In the summer of 1998, Miguel was just 12 years old. As a patient in the pediatric dialysis unit, he found the long hours of sitting and getting treatment to be lonely and boring.
One day, teaching artist and Snow City Arts’ founder Paul Sznewajs walked into the unit and introduced himself as someone working with kids in the hospital. He engaged with Miguel in a variety of ways, but quickly realized Miguel had a natural talent for drawing. Most of his work, Miguel says, was “skulls and motorcycles,” which often scared people. He would sometimes throw his work away to avoid upsetting anyone.
Paul wasn’t concerned about Miguel’s artistic subjects, but instead saw that Miguel had a passion for this work and wanted to help Miguel develop it. While he was a writer and poet by trade, Paul realized that just a little inspiration in the visual arts would help Miguel tremendously at this difficult time in his life. So began the work of Snow City Arts 20 years ago!
While being a talented artist, Miguel “couldn’t write to save [his] life,” he says. After talking with Paul for a while, he informed Paul he was dyslexic, which obviously contributed to his difficulty with both reading and writing. Paul worked with him and found programs for Miguel geared specifically for people with dyslexia.
As Miguel’s writing developed, Paul made sure to keep feeding Miguel’s passion for drawing and painting. He found a visual artist to work with him and brought him books with the work of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo to inspire and inform him about work he would find interesting. Miguel was also very interested in cars at the time and when a medical student heard about this, the student brought him a photo book of grilles and bumpers that Miguel took as stimulus for more drawing.
More than 20 years later, Miguel considers himself an accomplished artist. He paints regularly and his work is often inspired and informed by his kidney disease. His website and Instagram page are filled with his work, and he considers Paul a lifelong mentor, someone he still keeps in touch with to this day. He considers those moments of instruction and encouragement 20 years ago as invaluable to his hospital experience and credits that early educational work as instrumental in getting him through high school and college.
“Dealing with a chronic disease isn’t something you should have to go through yourself,” Miguel says.
He found the experience of talking with someone in the hospital who was not a doctor refreshing and gained confidence through the social-emotional experience of making art in the hospital.
“It’s a great program. It should be at every hospital!” according to Miguel.
So many of SCA’s principles held true today are present in this first relationship: working one-on-one with patients to find out their interests; tailoring a workshop to best meet a student’s needs; and creating more than just a needed distraction, but an enriching educational experience that helps advance a student’s academic career. The work done 20 years ago still happens in hospitals every day!