A few weeks ago Cindy Turgeon felt like her hands were tied.
As an art teacher in the Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake school district, she had to severely restrict her contact with students due to COVID-19, giving lessons only online. As a new small business owner — she just opened Sgraffito Art Studio in Burnt Hills in late February — she was stuck with a studio full of art supplies and no students.
Turgeon found herself asking: What can I do?
Then she got a call from her friend Amy Waylett, the director of radiology and radiation oncology at Ellis Medicine. Over the last month or so, Waylett has been working with COVID-positive patients and has seen firsthand the harsh impact the virus can have on people, both physically and mentally.
“She reached out to me and she said, ‘Can we do anything with artwork for the hospital?’ At that point, I was so happy that she asked because I just felt helpless,” Turgeon said.
Immediately, Turgeon reached out to her fifth-grade students at Charlton Heights Elementary as well as some of her Sgraffito students and asked if they would be willing to create artwork inspired by Georgia O’Keeffe to donate to Ellis Medicine.
She received a resounding yes from students like Mary Pietro, an eighth-grader at O’Rourke Middle School. Pietro has been taking lessons with Turgeon for the better part of a year, though she’s had a passion for making art ever since she can remember.
“Mrs. Turgeon told me about the project and I was excited because [the] thought of making people happy with my own artwork just makes me really excited. . . I’m glad that someone gets joy out of what I make,” Pietro said.
She decided to create a piece inspired by O’Keeffe’s bright pastel-hued “Lake George Reflection.” It took about three hours and it was a welcome challenge for the young student, who worked to capture both the color palette and the composition of O’Keeffe’s piece.
Twenty-five students donated artwork, including Waylett’s son, who is in fifth grade and goes to school in the Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake district.
“I’ve been very open with my children about the current situation. They’re well aware of what’s happening and I wanted them to have a part in this too,” Waylett said.
“Typically [students] protect their art, so to see them just donate their work was so telling to me that they felt like they were doing something special. . . I had a couple of eighth-graders [give] these pieces to me for this project and they’re stunning. It’s like ‘This could be in a gallery’ and to just give it away to the patients was obviously very selfless,” Turgeon said.
Beyond collecting artwork, Turgeon also collected art supplies like color pencils and paints to give to patients, most of whom are in isolation or can’t receive visitors at this time.
“I put these two bins outside of my studio; one bin was for the kid’s artwork . . . and then another bin was art supplies. One day I went to check the box and it was overflowing with [supplies],” Turgeon said.
Out of the community donations and those from her studio, she made 20 art kits, which were recently delivered to patients in the COVID unit, as well as the behavioral health unit and Ellis’ nursing home. The donated student artwork, which Turgeon framed, is on display at the nursing home as well as on its COVID floor.
“It’s bright and colorful and I know if I were to be in that situation, it would be nice to know that the community has done something nice for me as a patient,” Waylett said.
The artwork and the kits were well received by patients and staff members alike, according to Waylett, who hopes to take this a step further.
“Something that I would like to be able to do is set up a display of donated artwork that we could change periodically within the radiology department for my department staff to view as well as our patients,” Waylett said.
Turgeon is interested in working on similar projects and collecting more donations.
“I feel like this would be a beautiful thing to continue to do if the hospital would want just because I just believe so strongly in the power of art and making it and the process of it,” Turgeon said.
It also makes her and other community members contribute and feel less helpless.
“I can’t heal anybody . . . but I can get some art together.”