Hoya Highlight: Kathy Sullivan (C’89)

Kathy Sullivan

Local Vienna, Virginia Artist


From Ashes2Art: First Responders 9/11 Art Show, published on the American Art Therapy Association website:

The Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department’s (FCFRD) Behavioral Health Section in collaboration with local artist Kathy Sullivan offer the Ashes2Art Program for first responders. According to the FCFRD, the weekly art class “allows participants to employ the unique creative abilities of emergency personnel directed in new ways.”

“The Behavioral Health Office of the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department has transitioned our approach for helping our personnel from a traditional responsive model to a more holistic proactive model. The Ashes2Art program is one of the programs that gives our members another tool for addressing and reducing stress inherent in our emergency response profession,” explained Captain William “Buck” Best, Behavioral Health Uniformed Officer.

Sullivan, who holds an MAAT from the University of Louisville, leads the program on Thursdays at the FCFRD’s Well-Fit center. Instructing art classes with Ashes2Art has been a rewarding and enlightening experience for Ms. Sullivan.

In September 2018, to honor the victims and survivors of 9/11, participants of Ashes2Art displayed their work at the Reston Art Gallery & Studios from September 6-20.

Career Reflections

How did you get involved with bringing art therapy to first responders?

Growing up, my parents often hosted former cops and first responders to our home. They came by for dinner, or my parents would hire them to do odd jobs around the house, and I always felt at ease being around them.

As an adult, after earning my masters in practice therapy and learning about various psychological approaches to dealing with trauma, I was turned on to the idea of helping first responders cope with PTSD through art. I’d spent much of my professional life as a professional painter—more than thirty of my pieces are at Churchill Downs, one of my paintings is on a Woodford Reserve bottle, and I paint commissioned pieces—and I’d been looking for a way to give back in some way.

So, I reached out to the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department to ask how I could help. Almost immediately, I was connected with Captain William “Buck” Best, a Behavioral Health Uniformed Officer for Fairfax County. From there, things took off, and I’ve been on board ever since.

Now, I help the first responders in our community access the creative part of themselves that we all have when we’re about four or five years old—the part that thinks we’re the greatest artist on the planet! We lose this creative part of ourselves as we age and as life experiences settle in on us. But, these first responders need a way to feel freedom and to connect with that deeper part of themselves. They gain a sense of release as they are creating beautiful art.

What is the scope of the program currently? Where do you hope to see it go over the next few years?

This is the first program of its kind, and it’s been going on for a year now. The goals from here include growing our participant pool (as of now, we’ve worked with about 100 first responders), forming partnerships with key supporters (including the National Endowment for the Arts and the Virginia Commission for the Arts), and getting other artists who want to give back to their communities involved. We want to see this go national!

A vision for the future is to create a mobile art studio that can travel to many different fire houses and offer art therapy for the firefighters there.

And, we hope that the view of trauma changes, and that talking about it becomes part of the natural dialogue of first responders. First responders are an incredibly selfless group of people. They are very meticulous and discerning, and they are the first to rush to any situation that needs help. Because they're always looking out for others, it’s difficult to get them to look inward and help themselves. So, we’re working within their framework to say, “put your mask on first before helping others with theirs,” i.e., take care of yourself so that you can better take care of others.

What has been the most rewarding moment of your career?

The Ashes2Art Show in September 2018 was incredibly rewarding. It was far more impactful than we’d expected. It was amazing to see the first responders meet the public on a different level than they’re used to (i.e., not rushing in to a crisis to save people). The biggest response we heard from attendees of the show was, “it was amazing getting to know these guys.” Bottom line, we’re their job, and it’s rare that they get an opportunity to interact with the public in a situation that’s not horrible or traumatic. So, it was really rewarding to facilitate a genuine connection between the public and these first responders. 

What do you wish you had done earlier in your career?

I’m a believer that timing is everything, and I wouldn’t change my path at all. Everything that’s happened along the way has helped to inform me and has helped to make me a better person.

What is the hardest thing you have ever done professionally?

As an artist, my work life and home life are never fully separate. Raising my child and painting at the same time was definitely the most challenging thing I’ve done professionally.

Your Time on the Hilltop

How has Georgetown shaped you?

The Jesuit part of my education definitely informed the work I’m doing now. I have a deep need and desire to give back. The Jesuit spiritual practice of reflection resonates strongly with me as well... What good could we all really do if we were quiet?

After leaving Georgetown, I found that the connections I’d made with classmates and professors were long-lasting and incredibly supportive. It’s an inspiring community that I am constantly reconnecting with and amazed by.

A Day in the Life

What is a source of inspiration for you?

Seeing the first responders reconnect with their creative side is so inspiring. School and life experience over-educate us all, and we lose the incredible sense of our creative selves from long ago. Seeing the first responders go from “I can’t paint, I can’t do art” to feeling free from judgment, experiencing creativity, and nurturing resiliency is really amazing.

What is one part of your daily routine you couldn’t live without?

Sleeping past 5 a.m. is not in my routine... I must enjoy my mornings! I love having quiet time to prepare myself for the day in the early morning.

Words to live by?

Be grateful for every single day, and give back. Giving back doesn’t just have to mean giving money... We can give back by getting our hands dirty. At some point in everyone’s lives, they should be truly touching and caring for the needy. This is important for personal growth, developing humility, and understanding our fellow humans.