Rehab patients find new life with the Louis Vuitton Creative Arts Program

Alika Rilveria will never forget the date, Feb. 8, 2010, when he was rushed into surgery following a traffic accident that has left him paralyzed from the waist down. Two days later, he was still in recovery when one of his lungs collapsed.

Yet, just two weeks afterward, he was remarkably upbeat, speaking from the patio at the Rehabilitation Hospital of the Pacific, where he was painting along with about 20 others who had been through similar trauma.

Rilveria says he might have continued replaying the events of his accident and hospitalization in his mind if not for the Louis Vuitton Creative Arts Program of the Rehabilitation Hospital of the Pacific Foundation.

“It really helps me relax and gets me away from thinking about the accident,” Rilveria says, working his paintbrush over the blue surf depicted on his canvas. “It gets me out of all the negative things I would be thinking, so I can forget about all the bad things that happened.”

This is what foundation administrators hoped would result when the program was implemented in 1994 to complement more traditional forms of physical and cognitive therapy.

Funding grew through the Louis Vuitton Golf Cup Hawaii Charity Tournament. The Rehabilitation Hospital of the Pacific Foundation was one of the beneficiaries, and although the tournaments ended in 2007, Louis Vuitton has continued to fund the Rehab program ever since.

“We saw it as an opportunity to start a rehabilitative arts program that’s in line with our support of arts and culture,” says Dale Ruff, Louis Vuitton Hawaii regional vice president, who often visits the Rehab grounds to spend time with those in the art program.

“We hear a lot about music therapy, but not so much about art therapy, and we wanted to give them a venue to express themselves. They are very courageous,” he says.

Being creative allows those recovering from physical or cognitive trauma to focus on something other than their medical issues, in a relaxed environment. Instead of being surrounded by four walls, the artists are allowed plenty of time and space on the open, airy patio.

Painting instructor Reuben Young says it’s normal for non-artists to approach a blank canvas with fear, but those feelings are amplified in people who are new to the program.

“Usually, they’ve just come out of an accident or been in a traumatic situation. They have a lot of negative things in their life,” Young says. “They’re going through mental changes and may be dealing with a physical handicap.”

He didn’t know what to expect when he took the job in 2001. His prior experience had been working with children, which he says he found helpful.

“If you can relate to a child, you can relate to anyone. It’s about working with people,” he says. “I find I have to simplify terms so it doesn’t scare them as much. When they first come in, I try to talk to them and watch how they work. Some have use of their hands, but they’re really shaky. It’s a challenge to get them to overcome their fear of doing something creative, but usually, after one session, they can see their potential.”

As with any beginning art student, the most difficult task is deciding what to put on canvas.

“If they don’t know what to paint, I’ll just let them push paint on canvas for a while and see what it turns into. I usually start them off and let them go,” he says.

Sarah White was 25, working toward a Ph.D. degree in Boston, studying eating disorders and psychology, when she suffered a stroke in 2003. Speech is still difficult for her, and managing a paintbrush is a struggle as the right-hander has had to adjust to using her left hand instead.

She returned home to Hawaii and credits painting for helping her achieve “a new beginning.”

She was seated across from Dennis Okada, who spends many afternoons trying to re-create the colors and patterns of the beach and ocean. He’s been painting through the Louis Vuitton Creative Arts Program for five years, but it took a long time for him to get to this point since his accident in 1986.

“I spent many years as a fisherman and diver. That’s how I got injured, from diving. One day I was diving deep with tanks and I got seriously bent,” he says. “Once I left the hospital, I made a promise to myself that I would never come back here. I don’t know why.”

He changed his mind after attending an event at Blaisdell Center, where he saw Morris Nakamura creating art by holding a paintbrush with his mouth as a result of the degenerative disease, spinal muscular atrophy.

“I was interested in what he was doing, and after talking to him, he asked me for my phone number,” Okada says. “Most people, they never call you. But he did, and he invited me to come to a session. I originally intended just to watch. Next thing I know, I had an easel sitting in front of me, so I said, ‘I’ll just try.'”

He adds: “It’s very therapeutic. While I’m here, I’m not thinking about anything but the painting. It’s a wonderful distraction.”

He also finds inspiration from the people around him.

“For most of them, it’s hard to paint, but they keep going,” Okada says. “I think that’s the thing. Maybe the big secret of life is to keep going no matter what. You can’t just sit down and quit, which I did for many years. There are many things I could have done, but I didn’t, just because I didn’t want to.”

As beautiful as his coastal paintings are, he keeps forging ahead and trying to improve his craft.

“I haven’t yet come up with one that lives up to what I’ve seen,” he says. “I close my eyes and see what I’ve seen before, underwater and on the surface, and the paintings are not the same.”

He credits Young, foremost, with teaching him to appreciate all that he observes now.

“When I started to paint, he would tell me to look at the clouds and tell him what colors I saw. And I would say, ‘They’re clouds, they’re white.’ But he’d tell me to look again, and I’d start to see yellows, grays, purples.

“He’d ask, ‘What color are the trees?’ Green. But when you look, you see that things you took for granted are so much more colorful, especially flowers. A yellow hibiscus is not just yellow. It’s also red and white.”

Rilveria is absorbing these lessons early, and painting offered a crucial bit of evidence that even though paralysis has left him in a wheelchair, he can lead a fulfilling and active life. “They asked me if I want to drive again and said it’s possible with special equipment,” he says. Neither does he have to give up his passion for playing piano or ukulele. And he’s setting his sights on learning to surf again.

“That’s something I used to do before my accident,” Rilveria says. “It’s all possible.”