Ashes2Art: The healing power of creativity for firefighters

Nonprofit helps firefighters promote creativity to counterbalance the negative impacts of the job


Destruction and loss are part of every firefighter’s experience. Homes burn down. Buildings are destroyed in natural disasters. People lose everything – their possessions, their homes, their livelihoods and sometimes even their lives.

Firefighters lose a lot as well. Innocence and the gift of not knowing certain realities are two of the first things to go. Firefighters lose sleep, health, relationships – all related to the job. Sometimes these losses culminate in job-related deaths from cancer, heart disease or suicide.

What can be done to mitigate these losses and prevent such job-related deaths?

Ashes2Art operates on the premise that one of the best remedies for destruction and loss is creativity.
Ashes2Art operates on the premise that one of the best remedies for destruction and loss is creativity. (Photos/Kathy Sullivan)

Fire departments are trying many different approaches to enhance firefighter health and support systems for dealing with trauma and loss. One innovative program started in 2017 in Fairfax County, Virginia, is called Ashes2Art, which operates on the premise that one of the best remedies for destruction and loss is creativity.

Ashes2Art origin and purpose

The idea developed after Kathy Sullivan, a Virginia artist with a master’s degree in art therapy, was seated on a plane next to firefighters who were returning from a conference. The conversation included talk of the stress firefighters experience in their jobs, and Sullivan realized that art could be part of the support network for first responders.

Sullivan approached Captain William “Buck” Best of the Fairfax County Fire Department, who was then serving as the officer in charge of behavioral health on the department. He invited her to work with the department, and Ashes2Art was formed.

Sullivan emphasizes that the program is not intended as therapy but rather “just promoting creativity, to counterbalance the negative.” Sessions are open-ended and may run a few hours. They are also limited to around a dozen participants. There is usually some direction or structure given for each project, but otherwise first responders are encouraged to go wherever their creative impulses take them.

There was some resistance at first. Firefighters tend to follow rules and protocols in their work, and with the art projects, some of them wanted to be told what to do in a step-by-step manner. Some firefighters were not comfortable asking for help. But once they became more familiar with the creative process, “they’re just amazing, and go off on their own wild, creative path,” Sullivan says. Promoting creative camaraderie and having fun are the two main goals.

The benefits of the program have been far-ranging. Some participants have felt that creating art helps with debriefing from difficult calls, both in the near and distant past.

Artworks created through the program were featured at a public gallery to commemorate 9/11. Some participants have continued making art on their own outside of Sullivan’s classes, and have had success selling their work.

Ashes2Art started in coordination with Fairfax County Fire Department, but has since become an independent nonprofit organization that offers services to agencies throughout the region.
Ashes2Art started in coordination with Fairfax County Fire Department, but has since become an independent nonprofit organization that offers services to agencies throughout the region.

Growing the program into a national presence

Ashes2Art started in coordination with Fairfax County, but has since become an independent nonprofit organization that offers services to agencies throughout the region. “It’s available to anybody who’s interested,” says Sullivan, who offers her support and services on a completely volunteer basis, and art supplies are donated, so there is no cost for those who participate in the program.

Currently, the organization is operating under the umbrella of Northern Virginia Emergency Medical Services. George Mason University has recently committed to partnering to do research about the physiological effect of art on stress management.

The organization will be launching its official website on June 8 at ashes2art.org. Sullivan hopes that the program can become a national presence to help first responders deal with work-related stress.

Sullivan hopes that the Ashes2Art program can become a national presence to help first responders deal with work-related stress.
Sullivan hopes that the Ashes2Art program can become a national presence to help first responders deal with work-related stress.

“There are so many talented people who are firefighters,” Sullivan says. “The job is not static; there is creativity that is needed on the job. I leave on a high every time, watching what these people are capable of.”

Sullivan adds: “Their work is amazing, and we appreciate it. The whole point of the program is for people who are worried that they’re not creative. We’ll get you there. We all are creative. I don’t care what you’re doing – landscaping, cooking. Do something with intention that is creative, because it will counterbalance the negative.”

When firefighters break through barriers to tap into their essential creativity, anything is possible. And as Sullivan comments, “It’s beautiful to watch.”

Next: A firefighter’s guide to stress and well-being

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