A graphic mockup of a Doernbecher patient's "Amino" spirit animal

Turning children’s hospital patients’ drawings into sculptures

Doernbecher Children’s Hospital’s Amino Project collaborates with kids to create art

In early 2022, four Doernbecher Children’s Hospital patients, a visual artist and an advertising firm all joined forces to form the Amino Project, a collaborative art production which transformed the drawings of child hospital patients into 3D sculptures. 


The result was a series of colorful 3D-printed models inspired by alebrijes, or spirit animals, that represent people’s souls in the folk art of some Indigenous Mexican cultures. Each sculpture was designed by a child patient at Doernbecher before it was brought to life through digital modeling and 3D printer technology. Once they were rendered in physical form, the sculptures were given further color and personality through the contributions of Tekpatl, a Portland-based Chicano artist. Tekpatl painted each of the sculptures by hand, giving each one its own unique set of patterns and colors so that no two Aminos were alike. 


For Meral Middleton, one of the initiators of the project—and the co-founder of INDUSTRY, the firm who printed the Aminos—the choice to draw inspiration from the tradition of alebrijes was a deliberate one.


“We realized that illness and loss are painfully taboo today,” she stated. “But many Indigenous cultures recognize these moments openly—often using art to share the story.”


For Middleton, the need to share stories of loss is a personal one, which informed her work on the project. She and her husband lost their infant daughter in 2012, a tragedy that she ultimately expressed in the Aminos project. One of the five Aminos, a hummingbird, is meant to represent the soul of Middleton’s child. 


“She is our hummingbird, peacefully suspended in time—then gone just as fast,” Middleton stated. “To us, her spirit animal represents change, lightness, harmony and healing.”


The other four Aminos, created by children who were active patients at Doernbecher, were designed over the course of several creative sessions. 


Alissa Wang, an industrial designer at INDUSTRY, said that besides creating the designs for the sculptures, the sessions created a unique experience for the kids as well. 


“The alebrijes provided an educational opportunity for the kids we worked with,” she stated. “The end result has proven to be extremely powerful. We were really able to tap into the personalities of each and every kid at Doernbecher.”


The end result of each collaboration reflected the identities of the kids who designed them, with the medley of different animal parts conveying the personalities of each of the children. No two are alike—one is catlike, with bat ears and a fox’s tail, while another resembles a seal with shark fins. Another looks like a dragon or a chimera, with two heads and a peacock’s tail. 


Once the final designs were complete, the Aminos were hand-painted by Tekpatl. For him, the appeal of the project lay in its ability to represent the creative minds of the children who designed them. 


“I resonate with the story behind the alebrijes,” Tektatl stated. “The original artist channeled his spirit and creativity into creating a tangible version of his vision.”


Although he was an experienced visual artist, the small size of the Amino project required an extreme level of attention to detail. 


“When painting the Aminos, I had to slow down my breathing to paint all the little details,” Tekpatl said. 


The final product, after Tekpatl’s contribution, was an ensemble of unique animals, each one transformed from children’s drawings to 3D sculptures that can be held. Doernbecher and the INDUSTRY team plan to host a drawing for the Aminos, with the proceeds going back to the children’s hospital medical programs.


For Middleton, this was one of the goals of the project, besides creating a space for patients to communicate their stories through art. 


“We created the Animo project to give back,” she said.