Rachel Howard spends her days extracting DNA or studying genetic sequences at a UNC lab.
But lately she has been spending her mornings, evenings and weekends on a project that allows her to flex her more artistic muscles – covering the windows of the N.C. Children’s Hospital with winter scenes, familiar cartoon characters and sights such as the university’s Old Well.
This week, she expects to finish painting 72 windows on three floors of the hospital, including individual rooms, the children’s playroom and other common areas.
Howard earned her degree in public health from UNC-Chapel Hill this summer and plans to eventually go on to medical school. But she minored in art and worked on several service projects during her undergraduate years, teaching art to adult cancer patients and painting portraits to be sold for charity.
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Howard says she hoped to cheer up children who will be spending their holiday in less than ideal circumstances. The paintings, and the hours she’s spent working on them, have made an impact.
Tonya Coble’s daughter, Victoria, was in awe of the paintings and spent about an hour painting alongside Howard, which her mom says helped to ease her apprehension during a series of hospital visits.
In those quiet moments, Coble says, she saw something she hadn’t seen during several years of chronic illness – her daughter’s smile.
“Rachel’s painting and caring heart helped my daughter get through what is normally a pretty stressful time,” says Coble, who lives in Graham. “There are not very many people out there that would take the time out of their already busy schedules to do something like this, and we should praise them.”
Blending art, science
Howard was born in Massachusetts, one of six children. She says her parents moved to North Carolina about a decade ago in part because of the affordable and high-quality universities.
Her other siblings have gone to East Carolina University, N.C. State University and UNC-CH.
Howard came to UNC-CH after graduating from Panther Creek High School, where she earned good grades while also pouring her time and energy into art.
She says she’s always loved to work with scale, and was so well-known for her large pieces that a younger sibling blames her for a rule imposed after she graduated that limits the size of student art projects.
“For me it was like the bigger, the better,” she says. “You could add so much detail and life to a larger piece.”
Portraits were among her favorites, capturing the wide varieties of colors, lines and curves in human faces. She studied visual arts at the Governor’s School, and her final project there was a series of three large portraits – about 6 feet tall and 4 feet wide.
She submitted the portraits to a contest and ended up winning a small college scholarship as a prize.
Howard knew she wanted to keep studying art, but she also had a strong interest in the sciences, and particularly in public health. She majored in nutrition, but had minors in studio art and chemistry – a combination that elicits strong reactions.
“Every time I say that I get a lot of weird looks,” she says. “People will say, ‘Make up your mind.’ ”
But to her, the subjects blend nicely. For her chemistry classes, she drew posters representing complex reactions to help her memorize them. Her knowledge of chemistry helped when working with paint and mixed media.
“I feel like there’s a lot of overlap,” Howard says.
She will soon start a side job doing graphics for a scientific journal. And she hopes to be a doctor, perhaps focusing on surgery, which she says also has an element of art to it.
Most of her artwork has been done for school projects, or as gifts for friends and family, though she’s also undertaken several art-related service projects.
As an undergraduate, she worked with an organization called Food Aid International to paint portraits of orphans. The sale of a portrait, the group says, can feed an orphan for a year.
She also got involved with a campus group in working on art projects with adult cancer patients. Both of her parents had undergone treatment for cancer, and her mother mentioned that she would have loved to have had art classes at the hospital.
“I’m so grateful for my mom and I thought that would be a fun way to give back,” she says. “It’s very fun and therapeutic to make your own art.”
Howard came up with the idea she’s calling Paint with a Purpose in November. She had taken a side job decorating the windows of a Franklin Street boutique and noticed how interested children were in her work.
“The kids were always laughing and giggling and pointing,” she says. “Then it hit me – wouldn’t it be fun to bring that excitement into the hospital?”
She pitched the idea to hospital volunteer coordinator Dawn Woody, who knew Howard from her work with cancer patients.
“She came to me with this idea, and I thought it was just fantastic,” says Woody.
As she got started, a colleague who had seen her window paintings asked Howard to do one at the laboratory where they work. Then another colleague asked. When they offered to pay her, she asked them for donations to buy supplies to do paintings at the children’s hospital.
In the end, she did five murals on campus, and those faculty and staff members covered the cost of all of the supplies for the hospital paintings, with some left over to buy 64-color crayon sets for young patients. Target chipped in to donate more crayons so that all 72 children would get one.
Her supplies include brushes and sponges, some colored paint and lots and lots of white paint. She uses both acrylic and tempura paint to make the many layers of white, mixing them with different amounts of water to make more opaque or translucent layers.
She’ll use the tip of a sponge to make an outline, and fill layer after layer of detail using smaller brushes, a sponge for larger snowy expanses and, at times, even her fingers.
She started out sketching the scenes on paper before painting the windows, but now just does it by hand.
“I had to learn how to have the confidence and go for it,” she says. “Any artist learning a new medium, you learn by experimentation.”
The theme is “Winter Wonderland,” trees covered in snow, icy mountains in the background, dotted with popular cartoon characters. The princesses from the Disney movie Frozen, Anna and Elsa, fit naturally in the scene, but others require more of an imaginative leap.
One little girl requested Rapunzel, and Howard obliged with the long-haired princess in her tower surrounded by floating lanterns. A boy requested SpongeBob, who she painted in his pineapple home.
Howard has been happy to talk to the children, invite them to paint and see their excited reactions to her work.
“I like making art to make others happy,” she says. “I believe that everyone is talented in some way, and I think it’s important to use those talents to serve others.”
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Born: January 1993, Massachusetts
Residence: Chapel Hill
Career: Research technician, Eshelman School of Pharmacy, UNC-Chapel Hill
Education: B.S. public health, UNC-CH
Fun Fact: The window painting she did at the building where she works has an odd addition to the snowy scene requested by the professor who runs the lab – a double helix, representing DNA.