When a group of surfers with disabilities took to the water off the beach at Wildwood, N.J., for the annual “They Will Surf Again” program on Father’s Day, one of the surfboards they rode to shore was more than just a surfboard—it was an authentic work of art influenced by none other than the French impressionist Claude Monet. And the creative spirits who painstakingly painted the Monet-inspired water lilies that decorated the board from nose to tail were none other than the members of the art therapy program at MossRehab—with support from longtime associates at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
So the question is: Why Monet? Well, first, there is the clear association with water. But there’s something more.
“Our theme all year has been telling stories through portraits,” says Marya Camilleri, MA, art therapist and Art Therapy Community Partnership Coordinator at MossRehab. “We’ve been focusing on stories of people who have had interesting or adventurous experiences—either the artists or the subjects of their artwork.”
Camilleri recalls how the theme developed. Members of the art therapy program had been brainstorming, trying to come up with ideas for a theme, and arrived at the water lily idea—inspired by another member who had been working on water lily art. “The idea symbolizes people accomplishing something that others wouldn’t expect them to be able to do,” Camilleri says.
For members of the art therapy program, who have a range of conditions—from stroke to brain injuries to brain aneurysms—Monet was an ideal subject.
Monet painted roughly 250 oils depicting water lilies over the course of his last 30 years. Throughout much of that time, Monet suffered from cataracts—a condition in which the lens of the eye becomes clouded over, causing blurry vision and altered color perception.
For an artist, that’s quite a challenge. For a master, it’s potentially devastating.
But cataracts not only did not stop Monet—rather, he continued to create some of his most memorable and iconic work.
The art therapy program is split into four-week sessions, meeting on Thursdays. On the first Thursday, members of the program get a specially guided tour of the Art Museum, led by 37-year museum guide Deena Gerson. Marisa Clark, the museum’s Bridges Accessible Programs Coordinator, oversees the relationship with MossRehab, as well as with other groups, including veterans.
Typically, Camilleri meets with Clark and Gerson to discuss a project’s central theme. “She’ll discuss it with me, and more so with Deena, about what themes they want to explore, and then they craft a tour together that is going to explore those themes, and maybe even kind of step outside the box a little,” says Clark.
Gerson recalls how the Monet theme blossomed, as it were, from there.
Many artists—Monet was far from alone—struggled with physical difficulties in their lives. Auguste Renoir, for example, had painfully curved fingers as a result of rheumatism, and suffered a stroke in 1912. Artist Chuck Close (renowned for his abstract portraits) became paralyzed from the waist down following a spinal artery collapse.
By those standards, Monet, with his visual difficulties, was certainly an inspiration. “I can show you his last water lily bridge from 1926, the year he died, and it looks like a Jackson Pollock,” Gerson says. (Pollock was known for his technique of dripping and pouring paint on his canvases.) “We really, really explored the gamut of ideas, but there’s symbolism in the water lily. It just rises above all that murky, icky, still water that it comes from.”
Once committed to an idea or a theme, Clark says, Gerson gives it her all. “Typically, I select guides that I think would have the personality that would fit with that group and then I connect them,” she says. Clark saw Gerson as a good fit for the MossRehab art therapy group.
After that, she says, Gerson goes to town with it. “You take a tour with Deena,” Clark says, “and you could say that it’s going to be an hour, but you wind up two hours later, and nobody realizes it’s been two hours. I mean, it’s not like she’s holding anybody hostage, but nobody wants to go home.”
Looking back at how the project evolved, says Damon Reaves, the museum’s associate curator of Education, Community Engagement and Access, the water lilies theme clearly complemented the surfboard project. “We knew we were going to end up with a surfboard, so water was the obvious way to go,” he says. “We were thinking about floating and movement and energy and that sort of thing. So that was a very easy way to start. The idea of getting back into the water, and notions of resilience gave us a lot of meat to start with.”
Once inspired, art therapy patients took it from there, painting all manner of water lilies on museum-supplied rice paper, all of which were affixed to the board by surfboard craftsman Luke Alvarez. Alvarez donated his services.
On Father’s Day, what began as an inspired artistic idea finally evolved into something that would bring joy to countless persons with disabilities on the beach at Wildwood Crest, N.J. All of those water lilies actually, finally took to the water on Alvarez’s surfboard, crashing through the waves and carrying one surfer after another on a ride many would not forget.
One of the art therapy program participants was actually able to follow the project through to its conclusion. On that sunny Sunday afternoon at the shore, Shawn Anthony-Morton was one of the 60-plus persons with disabilities slicing through the breakers on the board, which was also emblazoned with the name of the art therapy group and the MossRehab motto: Challenge Accepted.
It was all a gratifying outcome for Camilleri, who has an art degree from Ringling College of Art and Design and a master’s degree in art therapy from Drexel. As for the project as a whole, she didn’t know what to expect, but for her, that’s part of the joy of overseeing the art therapy program. Some of the lily pads destined to decorate the surfboard were clearly just that—stylized versions of lily pads. Others were abstract.
Aside from the purely aesthetic pleasure of art for art’s sake, of course, art therapy serves very practical purposes, she says, developing patients’ sense of spatial relationships and encouraging eye-hand coordination.
But most of all, Camilleri adds, it provides people who might have a difficult time communicating verbally with an outlet for free, creative expression that can encompass a wide range of emotions within a single image.
“I feel like the patients surprise me all the time,” Camilleri says. “One thing I enjoy about art therapy is that it’s not about skill level. It’s just about expression. Art therapy really empowers people.”