Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Using Crayons to Exorcise Katrina

The New York Times featured an article on art therapy's significance in assisting children in coping and healing from Hurricane Katrina:

Using Crayons to Exorcise Katrina
By SHAILA DEWAN

BAKER, La., Sept. 16 — One of the most common images in children’s art is the house: a square, topped by a pointy roof, outfitted with doors and windows.

So Karla Leopold, an art therapist from California, was intrigued when she noticed that for many of the young victims of Hurricane Katrina, the house had morphed into a triangle. “At first we thought it was a fluke, but we saw it repeatedly in children of all ages,” said Ms. Leopold, who with a team of therapists has made nine visits to Renaissance Village here, the largest trailer park for Katrina evacuees, to work with children. “Then we realized the internal schema of these children had changed. They weren’t drawing the house as a place of safety, they were drawing the roof.”

Countless articles and at least five major studies have focused on the lasting trauma experienced by Hurricane Katrina survivors, warning of anxiety, difficulty in school, even suicidal impulses. But few things illustrate the impact as effectively as the art that has come out of sessions under the large white tent that is the only community gathering spot at Renaissance Village, a gravel-covered former cow pasture with high truancy rates and little to occupy youngsters who do not know when, or if, they will return home.

Even now the children’s drawings are populated by alligators, dead birds, helicopters and rescue boats. At a session in May one 8-year-old, Brittney Barbarin, drew a swimming pool full of squiggly black lines. Asked who was in the pool, she replied, “Snakes.”

The drawings, photographs and sculptures, about 50 of which went on display Sunday at the New Orleans Museum of Art, are a good indicator of how children are coping, said Dr. Irwin Redlener, the co-founder of the Children’s Health Fund, which has provided mobile mental health clinics to some families along the Gulf Coast. The art also shows that the trauma did not end with the hurricane.

“The real prescription for these families is to get them back into a normal community,” Dr. Redlener said. “We’re treading water doing these things, when I’d like to take my prescription pad and write, ‘Home.’ ”

On Saturday a wild commotion greeted the arrival of the art therapists, who were handing out T-shirts and registering families for a bus trip to the museum the next day for the exhibition, “Katrina Through the Eyes of Children,” which runs through Oct. 7. The therapists asked the children to draw two pictures each, and then kept an eye out for indicators of deep disturbance, like a picture by Trinity Williams, 7, that showed a figure swimming with a shark. Turbulent blue lines covered the entire paper.

Trinity is an energetic child who likes to sing and dance, and play tricks like pulling her name tag off and plastering it across her mouth. Ms. Leopold coaxed her to sit at a picnic table and add things to the drawing that could help the swimmer: a pool float, an adult in a boat, a yellow sun. Trinity has been in treatment for hyperactivity since the storm, said Donna Azeez, who is rearing Trinity. When the art therapists visit, Ms. Azeez said, Trinity will be “a lot calmer, she’ll be smiling.”

Even the adults participate, drawing churches, front porches, trees and, in one session, a picture of the trailer park with one palatial house and swimming pool in its midst. Many, both adults and children, draw at a level that is years below what is expected at their age, partly as a result of traumatic regression.

On Saturday, Lashawn Wells, 13, presented a drawing of three stick figures in a scribble of gray water: his mother, sister and brother, their arms up in the air. “Where are you?” Ms. Leopold asked. “I don’t want to be in the picture,” Lashawn muttered. Ultimately, Lashawn added himself, a life jacket, a road for running away, and a bridge.

Ms. Leopold handed him a blank sheet of paper and asked what safe place was waiting for him on the other side of the bridge. “The Superdome?” Lashawn asked tentatively. “Reliant Center?” Eventually he changed his mind, deciding to draw a house, adding doors, windows, a dresser, and, with Ms. Leopold’s gentle urging, other things he wanted to feel safe, including a cellphone and a gun. The house was shaped like a triangle. Ms. Leopold said the triangle houses were not drawn solely by children who were rescued from rooftops. “This is the collective unconscious,” she said.

Unlike many who have tried to help Katrina evacuees, the art therapists have returned again and again, earning the trust of a community of about 400 families that feels isolated and forgotten.

They have taught the children to knit, furnished them with journals and digital cameras, even taken a lucky few to the Idyllwild Arts Summer Program in California. They have devoted considerable time to letting the children construct and decorate houses and cities, to literally rebuild.

One elaborate three-dimensional version of New Orleans, a community effort built of cardboard boxes that included streets, a church and even a graveyard, was reduced to a soggy mess by a rainstorm. The next day the children began to rebuild.

Rosie O’Donnell’s For All Kids Foundation financed the first year of the therapy program; a recent $1 million grant from the country music stars Faith Hill and Tim McGraw will help it continue. Art has piled up in a storage unit in nearby Baton Rouge, La., and in the garage of Leo Bonamy, a project volunteer.

Ms. Leopold said that there are signs of recovery in the children’s drawings, but not many. When the American Art Therapy Association held its annual convention in New Orleans last year, she said the organizers asked for examples that were colorful and hopeful. “We didn’t have any,” she said.

But there are subtle indications: In 2005 Cheryl Porter, 17, drew the car in which she and her family escaped. In Saturday’s picture the car was safe in a garage. “If I don’t draw, I get in trouble,” Cheryl said.

On Sunday three buses filled with families from Renaissance Village headed for the museum, where they would be met in the large, columned lobby with lemonade, cookies and a jazz piano player. As the bus neared the museum, 7-year-old Corielle Mutin spotted Bayou St. John, where two kayakers paddled in the afternoon sun. “I’m scared,” she said, “of the water.”

Labels: ,