Peace and healing through art

Peace and healing through art

The Cohain Foundation’s ArtWorks program helps sick children create; other kids can help

There’s little that’s more terrifying than a child in a hospital bed.

That’s particularly true when that child — or maybe it’s a teenager, anyone with what should be a future that in a fair world would unfold and glitter — is in that bed with a chronic illness, or even worse, an often-fatal one. The basic undeniable unfairness of it is bitter.

But still each one of those children or teenagers is not a symbol but a person.

Each one is a singular person with a history, creativity, and an absolutely unique worldview. That’s true of every single person, and certainly it’s not less true for a bedridden kid.

Certainly it’s something that Cynthia and Dr. David Cohain of Englewood know.

Their daughter Naomi died in 1995. She was 15, and had spent a great deal of time in hospital rooms in the year before her death.

She had a huge personality, lived intensely, and made her presence felt. And she was creative — a characteristic inherited from her father, it turns out — and loved making art. So after a few years, and with the encouragement of Naomi’s doctor and her cousin, the Naomi Cohain Foundation began to fund ArtWorks, a nonprofit agency that provides art supplies and working artists to work with young people hospitalized with serious illnesses.

The finale of “Express Yourself”

And then covid hit — and ArtWorks kept going.

As it reinvented itself — not its mission, but its approach to that mission — it has woven in local day schools, including the Frisch School and the Moriah School, and other local institutions, like the Montclair Art Museum.

Here’s the story.

The Cohains are American, but their ties to Israel are so strong that they’d made aliyah, Naomi’s father, David, who is a now-retired dentist, said. Then Naomi, one of their three children, was diagnosed with cancer, “and we got right on a plane to come back,” he said. “We left food on the table.” Home called.

Naomi’s primary doctor was Michael Harris, the pediatric hematologist and oncologist who headed what was then called Tomorrows Children’s Institute (which always has been more precise with its medical care than with its apostrophes — that’s the way its name was spelled) at what is now Hackensack Meridian Health.

Dr. Harris, who now is semi-retired, lives in Englewood, and like the Cohains he and his family are deeply woven into the Jewish community there.

“Dr. Harris was an angel from another world,” Dr. Cohain said. “He gave us hope, and he gave her dignity. She fell in love with one of the art therapists there, who fell in love with her. She had unique relationships.

A Frisch student shows the pop-up card she taught in a video.

“But the day is long, and the art therapist wasn’t always there” Naomi’s need to make art — to create, to look inward and also forward, to be everything she was for as long as she could — didn’t end when the art therapist walked out the door.

So Naomi and David Cohain worked together on art projects. “Art really gave her peace and healing,” Dr. Cohain said.

Naomi had become close to her cousin, Daniela Mendelsohn, who also lived in Englewood and has since made aliyah. “A couple of years after she passed away, Michael and Dani approached us with the idea of creating a foundation in Naomi’s memory,” Dr. Cohain said. In 2002, the foundation was begun.

“For a number of years, the Cohain Foundation ran art programs and had performances that our patients put on,” Dr. Harris said. “It was very therapeutic.”

He remembers that the foundation grew out of Dani Mendelsohn’s regret that because Naomi had moved back to New Jersey only after she was diagnosed, and died so soon after, “no one really knew her,” Dr. Harris said. “We both said it was a shame. She was so unusual. And she loved the arts, just like her dad.”

He told a story that encapsulated the girl he’d known. “Soon before she passed away, she asked if there were anything she could donate. Any organ that she could give. She said, ‘Look, I know I have cancer, so that might be impossible.’

“I told her that ‘You could donate your eye. Your cornea has no vascularity.’ And she looked at me — she had such beautiful eyes — and she said, ‘That gives me a great deal of pleasure.’ She said, ‘I believe that the world is a beautiful place, and it gives me such pleasure to think that someone else will see the beauty of the world through my eyes.’”

A teaching artist helps a patient learn to play a keyboard.

Can that possibly be a direct quote from a dying 15-year-old? “Yes,” Dr. Harris said. “She literally said that.”

“So I promised her that we would do that, and we did. Someone got her cornea.”

Naomi designed jewelry, and she painted. “She was supposedly a prodigy, although I don’t know if that’s true. But I know that she left a strong impression on a lot of people.” The impression she left on Dr. Harris is so strong “that it’s hard to believe that it’s been 26 years,” he said. “I have a lot of kids who I miss, but she was someone special.

“She always will be frozen as that 15-year-old, but she would have been a wonderful adult.”

She left a strong impression on her distant cousin Dani too, Dr. Harris continued.

