Weather Updates

Snow City Arts’ Artist-in-Residence Bernie McGovern on teaching — and learning from — hospitalized children

Bernie McGovern Hisham K.

Bernie McGovern and Hisham K.

storyidforme: 57894374
tmspicid: 21126206
fileheaderid: 9901874

Snow City’s instructor has learned as much as he’s taught

Updated: December 17, 2013 3:28PM

At 11, Hisham has the kind of poise and confidence that can intimidate adults who would like to believe that they can keep up. He has a passion for Japanese culture and architecture, dabbles in origami, digital arts and abstract sculpture, and is a serious composer of music inspired by French composer and pianist Eric Satie, his personal hero. I mean, the kid is something.

What makes Hisham’s story even more special is that much of what he’s learned in the past few years he’s learned at Rush Children’s Hospital, where he spends time on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays to treat an ongoing condition. During his visits, he studies with Snow City Arts instructors like me, who provide children with one-on-one arts instruction — everything from visual arts to creative writing, music, theater and film — at area hospitals, including Rush, Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago, John H. Stroger Jr. Hospital of Cook County and Children’s Hospital University of Illinois.

I first met Hisham two years ago. He already played the piano, read music and, following the lead of two older brothers, loved Japanese culture and architecture before the diagnosis that made him a part-time resident at Rush. I’d been a Snow City instructor for two years by the time Hisham and I began drawing and painting workshops. On the side, we riffed on everything from astronomy to cartoons to our shared addiction to video games. With other Snow City instructors, he studied music and was particularly interested in composition.

I’m astonished by all of the work he’s done over the past two years. At times, Hisham is unable to use his dominant hand. Because he still can work a mouse and keyboard with his other hand, I introduced him to the digital arts — specifically, a complex 3D design program called Blender. Soon, he was blazing through model design after design, grasping more of the program’s interface in an hour than I had in my first week. He’s since taken on the equally daunting Terragen 3 and Mandelbulb 3D. Simultaneously, he took up one-handed musical composition, and among the pieces he has written to date is one he calls “The Secret Journey.”

I teach a lot of kids every bit as inspiring as Hisham, whose passion for the arts is real, but also serves as a distraction from the absurd. The absurdity of being 11 and visiting the hospital for treatment three times a week. The absurdity of this secret journey he’s on. Asked once what impact Snow City had on his life, Hisham said, “It’s taught me to not mind the needles.”

Hisham and my other students have shown me that I’m as much a student as I am a teacher. They’ve taught me that all kids are born artists. They’ve taught me how to identify a child’s discomfort, anxiety, exhaustion and pain and channel it. And they’ve taught me — and remind me every day — about perspective.

Support Snow City Arts on Tuesday through #GivingTuesday, a movement to create a national day of giving to kick off the giving season. Visit
get-involved for more information.

© 2014 Sun-Times Media, LLC. All rights reserved. This material may not be copied or distributed without permission. For more information about reprints and permissions, visit To order a reprint of this article, click here.