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Local artist Debbie Van Leeuwen brings color and creativity to walls of Kentucky Children’s Hospital

Debbie Van Leeuwen creates colorful custom banners and murals in her home studio. Photo taken in accordance with social distance guidelines. (Photo by Mark Cornelison, UK)

By Hilary Brown
University of Kentucky

Try to imagine the worlds of Spongebob, Doc McStuffins and Spiderman colliding. All three characters come together in a natural scene, where nothing and no one seems out of place or incongruous.

That’s the type of challenge that local artist Debbie Van Leeuwen regularly faces, and the goal of her project, “Operation Feel Better.”

For the past five years, Van Leeuwen has painted over 70 banners and murals for the patients of Kentucky Children’s Hospital. From seasonal décor for the hospital corridors to personalized banners for patient rooms, Van Leeuwen creates colorful custom scenes for an audience she will never meet.

Many of Van Leeuwen’s murals have an “I Spy” element, making them a fun interactive addition to KCH. Photo taken in accordance with social distancing guidelines. (Photo by Mark Cornelison, UK)

“I paint for all these children I will never see, and never know, and I’ve never met,” said Van Leeuwen. “I don’t know where they’re from, what they have, or how long they’re in the hospital, but I know, for example, they have a dog named Sadie and they love Spiderman.”

Van Leeuwen has been volunteering her painting skills since her children were in school, painting backdrops for events and fundraisers. But when her children graduated high school, she looked around for other outlets. She connected with the staff of the Child Life program at KCH and started painting banners for the hospital welcome center and later incorporated customized pieces for patients who were experiencing long hospital stays. When Van Leeuwen gets a call from Child Life, she has them put together a list of the patient’s four or five favorite things, such as characters, colors, hobbies and pets.

Then comes the hard part.

“When I get the information, it takes me probably half the time just to think of the design,” said Van Leeuwen. “Because I might have owls, Peppa the Pig, and LEGOs. Trying to put all those things into one mural is really fun for me, but it takes the most time.” Overall, she can complete a banner in two to three days.

Van Leeuwen recalls one of her favorite, albeit most challenging pieces that she created for an older patient.

This mural, currently hanging in the inpatient unit in Kentucky Children’s Hospital, is just one of dozens Van Leeuwen has created.

“One time I had one that was interested in wrestling,” she said. “He loved wrestling. But he also didn’t go anywhere without his fish Beanie Baby. And so trying to put a Beanie Baby in a scene from a wrestling match, that was really thought-provoking and challenging in a fun way for me. Everything just clicked. That’s one of my favorite ones.”

Not only is the custom banner decorative for their room, Van Leeuwen says, it can be a conversation starter for the staff visiting a patient’s room. A young patient who is scared or nervous in new surroundings with strange faces will be excited to point out and talk about their favorite things. Van Leeuwen has also painted for patients’ siblings and made banners for in-hospital birthdays, holidays and other celebrations.

“The murals that Debbie has painted brighten the room, the hallway and the walls of KCH to help create a pediatric friendly environment,” said Ashley Rapske of the Child Life staff. “We love seeing Debbie’s creativity once she has the list of what the child loves turned into a beautiful painting. She has even added a fun “I Spy” element to many of the murals that she has designed. The murals bring something colorful to focus on and spread joy for our patients and families.”

Van Leeuwen learns as much as she can about patients so she can create custom paintings to decorate their hospital rooms.

The murals and banners are designed for a life in the hospital. They are painted on fire- and tear-resistant Tyvek and are sealed to keep the paint from peeling or flaking. At the end of their stay, patients can roll them up and take them home. Van Leeuwen even adapted her work for the coronavirus pandemic; newer pieces are painted on canvas and coated with epoxy resin so they can be wiped down.

Her services are volunteered, and to cover the cost of supplies, she sells hand-painted ornaments and tiles through her business Kid Critters. In addition, 100% of the proceeds from her sales go toward purchasing paint and materials for her work at KCH.

“I started Kid Critters as a way to be creative outside the emotion of painting for patients,” she said. “Over the past five years, painting for patients can be raw. So this is a chance for me to have an emotional outlet and do lighter things while still supporting KCH.”

Even though Van Leeuwen doesn’t deliver the banners in person, she is nonetheless touched by the patient’s reactions. One patient put his on the floor to drive his toy trucks on. Another young girl insisted on putting it in the bed with her. But the most rewarding part for Van Leeuwen is the closeness she feels with each patient.

“I feel like, as I’m painting for them, that I know them, and I know they’re in need,” she said. “I don’t paint these so that the kids can have a gift to take home. I paint them because the gift is having them in the hospital. And if they want them, then that’s even more special to me.”

Hilary Brown writes for UK Now

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