“Daniela and I were talking about Naomi’s love for art, and for the beauty in the world. I told Daniela about what we did at Hackensack” — they had art programs, but they were erratically funded and therefore irregularly offered — “and I said that if we could start a foundation that would give patients the chance to do art and also to perform…

“So Daniela thought about it, and she convinced David and Cynthia to do it, and she started this foundation.”

A little girl uses the supplies in an art cart.

“Daniela was unstoppable.”

One of the many connections that Ms. Mendelsohn forged was with the artist Peter Max, Dr. Harris said. “How she ever found him, I will never know. But one of the foundation’s big projects was making art carts, and Peter Max did the artwork on each of those carts.” He also made a portrait of Naomi.

“We have been involved with 50 local hospitals, including all the major ones in New York and New Jersey,” Dr. Cohain said. “Tens of thousands of children have been involved in different programs. We are a small, low-budget, very tight organization, and we are very effective in our area. We are well-respected.

“Often our goal was to help raise money for seed funding for hospitals that didn’t have it,” he added.

The program that the Cohain Foundation runs is called ArtWorks; Laura Langley has been its executive director since 2018.

“We have three core programs,” Ms. Langley said. “The founding program is the art carts. We have 33 of them, in 30 hospitals. We fill them with art supplies, and they’re available to patients 24 hours a day.” Patients do not need supervision to use the supplies.

“The second one is the teaching artist program,” she continued. “This is probably the most impactful one. We bring artists in to work directly with patients.

“They are artists, not art therapists. It is not about clinical findings, but about giving the child the opportunity to be creative. The artists sometimes work one-on-one, and sometimes in small groups, and it’s incredible to see the work that comes out of it.”

A teaching artist sits with a young patient and his family.

“We run the gamut — we have music and creative writing and performing arts and fine art programs, drawing and painting; we have graffiti artists and beatbox artists. We can work with children and young adults from 2 through 21.

“We try to bring each hospital what it needs. We are like a bespoke service. We talk to them about who their populations are; we really try to give them what will help them beyond the services that they provide.

“And our third program, which we have not been able to do for two years, is a day-long event called ‘Express Yourself.’ That’s where we culminate the year’s work with an art exhibit and performing showcase. There are usually more than 100 artworks on display, and parents, grandparents, everybody comes.” The artwork is presented professionally; “we have generous framers, and they frame the pieces for us.

And then some of that art is exhibited, in venues that now include the Montclair Art Museum.

“The kids who perform are so excited, and they are so brave.” When she sees one of the performances, Ms. Langley said, “I cry.

“Traditionally, the performances have been at the big performing arts space at NYU,” she continued. “It’s a magical day. The energy that everybody brings helps the kids create a community.

“We’ve had kids come through the program who have survived their illnesses, go through high school and college, and then come back and intern for me,” she said.

Almost 30 years ago, Naomi stands in between her parents, David and Cynthia; her brother and sister, Yosaif and Ariella, beam.

Spring 2022’s performance will be the program’s 20th anniversary, Ms. Langley added.

The foundation was run mainly by members of Englewood’s Jewish community. It chugged along for years, but recently has began to run out of energy, Dr. Harris said.

“It became harder to raise money. It’s the founders’ syndrome. I could see those original board members burning out. Some of them stepped away, so David and Cynthia had a choice to make.

“David is extremely creative, and he came up with this unbelievable idea.

“He thought of having people make videos.” Those videos show users how to create all sorts of art out of easily accessible materials. “All sorts of people — high school kids, adults, famous people, unfamous people — and it will be sort of like an internal YouTube.”

They’re aimed at young patients who are alone in hospital rooms for long stretches of time. “So when kids are isolated in their rooms, if they can’t go out into the general areas, these videos would be a great help,” she said.

Before covid, that made a lot of sense because often people undergoing cancer treatments must stay away from most human contact.

The Cohains two years ago — Cynthia and David are with, from left, their son-in-law, Zack, their daughter, Ariella, and their son Yosaif.

The plan was to make videos that kids could watch whenever they wanted to and follow the suggestions as they used readily available art supplies to make things. Some of the teaching artists who had visited patients in person, along with others who were not close enough to come to the hospital but who were glad to teach by video, signed up for the plan and started to make content.

And then, once covid forced all patients into isolation, the plan seemed prescient.

“All we could do was the art carts, and we couldn’t be in hospitals physically,” Ms. Langley said. “Some hospitals will do Zoom or Facetime, but it’s a very heavy responsibility.” It takes a lot of arranging, it demands a lot of equipment, and HIPAA requirements means that patients’ privacy must be zealously guarded not only for moral reasons but for legal ones as well. Also, “We’re very focused on what our partners in the hospitals need from us,” Ms. Langley said.

