In his senior year, the 2009 UI grad helped UI Children’s Hospital patients and fellow art students showcase their work.
Ryan Ainsworth has a knack for making things happen. As an art student, he developed a pair of projects that demonstrated his creative thinking, boundless energy, and talent for taking the initiative.
But more important, his work gave other artists—namely a group of kids at University of Iowa Children’s Hospital and UI colleagues adapting to life after the flood of 2008—the chance to tell their stories.
“I’d wanted to do a community art project,” says Ainsworth of his interest in developing an independent study proposal for his senior year. “Last summer I was on a mission trip in Brazil, and I kind of had this vision about being in the hospital and working with kids.”
The resulting program—My Life Canvas Art Project—started in fall 2008. Ainsworth carted canvases, paints, and brushes room to room, offering patients art lessons and company. He also photographed the artists and interviewed them for statements to present alongside their paintings.
In the spring, Ainsworth gave the project a new spin, incorporating sculpture and performance and moving the final show from an off-site gallery to the hospital itself.
“It made the show a living, breathing thing that could evolve throughout the week as the kids continued their work,” he says. “There was a lot of laughter, paint, bubbles, silly string, and balloons, and visitors could really connect with these kids and their experience.”
Ainsworth is quick to credit patients, families, hospital staff, fellow art students, and others for the project’s success. The hospital’s Child Life Program and Blick Art Materials offered support and sponsorship.
“Ryan really had a way with the kids,” says Emily Hazelwood, child life specialist at the Children’s Hospital. “He’d show up in a funny hat or gold painted tennis shoes. A couple of long-term patients he’d visit regularly, sometimes to just hang out and cheer them up.”
Early this year, Ainsworth turned his organizing experience toward another project—a May 1 Art Festival at Studio Arts, current home to many flood-displaced programs in the UI School or Art and Art History.
Ainsworth admits that, at first, he wasn’t crazy about the idea of taking art classes in a repurposed home improvement store a Cambus ride away from the heart of campus. He started the hospital project in part so he could work somewhere else.
But like many of his peers, Ainsworth discovered unique opportunities at Studio Arts. “To have all these departments under one roof is a huge blessing,” he says. “It’s kind of like this art piece in progress that’s continuing to build, continuing to grow.”
Ainsworth crafted a plan for the festival, recruited a six-student production team, and drafted faculty advisers, graduate student representatives, and community sponsors. They dreamed up promotional strategies—including a print giveaway at April’s Riverfest—and ideas for showing off both student work and the building itself.
The event surpassed everyone’s expectations. Nearly 4,000 visitors streamed into Studio Arts for exhibits, demonstrations, performances, music, and food. For art students, faculty, and staff, the evening offered a chance to tell their collective story.
“Look at what we’ve done,” Ainsworth says, summarizing the sentiment behind the event. “Look at what we’ve been through and what we can accomplish.”
Ainsworth graduated in May, but he hopes both his projects will live on. He’d like to see the hospital program grow into an outreach course and the Studio Arts open house become a recurring, student-organized event.
The initiatives demonstrate that making art—just like confronting illness or recovering from disaster—depends on community commitment.
“The more interaction we have, the stronger our relationships become and the better our work is,” Ainsworth says.
Story by Lin Larson; portrait by Tom Jorgensen
Daily Iowan slideshow on Ryan Ainsworth's My Life Canvas Art Project
August 10, 2009