History of Art for Recovery: Letter from the Founder

“Art for Recovery has taught me what it means to be alive and what it means to die.” 

Cindy Perlis

When the elevator door opened on the HIV unit at Mount Zion in 1988, I could feel the intensity of the moment. The doctors and nurses flying down the hallway looking for the AIDS hotline as they fear they have been infected from a needle stick. 

The patients, many who were spending months in the hospital, were lonely and facing death. Lamps and quilts and rocking chairs from home were brought into their room to create comfort as they lay dying.

When I walked down the hallway, that first day, I saw very young men, many who had nursed their partners until they died, young men who were looking for hope when there was no cure. I could smell the disinfectant, the sadness, and witnessed the remarkable medical staff who took care of these patients as though they were family.

I was hired by Dr. Ernest Rosenbaum, literally in fifteen minutes, in 1988 as Director of Art for Recovery. Dr. Rosenbaum wanted to find a way to help these patients express their inner most feelings. He hired me, walked me up to the HIV unit, and left me to figure out how I was going to serve this population. Going to the bedside to see my very first patient that day, sitting down, taking off my latex gloves (because I couldn’t feel someone’s hand in mine), and giving my full self to the moment as I listened to their stories, I was home.

This was where I was meant to be all my life.

In 1990, Mount Zion and UCSF merged. It was clear to me that I needed to build a program that reached far and wide across UCSF, giving patients and healthcare workers an opportunity to express what they dealt with every day, pain, anger, hopes and dreams through art making, writing, music and building community through workshops. I also knew I needed to learn how to raise funding so I could move forward all the projects that would make a difference. As we say, the rest is history.

Our stories need to be told. The patients enter the hospital and their identities change. They become a last name, a disease, a room number in the hospital. But I wanted to know their stories before they became ill. In creating projects such as the Breast Cancer Quilts, I learned hundreds of stories from the women, but also from their families. The Firefly Project was an opportunity to connect patients living with life-threatening illnesses with UCSF Medical Students – each learning about empathy and compassion, each sharing what it meant to be alive and what it meant to die.  The Firefly Project was created in 1992 – and continues to this day. 

This experience has changed my life. The thousands of patients I have met over the years have changed my life. Being asked to present Eulogies on behalf of those who have died over the years, has and continues to be an honor. 

In 2020, when I thought about retiring after 32 years, it was clear to me that I would do everything I could to make sure Art for Recovery had sustainability. I knew how important this program (and all the projects) is to our patients and healthcare workers. I am thrilled that UCSF had every intention in continuing to support this work. There aren’t many places where patients can be supported through their initial diagnosis, through treatment, and sometimes toward the end of their lives. Art for Recovery is a place where everyone will be seen and heard and where they will continue to find a community. My deepest gratitude to all those who now lead Art for Recovery into the future.

With gratitude,
Cindy Perlis