Video seemed to be the way to go. “It was a lemonade-out-of-lemons situation,” she continued. At first, the teaching artists recorded their lessons. “We pivoted to digital, although we still can offer some one-to-one Zooms,” she said. “We started out one at a time with video, but we started amassing a little library of content, so we decided to create a more formal presentation.

“Now all the hospitals can access the library, and that gives us the opportunity to have a national footprint.

“Our virtual library doesn’t have any limits, and we are just now starting to reach out to expand our reach to the country. David wants to expand to the world!

“We’re just launching our website” — — “and we are on the cusp of something really exciting.”

A teaching artists works with paints at Harlem Hospital in Manhattan.

“You can access the videos on any device,” Ms. Langley said. They’re posted on the group’s website. “You don’t need any special equipment. It’s available whenever you want it. And we also provide a starter kit of supplies, so the kids can make whatever they see. We curated the content in a very specific way.”

Given all that, where do the videos come from?

Among other places, including from the teaching artists who’d already had a relationship with ArtWorks, they come from high-school and even middle-school students. “We work with students in peer-to-peer programs, including at Frisch and Moriah,” Ms. Langley said. “The patients can watch a video of a child their age creating something.”

Because of their illness, and because of covid, “we have lost the sense of community. And kids in cancer units are so isolated. This is a way to bring other children into their lives.

“The videos are wonderful. The students did a wonderful job. And it gives those students a sense of how they really are helping the kids on the other side of the screen.

Ahuva Winston teaches art at Frisch, and some of her Frisch students made ArtWorks videos.

Because she’d grown up in Englewood, she’d known about the Cohains and their foundation, although she hadn’t met the family. “But when some students who had been connected to it reached out to me, it clicked in my head,” she said.

A teaching artist and a patient perform together.

Dr. Cohain was asking “for videos for their collection, from a student’s perspective,” she said. “They wanted teenagers teaching teenagers. It would add a different layer. And that made perfect sense to me.

“So I watched some of the videos from the teaching artists to see what they are looking for. There are some exceptional tutorials. I saw that the kids who are using them wanted a spectrum of things.

“That gave me the opportunity to go to my class and say, ‘This is an exceptional opportunity.’”

Ms. Winston gave the assignment to her mixed media class. “Every project in that class is with a different medium. I told my students, ‘You choose a project that you are passionate about, in whatever medium you want.’

“The project was not only about the work they’d be producing and teaching, but also the teaching skills they learned. I asked them to plan out their projects and give a step-by-step explanation of where the project would go. They had to hand it in and then make the video tutorial, and then edit it.

“That means that they were learning how to plan, how to video, how to teach, and how to edit.

“These were second-semester seniors, who usually are checked out, but they were passionate about it,” Ms. Winston continued. Frisch students had some in-person days and some Zoom ones; this was “a Zoom day, but I asked them to come in early anyway, at 8:45, and everyone came.

Another teaching artist works with a small group of aspiring musicians at NYU Langone.

“They were an amazing group of kids. They cared about what they were doing — they knew that they were doing something important — so they worked hard on it.

“It wasn’t really about the art, although everyone really thought about it, and they made such diverse things, everything from one-point perspective drawing to origami to watercolor flowers to a beautiful paper sculpture project. It was about ‘What am I doing for the kids? How will they learn from it?’”

The students videoed themselves wherever they chose — at home in their rooms, outside on their lawns, in the studio at school. Because it’s much easier to teach when you’re not wearing a mask, each student had to do the project alone; it was before high-school students could be double vaccinated and the vaccination baked in. That means that the students also learned about camera angles.

Often, it’s hard to stop and describe something you can do instinctively. Ms. Winston talked about working with a student who videoed himself teaching how to draw a dog. “We both said that we’d follow his step-by-step directions, and we both came out with a very wonky-looking dog,” she said, so the student figured out how to make his instructions more precise, more specific, and more accurate.

The students also had to consider the art supplies that the kids in the hospital would be able to find. “I gave them a list of materials that I knew the kids would have,” Ms. Winston said. “Some students wanted to do projects that weren’t realistic.

“But one girl did a collage of animal characters, cutting out shapes. It was adorable. A lot of it was a mix between crafts and fine arts.

“We learned about flexibility,” she concluded. “If one thing isn’t working, try another one. One student made a paper sculpture by ripping construction paper in a box, and the box was paper too.

“With covid, at least at first, you couldn’t go to school, you couldn’t go shopping, so you did what you could with what you had. This project, too, was about being flexible and innovative and working with what you have.”

Flexibility, adaptability, hope, generosity, love — children in hospitals benefit from getting those gifts, and so too do the people who give them. The Cohain Foundation’s ArtWorks projects helps make that exchange possible.

Learn more about ArtWorks at

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