The path toward self-expression and defining oneself, especially during the early stages of life, can be fraught with frustration, curiosity, confusion and at times, excitement.

For many students at Westside Leadership Magnet School, the road toward capturing and expressing their own personal styles, attributes and emotions was paved with the help of Loyola Marymount University’s ARTsmart program volunteers, who functioned as their guides on an artistic journey of self-expression.

For a period of eight weeks this year, LMU students taught students at the Venice K-8 school arts skills as well as how to create identity portraits, where the youngsters were encouraged to design arts projects that they feel reflect part of who they are.

ARTsmart is the community service program of LMU’s Department of Art and Art History. Its mission is to “provide underserved young people with access to an education in the visual arts that will provide both the instrumental and the intrinsic benefits necessary to become a well-rounded, productive member of a rapidly changing society,” according to the university’s public relation’s department.

The children’s artwork was displayed on the LMU campus at the Thomas Kelly Student Gallery this month, where they and their teachers had the opportunity to visit with their college-aged mentors and examine the identity portraits of their classmates, as well as their own.

Terry Lenihan, an LMU art professor who has led ARTsmart since its inception in 2001, takes great pride in the work that her students have done with the children at the Westside Leadership Magnet School.

“A lot of the work that we do is based on personal identity,” Lenihan explained during an interview at the campus gallery. “Many of the pieces that are displayed are aspects of the students’ own personalities. It has the students’ life in it, their personal content.”

Fifi Young was the coordinator for the identity portrait initiative, and her experience working with the children still resonates with her today.

“It was really interesting to see how their creativity and individuality developed in each painting,” said Young, who recently graduated from LMU with a degree in studio arts.

During the eight weeks that she worked with the students, Young focused on color and shades and taught them to map out their faces before creating their own personal portraits.

“Once we gave them their paint brushes, you could see from all of their portraits that everyone was so individual,” Young recalled. “It was really interesting to see that.”

Julie Sullivan, a sixth grade teacher at Westside Leadership who had an opportunity to observe her students when the LMU team came to the school, remembered her young charges’ reactions when they saw their portraits hanging in the Kelly Gallery.

“The way that the art was hung was so beautiful,” she said. “You walked in and it was a real treat to the eye.”

Many of the students had never painted before and were somewhat apprehensive in the beginning.

“But once we told them to just go for it, they really found their voice,” said Young.

The ongoing budget crunch at LAUSD has rendered arts programs virtually nonexistent at many public schools, so the ARTsmart initiative, which is funded by the Looker Foundation, is considered a welcome addition at Westside Leadership.

“It absolutely is,” Sullivan said. “The ARTsmart students are really young and energetic, and they really built a great rapport with all of the students.”

Lenihan mentioned another benefit that the elementary and middle school students derive from ARTsmart.

“They’re not only learning how to express themselves, they are also learning arts skills,” she pointed out. “They’re learning how to paint, how to mix colors, they’re learning all of the different skills so that they can express themselves in a mature way.

“Sometimes people only focus on the expression, but don’t teach (children) skills, so that their work is not as developed as it could be.”

Lenihan believes that the elimination of certain arts programs is only one obstacle at many public schools for artistically gifted children.

“A lot of elementary school teachers are not trained in the arts and don’t have that level of expertise to do the work,” she noted. “Also, with all the energy and time that is spent on testing, (teachers) don’t actually have time in their day for arts.”

Seventh-grader Bailey Robinson, 13, said she enjoyed the time that she and her classmates spent with the LMU arts students.

“The thing that I enjoyed doing the most was when we had to make a design on a piece of Styrofoam and then we printed it out on construction paper,” she said. “That was a lot of fun.”

Bailey said that she does not get to do many arts projects throughout the year.

“We don’t usually have a lot of art in our classes,” she said.

Esperanza Hardy, 12, created a palm tree for her identity portrait.

“I like the sun and the beach, so that’s why I chose the palm tree,” said the sixth-grader.

Eighth-grader Carter Griggs, 13, also chose a palm tree for his project.

“It was nice having different types of things to draw,” he said.

The teachers had a good time as well.

“It allowed me to get back in touch with my love of art,” said Jonathan Webb, who paints and draws in his spare time.

Lenihan would like to see the program implemented for several years, so that the youngsters can continue their artistic education.

“It’s really important that the program be ongoing, that we don’t just go in and teach a little bit of art and leave,” she said. “It’s important that the students have an ongoing arts program at their school so that we can really go in-depth with them year after year.”

ARTsmart has only been at Westside for a year, but Lenihan is hoping that this is only the beginning.

“We’re looking forward to a very, very long history of being in their classrooms every year,” the ARTsmart director said.

For many of the students at Westside Leadership Magnet, the road to discovering their artistic identity began with ARTsmart.