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Erin Arsenault: Making Masterpieces

Going into her junior year, Erin Arsenault (BA '20) knew she wanted to continue her education after graduation to become a certified art therapist. After a good experience volunteering with University of Michigan (U-M) Medical Center's therapeutic art program, Gifts of Art, Arsenault started looking for an art therapy-focused student organization to join. But there weren't any.

So at the start of the 2018 school year, Arsenault founded Making Masterpieces, a student organization focused on not only connecting students with opportunities to help, but also educating her peers and the U-M community about the benefits of art therapy.


"I like the idea of helping people and inviting others to do the same," she says.

Since rounding up the original 10 members — the minimum needed to start a student organization — Making Masterpieces has grown to about 50 members with its own executive board through word-of-mouth and participation in U-M's annual Festifall showcase. Membership is mostly split between art majors and students planning to go into healthcare.

In addition to advisory meetings, donation drives, and fundraising for art therapy projects, groups of Making Masterpiece volunteers meet at U-M Medical Center twice a month to help make art kits to be distributed by Gifts of Art. Since last fall, they have assembled 2,000 kits, about a third of what the program will pass out to hospital patients this year.

On a recent Friday morning, students helped assemble Valentine's Day card kits. While Donny Osmond, The Chordettes, and Sam Cooke crooned in the background — a "Classic Oldies" playlist chosen to raise volunteers' Valentine's spirits — a small group of students carefully stuffed bags with ornate scraps of red, white, and pink paper in a workroom inside the hospital. Before winter break, Making Masterpieces members helped assemble Christmas and Hannakuah card packets.

Many patients use the kits to make "thank you" notes for their nurses, family and friends. "The impact the kits make is really big," says Gifts of Art's Bedside Art Coordinator Elaine Reed. "This means so much to patients and guests and staff."

In a different room, another group of students meticulously sorted beads and string into bags with Bedside Artist Jessica Butts for patients to make bracelets with later.


"Erin has been such a huge help, and this crew, I'm not exaggerating when I say it's the best we've had since I've been here in five years," Butts says.

The organization's partnership with Gifts of Art doesn't allow for direct interaction with patients, but Arsenault says the point is to be as close as possible to helping people express themselves and feel human during their stay.

"A lot of people have enjoyed just creating things for other people to create something with," she says.

In addition to helping with the kits, Making Masterpieces has also raised funds — from bake sales to U-M's Giving Blueday — and collected art supplies for Gifts of Art.

"They are the first group to have ever raised money for us since 1986, and they raised a couple thousand dollars," says Gifts of Art Program Director Elaine Sims. "It's amazing."

As Making Masterpieces continues to grow, Arsenault says the organization is looking to partner with more groups across campus, including the Prison Creative Arts Project and Dance Marathon. Arsenault is also thinking about building a foundation for the organization's future, as she and several board members prepare to graduate in the spring.


Arsenault's contributions to the U-M community aren't going unnoticed. On Jan. 20, she received the 2020 North Campus Deans' Martin Luther King Jr. Spirit Award. The awards are given to North Campus students, student organizations, staff, and faculty members who embody the leadership and vision of the late civil rights leader through their commitment to social justice, diversity, equity, and inclusion.

For students considering taking on their own cause or starting their own organization, Arsenault says if it's something they really care about, they should trust themselves.

"When you're super passionate about something and have a million ideas running through your head, never underestimate yourself and the ability of what you can do," she says. "You'll surprise yourself."