Young artists' work is therapy

Young artists' work is therapy

Applying finishing touches to paintings for sale at tonight's benefit art show for the Children's Advocacy Center had one young girl smoothly daubing lavender shades onto the edges of her vividly colored masterpiece Tuesday afternoon.

"I'm going to call it 'Mystery's Puzzle'," she announced with a confident smile.

The artwork was created during the second year of an intensive five-week art therapy program with art instructor Dan Mish of The Studio at Living Opportunities and held in conjunction with the CAC, which provides prevention, intervention and treatment services to abused children.

Last year this child artist, a victim of sexual abuse, seemed as emotionally fragile as spun glass. Her 2009 self-portrait was a muddy-toned homage to pain.

One sad eye peeked out from behind a grid of prison-like bars. She broke down into inconsolable tears during the final day of the classes.

The girl's 2010 image is adorned with big smiles and long lashes. Affirmations on love and healing are sprinkled throughout. "Help is needed." "Love is necessary," she wrote.

On Tuesday, this former youngest member of the 2009 art workshops offered her guidance and support to 2010's youngest newbie, who was also struggling with tears.

"I think your painting is really good. I like the colors," she assured the 11-year-old, who asked to title her painting "Lost in Wonderland."

What a difference a year of mentoring can make in helping a child move from victim to survivor, remarked Marlene Mish, CAC executive director and Dan's wife.

"Some of these kids get to go home where they're safe. Unfortunately, others of them don't. And we have no control over that," Mish said.

"But I think we've made an impact on every single life," Mish said. "Even the kids that didn't come back for mentoring came back for the art therapy."

The Studio's mission is to provide art opportunities for those with developmental disabilities such as autism, Down syndrome, cerebral palsy or brain injuries. Child abuse is the invisible disability, one that places real barriers in the lives of child victims, she said.

Six abused boys, age 9 to 14, participated in a cartooning class with Dan Mish this year. Four completed the project. Their work is featured in a booklet titled "Krazy Komics by Kids." Although the four-panel drawings may appear at first glance to be simple cartoons, a closer look reveals the violence, fear and weariness some of the boys have experienced in their short lives, said Marlene Mish.

"Dan let them do what they wanted to do," she said. "I enlarged the one (panel) I thought told the truth."

One 10-year-old boy's panel depicts a young girl with a black eye. "I just got beat up!" states the conversation bubble.

Another boy's cartoon is titled "A Bad Day." The 12-year-old has been attacked by bees, bit by mad dogs and has tumbled into a rose bush. At the end of his cartoon, the mangled character states his relief the day is over. Only he's about to be smacked in the head by a flying football.

In addition to their self-portraits, the 12 girls — age 11 through 17 — participating in this year's workshop also created their own booklet, titled "Stories of the Soul," Marlene Mish said.

Healing through poetry added a new writing component. The girls were asked to identify negative and hurtful messages they have internalized. Phrases such as "You will never amount to anything." "This whole thing was your fault anyway. You brought it on and ruined our family." And "I am sorry you were born. You ruined my life."

The girls were then asked to put a "face" on those words. They were given a paintbrush, some basic colors, paper, a place on the floor and 10 minutes to paint their demons, Mish said.

Next came letting go of the bad and welcoming the dreams, she said. One 15-year-old wrote she wished to "Let go of the burden. Let go of the pain. Forgive myself. Take back my soul."

After each girl wrote her dreams, the paper was lit on fire, she said.

"It was a symbol of letting go of the negative in their lives and releasing their dreams into the universe," she said.

Visions of their new world came next, in a single sentence that spiraled along a decorated page. "In my world are no broken hearts and everyone listens when you talk ..." wrote one 14-year-old. "In my vision of the world there is no such things as rapists & molesters," wrote another. Many of the girls wrote about wishing there were no drugs or alcohol, Mish said.

The final step was creating a life-sized personal goddess — a female protector with special abilities and characteristics, she said.

"Exotic," a 6-foot-tall protectress created by a 14-year-old girl, has eyes of "lightning blue." Her hair shines like the sun and her clothing is made of rainbows. She has no permanent home, for she is constantly searching for lost souls.

"I help the smallest of creatures, the children. With me they can have wondrous dreams. I am exotic, loving, nurturing to all that need my strength."

The paintings and booklets are more than an exercise in self-discovery. They are part of a fundraising project designed to create sustainable income for the CAC's mentoring program, Mish said.

The girls will keep their original self-portraits. But they will be selling signed prints, cards and the other paintings they have created. The boys also created self-portraits, but opted to sell their work, she said.

Fifty percent of the proceeds from any canvas sold by the boys or the girls will go to the child and the other 50 percent will go back into the program, Mish said.

The "Wild Bird" signature painting, done by a 9-year-old boy in the mentoring program, will be up for auction. The work of five Living Opportunity artists also will be featured, she said.

Mish expects people may tear up when they see the children's art. But they should be hopeful, joyful tears, because these programs dispel the belief that it's not possible to heal, she said.

"You don't lower the bar of expectations on victims, you raise the bar of hope," said Mish.

Reach reporter Sanne Specht at 541-776-4497 or e-mail

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