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Week of April 9, 2012

Staff Spotlight

Art therapist uses craft to ease cancer treatments

Margaret Nowak used to often meet with a chemotherapy patient who loved to paint using watercolors in the infusion room of the Comprehensive Cancer Center

The patient had requested that Nowak, an art therapist, come sit with her before receiving treatment. “She told me that she was always so scared before getting her chemo, and we would just sit down in the waiting room, look at paints and relax. It was a way to help her get through cancer,” Nowak says. The woman died after several years of battling the disease, but Nowak says she never will forget the patient and her art.

Photo by Austin Thomason, U-M Photo Services.

“Always getting some sort of treatment for cancer can be an exhausting way to live your life, but my job lets me give patients opportunities to play and get energized,” Nowak says.

As the cancer center’s art therapist, she takes her supplies down to the infusion area or to patients’ individual hospital rooms, where they can then choose their tools for expression.

“I finally got the ideal art cart,” she says. Her fourth cart in six years is painted maize and blue, and has six drawers full of materials. Patients can choose from beads, watercolors, colored pencils, pastels and many other art making supplies. “Depending on how the patients are feeling and what they’re interested in, they can make all kinds of art.”

She also works with the children of patients that have a cancer diagnosis.

At work, Nowak also plans monthly workshops on anything from holiday printmaking to watercolor techniques, talks with students considering a career in art therapy and curates new exhibits for the Cancer Center’s Voices Gallery.

Nowak started working as an art therapist at the cancer center six-and-a-half years ago; her position is funded completely by donor dollars. She works with any patient that has a cancer diagnosis including bone-marrow transplant patients and those receiving chemotherapy.

While Nowak enjoys working with patients, she says, “it’s difficult to work with families where a parent has cancer and isn’t going to survive,” she says. “And then working with those kids to help them deal with it … it’s the hardest work I do.”

When she’s not teaching beading techniques in a workshop or painting watercolors with patients and their children, Nowak curates four to five exhibits a year for the Voices Gallery in the cancer center. The artwork for the gallery comes from patients, patients’ family members and occasionally staff.

“Every time we do an exhibit here we have an opening reception, and I’m always so proud of the artists who are willing to not only share their artwork but to share their stories,” Nowak says of the artists, who often never have exhibited their art before.

Nowak fell in love with ceramics during an art class she took during her freshman year of high school. “I loved being able to play with clay,” she says. She started working in pottery more seriously in the early 1990s.

“A lot of my current work is related to the divine feminine — I make a lot of goddesses … it feels like I’m meditating, I feel like I connect with a divine feminine energy,” she says of her sculptures, which range from 5 feet tall to miniatures.

She has exhibited her work in the past, winning an honorable mention last year at an exhibit at the Riverside Gallery in Ypsilanti that included two goddesses and a small altar-type “spirit box.”

Although she cannot share her love for pottery with the cancer center patients — regular clay is not allowed because it contains mold, bacteria and dust — she does not mind, saying, “there’s so many other things to play with on my rolling studio.”

The weekly Spotlight features faculty and staff members at the university. To nominate a candidate, please contact the Record staff at



Margaret Nowak, art therapist, Comprehensive Cancer Center, on creating goddess artwork in her free time: "It feels like I’m meditating, I feel like I connect with a divine feminine energy.”


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