How Joel Hall found healing through art

May 4, 2020

In the days after Christmas 2015, Joel Hall gathered his daughters at the family lake house for a respite before the start of the new year. The winter days had turned wet and cold, bringing a light snowfall, and homemade s’mores were on the menu.

The chocolate, graham crackers and marshmallows were ready, and Hall was committed to getting the fire started for his girls.

Methodically, he took logs and braced them against each other, creating a teepee of wood ready to burn. But the wood was wet, and even after a whole can of lighter fluid, the fire was fizzling. So, Hall grabbed a can of gas.

“I’d done it many times before and never had any problems,” he said.

This time was different. In a flash, the gas can he held in his hand exploded, engulfing his legs in flames and burning his pants off his body. Hall knew there was a problem; he just didn’t know how severe. First, he went inside and put on a pair of sweatpants and told his daughters the s’mores would have to wait. That’s when the hot flashes and massive sweats kicked in (even though it was only 30 degrees outside), and Hall knew he needed to get to a hospital. A family member drove to the closest emergency room, 30 minutes away. From there, Hall was transferred to Burn and Reconstructive Centers of America in Plano, Texas, with a diagnosis of second and third-degree burns to 25% of his body.

He told the doctors that, despite his burned appearance, he wasn’t really in that much pain. That’s the nature of third-degree burns, the medical staff explained. His injuries had burned past the layer of pain receptors in his body.

Hall spent more than two weeks in the burn center and underwent extensive treatments for removal of the dead tissue (excision) and application of donor skin (allograft), which is used to prepare the wound bed for a graft of his own skin. Throughout his treatment, Hall required extensive physical and occupational therapy treatments to maintain his strength and movement.

To help strengthen his hands, Hall started drawing—working to regain his artistic abilities from before he was burned. Sometimes he drew little fish, which caught the interest of his 13-year-old daughter, Sierra. To help bring some comfort to his hospital room, Sierra began to cut out his fish drawings, color them and hang them on the walls of his room.

“She told me she heard that aquariums are relaxing,” Hall said, adding that the little fish inspired him to find ways to help other patients. With strict rules on what patients can have while in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) including flowers, food and stuffed animals, Hall followed his daughter’s lead and created something ICU friendly for patients to enjoy. The result? A magnetic, ready-to-color artboard, which comes with fish and bird magnets with colorful markers inside a small backpack.

Hall’s long-term dream is to create a not-for-profit art studio where burn survivors, and others injured in unfortunate accidents, can create artworks free of charge in an environment that helps them heal with others also in the healing process.

“Art provided much of the mental therapy I needed to heal, and I want to pass on encouragement to create art as a healing aid to others, especially the children,” he said.

Hall has since returned to work, still goes to the lake and will still make a fire if his girls want s’mores. He’s just more careful now.

“A burn is [a] life-changing thing,” he said. “You deal with it for the rest of your life. I am lucky to have my family, friends, co-workers and other burn survivors to help along the way.”