Jody Pittner has the kind of job most people would envy. Her well-worn, paint splattered overalls give a hint of how she spends most days – helping kids of all ages express themselves through art. As the hospital’s only full-time art therapist, Jody spends her days in the Emily Cooper Welty Expressive Therapy Center offering art-based programming for inpatients and outpatients.
“When kids are hospitalized, they lose some ability to make choices – sometimes they’re confined to their room, withdrawn, scared or in pain,” she said. “My job is to offer a distraction from all the invasive medical equipment and procedures and use art as an outlet to allow them to express themselves and their emotions.”
Art therapy is a second career for Jody, who has a degree in business administration and worked in the advertising industry for 5 years.
“I was working 50-hour weeks and felt like I had no quality of life,” she said. “After 5 years, I knew it was time to pursue something different.”
Jody’s love of art began in high school, but she chose not to pursue art school after graduation.
“I lacked the self-confidence at that time to trust my creativity and bought into the stereotypical idea that a career in art is somehow not a ‘wise’ choice,” she said.
In 2008, she started teaching art at summer camps and she observed how kids told stories through their paintings.
“When my campers were given the unstructured time and latitude to paint, it was amazing to observe how their emotions came out in their work,” she said.
Pittner applies those same principles with her patients.
“Whether we’re molding clay, drawing or painting, I give them free choice to express themselves so what needs to emerge can come through the creative process,” she said. “A child recovering from surgery may create a clay ‘body’ and begin cutting it apart. This pretend ‘surgery’ and the narrative they tell provide a way to process their own experience and project their emotions onto something outside themselves.”
It was back in 2011, when Jody decided to return to school, that she felt her career path start to click into place.
“I decided to pursue a dual master of art degree in counseling and art therapy,” she said. “It helped bring together the pieces of my experiences into one career. Having my counseling license allows me to work in many different environments and at the same time bring my passion for art into my work.”
In addition to her work with patients, Jody holds a monthly art therapy staff support group.
“I have a core group of employees who come regularly, and I try to introduce new forms of art that incorporates various levels of difficulty,” she said. “Periodically I do more focused staff support groups like the one I did on self-care to the nurses on the intensive care unit. I made a creative self-care box filled with a variety of art materials for them to use on break, when they need a way to process a hard case, or to assist in avoiding burnout.”
When she’s not in the Expressive Therapy Center holding a group session, Jody can be found working one-on-one with inpatients and outpatients. She works most frequently with hematology/oncology and palliative care patients who are referred to art therapy by their care team.
“For a lot of these kids, their diagnosis and treatments could be years-long or life-long,” she said. “They may be feeling sad about being in the hospital or by their disease’s progression. When I work with them I can see a shift in their mood because I allow them to just be a kid in the moment.”
Parents see it too. Carson, age 9, sees Jody 1-2 times a week when he’s receiving chemotherapy for Anaplastic ALK-positive large cell lymphoma. His mom, Lorie, says Carson looks forward to Jody’s visits.
“Art has always been one of Carson’s favorite classes at school,” explained Lorie. “Being able to do art during his hospitalizations makes him feel like a normal kid. It helps put his mind at ease and gives him something to focus on that doesn’t include being hooked up to a machine. Plus, it’s nice for him to get to interact with someone besides mom and dad.”
During a recent therapy session Jody and Carson painted a mask, which Carson inscribed on the inside with his personal mantra: ‘Carson the warrior is standing strong.’
“We call Carson our warrior because of all he has been through,” said Lorie.
“Carson and I talked about how the kids at school call him a warrior and how he’s determined to fight cancer and stand strong,” said Jody. “The mask captures his determination and the strength of his will.”
When working with Carson, Jody says she sees his playfulness come out.
“Carson benefits from the kinesthetic qualities of painting,” she said. “He enjoys getting messy, being adventurous, and taking creative risk. It’s nice to see him just get lost in the process.”
Jody can relate to using art to decompress after hard days.
“I see difficult cases and I use my own art to help me process a rough day,” she said.
Lorie, for one, is grateful the hospital sees value in offering expressive therapy to patients.
“As a parent it’s heartwarming to see him smile and relax a little bit considering everything he’s been through.”