How Indiana First Lady Karen Pence Came to Champion the Healing Power of the Arts

PHOTO: Mike Pence and wife Karen Pence attends the 2014 IPL 500 Festival Parade during the 2014 Indy 500 Festival, May 24, 2014, in Indianapolis, Indiana.Michael Hickey/Getty Images
Mike Pence and wife Karen Pence attends the 2014 IPL 500 Festival Parade during the 2014 Indy 500 Festival, May 24, 2014, in Indianapolis, Indiana.

With Indiana Gov. Mike Pence now in the spotlight as the Republican nominee for vice president, his wife, Karen Pence, brings passion to the 2016 campaign trail with her love of art.

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Karen Pence, 57, minored in art at Butler University, where she received both a bachelor’s degree and master’s degree in elementary education. Following graduation, Pence taught at local Indiana elementary schools, including John Strange Elementary, Acton Elementary, and Fall Creek Elementary.

It wasn’t until she had her first child that Pence began painting watercolors. She immediately took a liking to the fast-drying medium, creating paintings of houses and historical buildings.

“You can paint while they’re napping,” she joked to the Indianapolis Star in 2013. In one year alone, she painted 35 paintings and sold them at local art fairs in Broad Ripple and Penrod, Indiana.

As her husband served in Congress, Pence combined her passions for art and education with her dedication to public service. In 2008, Pence became the honorary chair of the Art Therapy Committee at the Riley Hospital for Children, the largest children’s hospital in Indiana, and later served as a member of Riley Hospital’s Foundation Board.

Pence helped raise money for Riley Hospital to hire its first art therapist in 2010, and the program has since expanded to hire two full-time art therapists, according to the foundation’s Senior Communications Director Laura Neidig.

“Her goal right now is actually to make sure we always have those art therapists at Riley -- two art therapist positions,” Neidig said. “She’s working right now on endowing those positions, and she has about a million dollars to go on the endowment. But once the endowment is in place, then we won’t have to worry about those positions in the future.”

As the first lady of Indiana, Pence continued to support the hospital’s art therapy program. The Indiana First Lady’s Charitable Foundation, which Pence established to support youth and families in Indiana, awarded its first major grant to Riley Hospital’s Art Therapy Program in April 2014, totaling $100,000 in funding.

“What these therapists do for the children and their families is critical to their healing, both emotionally and physically,” Pence said at a fundraiser for the First Lady’s Charitable Foundation. “There is nothing more difficult for a parent than watching a child sick or in pain. The Art Therapy program at Riley Hospital for Children is a blessing for all who are touched by this initiative."

“It’s just like any other kind of therapy a child might get, like counseling,” Neidig explained. “But they use art as the device to communicate with the child and work through a lot of emotions and fears.”

“Sometimes, it’s not enough art for real strong art supporters, and people don’t think it’s enough therapy for donors who want to donate to therapy. So it’s a little bit of a tough sell,” Neidig added. “The fact that the first lady is behind it is incredible. It’s great that we have such a voice for this program.”

Pence has also lent her voice to other art therapy programs across the country, including Tracy’s Kids, a nonprofit group based in Washington, D.C., that offers art therapy to children suffering from cancer.

“Karen is a talented artist, she does realistic watercolor paintings,” said Tracy Councill, program director of Tracy’s Kids. “I believe her experience as an art educator gives her an appreciation of the value of art therapy.”

The art therapy provided by Tracy’s Kids helps young cancer patients “cope with the emotional stress and trauma of cancer and its treatment,” according to the program’s mission statement. The art therapy is given at no charge to the patients or their siblings, and trained art therapists work with children using a variety of techniques.

“They use art as the mechanism to draw kids out,” explained Matt Gerson, founder and chairman of Tracy’s Kids. “They might ask kids to draw a family portrait, or create a mask. A big thing is to, say, draw a picture of you going in a tunnel and coming out of a tunnel.”

Tracy’s Kids originally began at Lombardi Cancer Center at Georgetown University in 1991, but has since expanded to hospitals across the country. While Tracy’s Kids is not affiliated with Riley Hospital in Indianapolis, Gerson recognizes Pence’s work in bringing art therapy programs to Indiana hospitals.

“She has been committed to this, and she single-handedly brought art therapy to Riley Children Hospital in Indianapolis,” Gerson said. “She’s an artist herself, she totally gets it. She’s the real deal.”

“Karen does it because she believes in the mission and what we do, and it’s consistent with both her art and her teaching,” he added.

ABC News' Katherine Faulders contributed to this report.

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