Art has long been a vehicle for self expression in adults and children. It can also be a tool for those who have been subjected to trauma and in some cases a lifeline for students who have trouble coping with difficult academic, emotional and physical challenges.
A collaboration between Broadway Elementary School in Venice and the “Share and Care” initiative at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center was displayed Feb. 13 at the elementary school in the form of a colorful, multicultural art therapy mural that school representatives see as an outlet for students to release emotions that they may find hard to access.
“I really think (art therapy) helps the kids to learn to express their feelings,” said Broadway Elementary Principal Susan Wang. “Often, children have feelings but don’t know how to express them and they come out in other ways.”
Wang said children sometimes are involved in situations of domestic strife, including the loss of a friend or relative or parents who are divorcing, and these developments can make some more despondent or prone to act in an undisciplined fashion.
Members of Cedars’ “Share and Care” team worked on the project with all 334 students at the elementary school over a five-month period last year.
“The mosaic beautifully demonstrates how art therapy brings students of various backgrounds together in a creative, collaborative process,” said art therapist Tabitha Frank of Cedars-Sinai. “Our ‘Share and Care’ program is designed to foster team-building, and create a sense of pride in themselves, their school and community.”
Santa Monica native Stephanie Mihalas, who is a psychologist, said art therapy can be used for multiple purposes.
“It is often used to decrease stress and we also can see it enhancing and promoting strength and well-being,” Mihalas told The Argonaut. “Often in art therapy, students are able to explore creativity that can allow them to heal wounds that may exist in their subconscious.”
Suzanne Silverstein, founding director of the Cedars-Sinai’s Psychological Trauma Center, has been working with the Los Angeles Unified School District for 30 years. She began offering crisis services to students who suffered traumas following the 1994 Northridge earthquake. That same year, she was introduced to Broadway.
The “Share and Care” program is an early intervention and prevention program for students who have been impacted by trauma. The purpose of the mosaic mural at Broadway was “to have the kids working as a team, to focus on a given task and to enhance their socialization skills,” Silverstein explained. “In elementary school, some children have a difficult time with socialization.”
Broadway has a very diverse student population. It also has a highly-touted Mandarin Chinese immersion program, which students of all backgrounds can apply to enter. The neighborhood where the elementary school is located is on the outskirts of Oakwood, a historically African-American neighborhood in Venice that has seen an influx of Latino families over the last decade.
“Art therapy can promote group cohesion and create cultural boundary crossings,” Mihalas said. “It seems like this school has been supportive of safe boundary crossings for its students.”
Anna Kosoff, a marriage and family therapist intern with a specialty in art therapy, works with students individually and says the creative therapy affects students differently.
“Mostly what we see is art therapy as an outlet for (children) to express themselves creatively,” said Kosoff, who is a graduate of Loyola Marymount University in Westchester.
The project involved parents and teachers as well.
Jack Chen, a parent at the school, touched on the reality facing public schools today: the scarcity of arts education.
“I think it’s great for the kids to have participated in a work of public art, and to be able to take pride in the artwork every day,” Chen said. “Yet the mural is also a reminder that art has been cut from the school budget.”
Wang said Broadway currently does not have an arts teacher.
Silverstein has worked with other schools in The Argonaut coverage area, including Loyola Village Elementary School in Westchester and Beethoven Elementary School and Mark Twain Middle School in Mar Vista.
Wang said art therapy can also assist school administrators and teachers with children who may not always be able to express their fears and anxieties, which can sometimes spill over into how they learn.
“Some children do not come to school with a lot of coping skills,” she said. “So this art therapy program allows them to do something that is relaxing so that they can talk about their feelings.
“Working in small group settings, they can learn to negotiate social and physical boundaries.”
Mihalas said there is often a correlation between student trauma or anxiety and learning difficulties. “We find that children can use these expressive therapies to reduce stress, lessen anxiety and improve academic performance,” she said.
Sometimes art therapy can be beneficial even if it is not part of a structured course of treatment. In 2009, The Argonaut chronicled the story of Pierre Dumas, who is autistic and who had never spoken. When he began going on outings with his life coach to Venice Beach where he saw the graffiti walls and began to paint, his family began to notice changes in his behavior during a visit by his mother.
“He called my mother ‘mama,’” Dumas’ sister, Yvette Beaird, remembered. “And when we told him that it was time to go, he started crying.
“He has changed so much,” she continued. “He can prepare sandwiches for himself and do certain chores, which we thought would probably never happen.”
Dr. Paula Pompa-Craven, a psychologist who is familiar with Dumas’ case, feels that being part of a community can reap valuable rewards for students and adults who are emotionally challenged or traumatized.
“I don’t think that you have to be in a clinical setting for an approach to be therapeutic,” the psychologist, said in an interview three years ago.
Chen said the Broadway mural can serve a variety of purposes for the students, including some intangible rewards.
“Aesthetics is important to childhood development, even if its benefits can’t be quantified by the lamentable culture of standardized testing,” he said.
“I hope very much that the mural, as well as the landscaping project, will one day make Broadway’s campus a place of aesthetic, as well as functional, value.”