black hair cut from cloth, and buttons on the cheeks.

“I don’t like the ones with more stuff on them like the others,” she said, pointing to the masks hanging next to hers.

Rose’s mother, Tina Messec, also had a mask in the show. Baron said families’ artwork was included because the healing qualities of art are important for entire families, not just individual patients.

“When they’re in the hospital these kids have so much coming at them, the parents have so much coming at them: they have doctors, they have nurses, they have terminology, they have to learn a whole new language sometimes,” Baron said. “When they sit down to do art, it’s a way to get rid of the chatter that surrounds them.

They can just focus and meditate. We couldn’t eliminate family members’ artwork, because they all did it.”

Faces of Courage
Runs through the summer semester
Robert Wood Johnson Center for Health Policy
1909 Las Lomas N.E.