Arts Therapist Engages Patients in Art as Therapy
Shepherd Center arts specialist Phoebe Whisnant brings art, joy to patients.
When Phoebe Whisnant was looking to move to Atlanta from Chicago, she checked the Shepherd Center website every morning to see if there was a job opening as an arts specialist.
“I had learned about Shepherd online, and I was blown away,” Whisnant says. “I knew it would be an amazing place to work.”
It took a year, but one morning she saw the opening she had been waiting for. She came to Atlanta, interviewed and got the job as an arts specialist, within the Recreation Therapy Department’s program at Shepherd Center.
Whisnant, a native of Columbia, S.C., received a bachelor’s degree in art from Winthrop University in Rock Hill, S.C. After school, she wasn’t sure what career path to take, but she knew she wanted to do something that involved helping people. Her first job was as an activity assistant in an adult daycare center in Asheville, N.C., where she worked with adults with illnesses such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease who needed supervision during the day.
“I loved listening to the stories they would tell me about their lives, and doing creative arts and crafts with them,” Whisnant says. “So many of the participants enjoyed art, and I saw firsthand that when they were engaged in art activities. It helped them relax and eased their agitation and restlessness. They could still find joy in being creative even while experiencing the losses that accompany dementia. That experience was very influential in my decision to pursue art therapy.”
Because a graduate program in art therapy isn’t offered at very many schools, Whisnant moved to Chicago to attend Adler University where she earned a master of arts degree in counseling psychology and art therapy. During an internship at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago (RIC), Whisnant worked with a patient population much like Shepherd Center’s – people with spinal cord and brain injuries and stroke. “I got real hands-on training there, and I loved it,” she says.
After graduation, Whisnant was hired full time as an art therapist at RIC.
While she really enjoyed the work and patients at RIC, Whisnant was eager to move back to the South. After researching possibilities, she began her quest to find a job at Shepherd Center. She started working in the hospital’s art therapy program in 2009.
In the art room, Whisnant and fellow arts specialist Alex Chukabarah work with Shepherd patients to help them find a creative outlet through various forms of art, whether it’s learning a new hobby or adaptive ways to return to the art profession. In many cases, working with art helps patients express their feelings and deal with the issues they are experiencing as a result of their injury.
“It’s my privilege to introduce our patients to something that brings them joy,” Whisnant says. “And they inspire me with their courage and their hope. I learn just as much from them as they do from me.”
By Sara Baxter
Shepherd Center, located in Atlanta, Georgia, is a private, not-for-profit hospital specializing in medical treatment, research and rehabilitation for people with spinal cord injury, brain injury, multiple sclerosis, spine and chronic pain, and other neuromuscular conditions. Founded in 1975, Shepherd Center is ranked by U.S. News & World Report among the top 10 rehabilitation hospitals in the nation. In its more than four decades, Shepherd Center has grown from a six-bed rehabilitation unit to a world-renowned, 152-bed hospital that treats more than 900 inpatients, 575 day program patients and more than 7,100 outpatients each year.