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Niha Burugapalli uses art skills to help L+M therapy patients

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From the checkerboard images of a Zoom meeting computer screen, the process unfolds in charming and decidedly colorful fashion. In one square, 18-year-old Niha Burugapalli, paintbrush in hand, stands in the East Lyme home she shares with her family next to an easel supporting an in-progress canvas that suggests the gradations of a vivid southwestern sunset.

In another Zoom square, two side-by-side patients at L+M Hospital in New London studiously work on their own paintings, replicating Burugapalli's step-by-step instructions in earnest fashion and with encouragement from two staff physical therapists.

The session, which took place last Thursday, was the latest of several art classes Burugapalli has conducted since last summer as a volunteer with the hospital's inpatient rehabilitation unit. Until COVID-19 precautions, Burugapalli taught the classes live — usually weekly, with each session including two-to-five patients and lasting about 45 minutes. Once school started in the fall, she continued with Saturday or Sunday lessons. Then, after the virus hit, Burugapalli successfully pitched the idea of continuing the work via Zoom.

A recent graduate of the Williams School who will attend the University of Toronto in the fall as a pre-med student on full scholarship, Burugapalli conceived the inpatient art classes at L&M not just for extracurricular school credit or to add nuance to her own interest in painting but, most importantly, in the interest of healing.

Burugapalli knows what it's like to be a patient. In the seventh grade, she broke her leg and, in the time-honored fashion of the infirm, resorted to channel surfing. That's where Burugapalli discovered Bob Ross, whose iconic "The Joy of Painting" instructional program on PBS turned countless fans onto the basics of do-it-yourself artwork.

Already artistically inclined, Burugapalli found "The Joy of Painting" fun and therapeutic. "There was a definite learning curve," she says, "but I loved Bob, and I taught myself art by watching him. It was so helpful the way he broke it down."

After her leg healed, Burugapalli started taking art classes at Williams and at the Lyme Academy of Fine Art. In addition to the realism of her landscapes and still life pieces, she dabbles in surrealism and the works that can evolve from tracings. A native of south India, she often incorporates cultural icons or symbolic imagery in her work. At Williams, Burugapalli also led the Service Committee, acted in theater productions, and took honors classes.

"I won a few art contests over the years, and that was fun and encouraging," says Burugapalli, speaking by phone shortly after last week's Zoom session. In conversation, she has a pleasant, thoughtful delivery punctuated with bits of laughter. Art and medicine are clearly two topics of interest, although she has to be gently pushed to share accomplishments — as in, "Well, one of my pieces hung in the capitol building tunnel in Hartford."

Though she doesn't mention it, her 2019 painting "Pure Joy" won first place in Connecticut's Congressional Arts Competition and joined winners from the other 49 states and the District of Columbia in a year-long exhibition in the tunnel at the United States Capitol in Washington D.C. And her "Innocence," a self-portrait based on a childhood photo, was awarded a state-wide Art & Writing Award Regional Gold Key.

As for working with hospital patients, Burugapalli was already familiar with the environment and routines in a very somber context. Her mother and grandfather had very serious mdeical conditions.

"Visiting them offered a very different perspective," Burugapalli explains. "Seeing tmy mother and grandfather in such serious situations made me very interested in medicine as a possible career, and watching how the doctors, nurses and (other personnel) were so caring and committed made a big impression."

At the same time, Burugapalli says, "I realized that art has always provided me with happiness, and I wanted to see if that translated into a hospital situation because patients are facing stressful situations, and any way to help relieve that stress is important."

After doing some background work, expanding on Ross's how-to theories and researching step-by-step painting processes, Burugapalli reached out to L+M with her idea to teach painting to patients. The department that coordinates volunteers put her in touch with physical therapist Eileen Cicchese.

"I immediately said yes," Cicchese says in an email. "I was already doing some painting (with patients), but was extremely interested in someone with more skills ... Niha is a natural and works so well with patients."

In an occupation where recreational activities are utilized to improve cognitive, social, physical, emotional and spiritual functioning — Cicchese references activities ranging from cooking to doing jigsaw puzzles — the how-to paint sessions seem to fuse all of those elements, but the success of such things, particularly with a volunteer, relies a great deal on the natural empathy.

The fact that Burugapalli was in high school was a bit of a surprise, Cicchese says. "Honestly, Niha is mature beyond her years. She has no fear at all going into patients' rooms with me and talking to them. When Niha was coming into the hospital ... the typical response from a patient after a session was, 'When are we doing it again?'"

In the Zoom session, after Burugapalli has led the two patients in the application of a black swathe of earth at the bottom of their landscapes, it's time to switch to a different brush and begin adding trees in the foreground of the horizon. As the two L+M artists work on trunks inspired by their teacher's towering, giraffe-neck palms, Burugapalli, Cicchese and fellow physical therapist offer compliments and encouragement. They remark on how the individual's personality tends to emerge even though each participant is doing a step-by-step replication as orchestrated by Burugapalli. (Hospital policy prohibits disclosing the patients' conditions.)

For example, the trees in the patients' paintings are taking on characteristics different than the instructor's palms, perhaps reflecting environments familiar to the painters' experiences. The effect is intriguing and adds distinctive identity to each landscape. Plus, they all look quite accomplished.

"A lot of people say they could never paint, and they're very surprised by what they do, and then they're proud when they do it," Burugapalli says. "I always tell them, 'You don't need to know anything. We're just painting. It's fun.'"

The next step is to place a few birds into the sky of each painting. Burugapalli fluidly adds some gulls darting beyond her palms; inside the hospital, patient Jane McClane of Black Point also adeptly provides the aviary element.

"You look like you've done this before," Burugapalli comments to McClane.

"I used to be an art major in college," McClane says, "but I really haven't done much since then." She regards her work and says, "This is nothing great, but I wanted to try it."

Later, in a phone call, McClane says of the experience, "I enjoyed it very much, and I'd do it again because (Niha) has worked out so well. She has great technique, and this was time well spent."

Though the precise protocols haven't yet been finalized for the fall semester at the University of Toronto, school is scheduled to start on time, and Burugapalli is looking forward to her college career.

She'll miss the L+M sessions, she says, but doesn't rule out doing more during future summer vacation or holiday breaks. She will also treasure the experiences she's already had.

"All of the patients are so inspiring," Burugapalli says. "They have so much determination and resilience. And after my mom and grandfather had serious health issues, I was forced to have a different perspective on mortality and how your perspective on treatment possibilities changes when it's your own family."

Burugapalli adds that her time with patients has caused her to broaden her approach to college and her career. "I never really thought of art therapy in the context of a medical career," she says. "After I saw how it was going at L+M, I reached out to an art therapist at Yale and learned more about it. You hear plenty about specific areas of medicine like doctors or nurses, but now my eyes have been opened to different ways you can be involved in the medical field.

"Art is a very emotional thing, and you don't always hear about the emotional dimensions that can work with the technical aspects of medicine ... Whatever happens, I think I'll always paint. It's relaxing. It's just me and the canvas, and I can depict whatever I want. That's very freeing."

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