Art has long been used as a form of healing the body, mind and soul. For some Twin Cities children, creativity and restorative care come by way of an art center on wheels.
Take Felix Brunelle, 5, for example. “Felix was born with a one-of-a-kind chromosome deletion, presenting as several different physical challenges, medical complexity and the need for a 30-plus strong medical and therapy team to follow him on the regular,” says Felix’s mother, Haley Brunelle of Minnetonka. So, when Felix encountered Ziggy’s Art Bus—a bus that serves children with life-limiting illnesses by indulging their creative minds—his creative self took flight. She says she has seen firsthand how much art can make a difference.
Felix’s first creation at Ziggy’s Art Bus was a birdhouse he made three years ago that is still used and adored today. “We enjoy the chickadees that make this little birdhouse a home in our cherry tree every spring,” Brunelle says. “Although Felix is nonverbal, he reminds me [of his art] when we’re watching the birds move back in [during the spring]. He points to [the birdhouse] in the tree and then to himself—he’s clearly quite proud of his work. This is just one of many projects he’s come home with. During the pandemic, Ziggy’s even made us a little home art kit with all the supplies to make a name mobile at home.”
Gina Zaffarano of Minneapolis, founder of Ziggy’s Art Bus, says she knew this artful idea had to come to fruition when she was introduced to Crescent Cove, a respite home and care facility for children in Brooklyn Center. “I realized when working at Crescent Cove that there was not a lot of space for creative endeavors for these children ... Art is such an equalizing experience for everyone, regardless [of] if they think they have artistic ability or not, and it is something that takes people out of their heads and into their hearts,” she says. From there, Zaffarano drafted the idea of an art bus to make the experience as accessible as possible for every child.
Felix’s first encounter with the art bus was at Crescent Cove, his home-away-from-home. “Every time Felix has stayed at Crescent Cove, we request Ziggy’s Art Bus to be a part of his activities. He always comes home with remarkable work [that] he’s so proud to show off and even give as gifts,” Brunelle says. “It’s always a challenge for kids like Felix to find activities they can do and enjoy and sometimes even harder to get there. The fact that Ziggy’s Art Bus comes to us is brilliant and, in some cases, necessary. We love the art bus for making art accessible for all.”
The art bus travels year-round to three facilities: Fairview Children’s Hospital, the Ronald McDonald House on the University of Minnesota campus and Crescent Cove. “We want to bring joy to children with life-limiting illnesses. That is our sole foundation for Ziggy’s Art Bus,” says Zaffarano, who wants to offer programming five days a week. Volunteers can make that dream come to life by applying on Ziggy’s website, but for now the bus runs just twice a week and every other weekend.
Volunteers receive a biography of the children they are working with prior to the bus arriving in order to provide the most enjoyable and engaging experience possible. When the bus shows up at the hospital, the volunteers are there to help facilitate the art-making process for the children. Sometimes it is very hands-on for volunteers; other times, the kids take over the projects themselves. “We generally curate these art projects based around the demographic of kids we are seeing that week,” Zaffarano says. “For example, with [the Ronald McDonald House], we have pre-planned art projects we bring … Crescent Cove is very different though. Many kids we serve there aren’t able-bodied … In that case, it is very volunteer-dependent, and we look to them to create a beautiful experience for the [children].”
Zaffarano’s daughter, Raina Estrem, is a pediatric nurse who volunteers for Ziggy’s Art Bus. “The really special thing is letting the kid lead because they can get what they need to get out of the experience,” Estrem says. “The outcome of the project might look different for every kid, but what’s important is that they [experienced joy] while making it.”
Art projects provided by Ziggy’s are created and developed by an artist on the Ziggy’s Art Bus team, Richfield’s Vicki Craig, who has made, curated and manufactured around 80 projects for the bus throughout the years. Edina residents Lezlie German-Tooley and Finley Tooley are a mother and daughter duo who volunteer for Ziggy’s Art Bus. Finley is a 14-year-old freshman at Edina High School and is passionate about sharing art in an inclusive environment. She is also the youngest volunteer participating in Ziggy’s Art Bus.
“Art is a space where everyone belongs. There’s something for everyone to create. There [are] no rules on how to do art,” Finley says.
With the freedom art can bring, Ziggy’s Art Bus is a very special experience for everyone involved, including the families and volunteers participating. “One of the experiences that was my favorite is when we went to Crescent Cove and they were holding a sibling camp for all the children at Crescent Cove,” Finley says. “The kids were really excited to hangout with us [volunteers], each other and their siblings.”
German-Tooley works with Zaffarano at a hair salon and says that when she saw Zaffarano create this idea, she knew she had to be a part of it. “When I see these kids at Ziggy’s creating art in this joyful environment, I get so excited—it’s so beautiful to see,” German-Tooley says. “Especially during these times when we are so reliant on technology, creating art and encouraging children to make something with their own hands is very joyous.”
German-Tooley notes that some of her favorite activities Ziggy’s Art Bus offers to children are sewing and painting, noting that a canvas and a pop of color can really encourage kids participating in Ziggy’s to have faith in themselves and watch their creations come to life.
“A lot of these moments in these families’ lives can be filled with sadness, so it is really a special and humbling experience to be a part of Ziggy’s to offer an environment where we can bring these kids together in a joyful, engaging way,” German-Tooley says. “I think art is so neat in that sense. There is no right or wrong in art. Everyone can enjoy art, no matter what your age.”