Greg Cravens may wear a Marvel T-shirt, but he doesn’t think of himself as a superhero.
A Memphis-based cartoonist and graphic designer, Cravens has been creating locally for 30 years. His work ranges from the top hat-and-shoes Jim Keras logo to Memphis Flyer covers and editorial cartoons. He’s even painted a mural inside the Peabody ducks’ enclosure. Cravens also runs two syndicated comics and has twice earned Reuben Award nominations for his newspaper illustrations.
Since 1989, he’s been making an impact in a different way: volunteering at Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital.
“Everybody draws when they’re a kid,” he says. “Everybody. Cartoonists and illustrators and graphic designers, those are just the people that never quit. When you’ve met a cartoonist, you’ve essentially just met a really large child.”
Cravens fosters that same creative spark in Le Bonheur’s patients. In the last year, Cravens’ visits have increased. Now every two weeks, he visits Le Bonheur’s Room of Magic theatre and breaks out a whiteboard, a pen and a big pad of paper. Next, a camera linked to Studio 8, Le Bonheur’s closed-circuit TV channel, starts rolling.
Up first is a hospital-wide game of Pictionary. As Cravens’ doodling streams live, families across Le Bonheur tune in. Then the calls begin: excited patients, siblings and family members dial in, eager to nail down whatever zany creation is taking shape on the whiteboard.
Cravens also heads up Doodlemania, when families call in with requests which Cravens sketches live on Studio 8. Patients can watch on TV, or head down to the Room of Magic for a front-row seat. Cravens brings superheroes, polka-dotted caterpillars and silly scenes to life, drawing Step-by-step so the kids can follow along. Sliding little art lessons into Doodlemania, he helps children think in new ways. One of his favorite tricks starts with two dots and a line.
“What’s this?” he asks. The answer seems obvious: a happy face. Then he asks another question: Why?
“You engage their heads when you go: Why? And suddenly it opens a whole world,” he says. “You get them thinking, hang on, if a happy face is that simple and it works, what else can I draw?”
You get them thinking, hang on, if a happy face is that simple and it works, what else can I draw?
Two squiggly lines become a fire-breathing dragon with heartburn and a brave doctor, leaping to the rescue with antacids: a fun lesson about line of action.
Art has “healing power,” says Amy Ford, Le Bonheur’s Special Events Coordinator. “Patients learn to communicate their feelings in a new way. This spring, Greg came to teach our patients how to draw their emotions through the simple art of cartoon,” she said. “From how to draw their anger to their fear, Greg was there.”
Soon patients were shouting out emotions, Cravens keeping pace. With a quick smile and a pun, Cravens makes light of his work.
“I don’t have the hard job,” he says. “I’m just here for comic relief.”
But as he does the rounds after Pictionary, visiting winners in person to hand out prizes, his impact becomes clear. Toting his sketch pad room to room, he jokes and visits with families. Pictionary winners receive art supplies and an on-the-spot, optional caricature. When the answer is yes, Cravens whips out his pad and starts sketching. He asks what patients would like to be drawn doing; some want to stand next to a favorite cartoon character, others, play outside. He draws standing up; he plops down next to a child, taking his pad to the floor. In each room, he puts patients and families at ease.
“We truly consider Greg a member of our team,” says Ford.
Why does he do it?
"I know exactly how it helps out,” he says.
He’s experienced hospitals from the inside — once, years ago when his child visited Le Bonheur for a procedure, and again last year, during his own short stint at an intensive care unit.
“Suddenly you’re told you have to lie there and not move,” he said, reflecting on last year’s hospital visit. “So going around to the rooms after Pictionary and giving out prizes, I say, ‘Well, I hope we kept you busy for a little while,’ and the parents are like, ‘We look forward to this every day. It’s something to do.’ Sitting, worrying, waiting in a hospital room is awful.”
Cravens looks forward to his visits.
“A lot of people go, ‘drawing’s your job,’” he says. “Yeah, but it’s not what I’m doing when I’m at work either. Imagine taking the best, silliest, goofiest, most fun part of your job – that’s what I do when I come here and volunteer. I’m not kidding – this is what I would do all day, every day.”
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