Studio Art Major Helps Heal with Sensory Paintings

Jessica wears a yellow shirt while holding a paintbrush to her canvas, a nature painting of koi fish.

Jessica Hedum, a senior studio art major from Cape May, NJ (Cape May County), has always been fascinated with art.

In high school, Jessica spent most of her time in the art studio, learning the fundamentals of painting and developing her love for it. Her teacher was a mentor, opening her eyes to many careers in art and ultimately, suggesting she look into art therapy based on her experience and values.

When her dad and sister — both Rowan alumni — recommended she transfer to the art program at Rowan after community college, she took their suggestion to heart. “I checked out Rutgers and Temple too, but everything seemed big and overwhelming, and nothing really felt like home to me,” she says. “But I walked into the painting studio [in Westby Hall at Rowan] and just felt at ease. That was the moment when I thought, ‘Okay, I want to keep this family tradition going.’”

Jessica leans over a canvas with lily pads, holding a paintbrush with a paint pallette in front of her. Based on a suggestion from her high school art teacher and mentor, Jessica is working toward a career as an art therapist at a nearby hospital or cancer center. “[Art therapy is] really important for me to pursue. My sister had cancer, so it’s something that definitely hits home for me. And the possibility of working with little kids or anyone on the spectrum is something that’s so rewarding for everyone,” she says. “Art doesn’t have to be perfect; it doesn’t have to come out like you expected it to. Just the act of physically [making art] is so much more impactful than people might realize.”

Jessica reflects these values of helping people through art in her own work, too. A mixture of glass beads and modeling paste, applied to the canvas, dries hard and allows her to sculpt shapes onto the flat surface of her paintings. Her paintings contain 3D sensory details that viewers can touch, and she invites them to do so, because of the soothing effects of feeling the different textures in her art.

Jessica with her series of textured paintings hanging in Westby Hall, inspired by her hometown of Cape May, NJ.

“I started doing this because I heard how successful and engaging the Please Touch Museum is in Philadelphia. Giving people a sensory experience is my goal. Especially for people that have learning disabilities or are on the spectrum, they have something to feel and touch that engages and connects them with the painting more. As a child, you are always yelled at in museums “Do not touch the art!” but my pieces invite children to explore and feel the art. Physically feeling the art can be very appealing to those that struggle to understand art; maybe they do not grasp the concept of the visual but they are pleased by the experience they get from running their fingers along the shape. It’s kind of like Braille for the blind, but in shapes for recognizing the texture and objects in paintings for children or adults that may struggle to understand fine art concepts and subject matter.”

When it comes to dealing with the personal hardships and mental health challenges that many college students face in some form, Jessica turns to art for healing and relief. “I’ve just been painting through it and believing in art therapy. Even just physically getting out of bed, and being in the [art] building and absorbing the environment helps. It’s been a dramatic shift in my life, but I feel like my artwork speaks for it in a way.”

“It’s a really powerful thing, to be able to touch people through art, with PTSD, Alzheimers or anyone on the spectrum. It’s really a premise to how art has helped me through a lot of personal struggles,” Jessica explains. “Whenever anything was going on that gave me trouble, I found so much peace and relief in painting, so that’s where I started to really get involved with art therapy. I just want to help people through art the same way it’s helped me.”

Jessica wears a Women of Westby t-shirt and stands with her peers in Westby Hall, as they prepare an installation.
Jessica and her peers recently set up an installation in Westby Hall to call attention to underrepresented artists and women (from the @womenofwestby Instagram).

Jessica expresses her love for art on her Instagram page through behind-the-scenes looks at her painting process and personal captions about her adventures in Westby. “A lot of people like when I post art videos of me physically painting. It’s very therapeutic and I’m just trying to imitate that calming feeling you see in YouTube videos where people play with sand or cut soap. I feel like recording myself painting gives people a more personal look into the layering process of painting with oils.”

She also runs Women of Westby with her colleagues in the art building, to draw attention to underrepresented artists. To learn more about Women of Westby, and how you can get involved, follow @WomenOfWestby. Everyone of all genders and majors is welcome!

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Story and photos by:
Nicole Cier, senior writing arts major

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