Jillian Siegel is the Founder of Collective Craft and the Director of Development at RxArt, a non profit organization providing pediatric hospitals with contemporary art. Prior, she worked as an art therapist in the Psychiatric Department at NYU’s Langone Medical Center, and implemented a mental health daycare program for University Settlement. When we meet, Jillian brings me two copies of Between The Lines: coloring books for hospitalized kids, with Richard Prince and Ai Wei Wei among the contributors. Big names are nothing compared to the size of the cause, and Jillian’s compassion is enough to make you feel better, even if you aren’t sick.
“After studying Psychology, Studio Art, and Art History at NYU and Art Therapy at Pratt, I worked out in Brownsville where I started a mental health program for 2—4 year olds. It was incredible work, but a constant battle. Art therapy is an emerging field which people find hard to understand, and there were a lot of cultural boundaries. After a while the struggle really got to me and I ended up giving too much of myself. When getting out of bed became really hard, it was time for me to reassess.
I missed the art world and had previously worked in a gallery and studio space for adults with developmental disabilities, which I loved. I was trying to figure out a way to merge the mental health aspect with fine art again when I found RxArt, so it was absolutely perfect. It’s a less clinical and more theoretical approach, but I’m helping to create healthy distractions through art which is fulfilling. It’s hard to see at the time, but everything has a way of falling into place.
The driving force behind everything I do stems from childhood. I was raised to have a strong awareness of the people around me, and above all to strive for happiness. I’ve found that I’m happiest when the people around me are happy, so that’s what I’ve always pursued. I’ve always enjoyed psychology, and find that our current environment makes it hard to connect with people properly. So being able to do that in my work is more than just an interest, it fulfills my need for a deeper connection with others.
It’s important for me to have a relationship with the people I work with, which is why the divide between professional and personal doesn’t really exist for me. It’s all personal.
Right now we’re working on a Rob Pruitt dry erase board, which children will be able to color in themselves. When you’re in a hospital, you’re immersed in this medical world with no control over your surroundings or circumstance. For these kids, even just being able to choose the color of the wall gives them back a little bit of control. When you see their faces a few weeks after the installation and hear how their behavior has changed, that’s when you feel as if you’ve made a difference.
It is humbling to witness happiness in others who are less fortunate. I traveled to Uganda to teach ballet to orphans of the civil war in 2008. I anticipated the children would be destroyed from the horrors they had witnessed. I did not think they would have a desire to dance or play, let alone feel present or aware of themselves and their bodies. The first class was very difficult for me. There was a language barrier, many children would not participate, and some would not even make eye contact. However, at the end of the day all of our fears and boundaries began to crumble as we started to communicate through play.
Over time I began to witness the family structures that had formed within the children’s community and how they looked after each other and cared for one another.
Despite all they had lost and experienced, these children found love and family and their sprits were not broken. Humans are strong creatures. We are more capable of adapting and surviving than we realize.”
As told to Amy Woodside, May 2014
Photographed by Amy Wooodside