The Federal Medical Center in Butner, North Carolina is a hospital with an unusual patient population—1,000 male federal prison inmates with chronic diseases, cancer, mental illness, and other health conditions. Part of the Butner Federal Correctional Complex, the Medical Center is the largest medical, surgical, and psychiatric facility in the federal prison system. For 23 years, it was also Sue Etheridge’s studio.
An art therapist, Sue uses art to assess and treat patients and enhance the therapeutic environment through aesthetics. “I believe in the restorative power of creativity which is in us all,” she says. “I find joy in bringing hope and beauty into a dark place. What a privilege!”
Sue earned a degree in commercial art in 1980 while married to a minister and raising two children. During that time, she volunteered with hospice through their church. It was at the bedside of a dying hospice patient that Sue discovered a way she could use her artistic talents to help others. She recalls, “I sketched a portrait of a patient as he was slipping away. The power of this experience led me to pursue a degree in art therapy.”
While studying for that master’s degree, Sue did an internship at Butner. “I had an art professor at school whose advice to us was ‘Work with the people you love,’” Sue explains. “I had no idea I would love mentally ill criminals, but I do!” Sue was hired by the prison after her graduation in 1990 and stayed until contractual issues forced her to retire from the facility just this year.
She recalls a typical day: “First thing every morning, I’d check in to find out if anyone had died overnight since we had some very ill patients. If so, I found a friend of the deceased, and together we’d pick out a piece of cloth to sew into the memorial quilt.” After that, she worked with medical and psychiatric patients in back-to-back art therapy groups. She says, “It was magic to give the patients colorful art materials in this drab environment. It helped their well-being in so many ways—through contact with others, self-expression, creativity, and learning something new.”
A highlight of Sue’s career came when she was able to curate a museum-style exhibition in the visiting room of the medical center composed of reproductions from “The Missing Peace: Artists and the Dalai Lama.” The Missing Peace Project featured the work of contemporary artists, each of whom had contributed a compo- sition to honor the peacemaking efforts of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. “The original exhibit had traveled the world to major museums,” Sue says. “The inmates felt as if they were in the museum for a day.”
Her memories of work at the center are happy ones. She illustrates with a story: “The oncology nurses knew about my art therapy, and they had a brand-new, blank wall in their department. They called and asked ‘What can you do with this?’”
“I recruited some of my clients to help paint a landscape, but I didn’t anticipate that the oncology patients would participate as well,” Sue says. “Before we started painting, we sketched things out on the wall, and the oncology patients started asking questions. It became a wonderful back-and-forth process, with them as our advisors. They wanted a lake to reflect the mountain in the background rather than a meadow, so they got it. A fence that was in the original landscape came out when one person said ‘I’ve seen enough fences!’”
Today, Sue is looking forward to a new art therapy job in the North Carolina state prison system. “I love art and I love my work with the prisoners,” she says. “These men are the down-trodden of the world. They have been put out of society and forgotten by design, locked away from us so we don’t see their suffering. I have great compassion for their predicament. It gives me joy to do what I can to help.”