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Art therapy emerging response

As art therapist Susan Ainlay Anand took out her supplies in a hurricane shelter, she watched a preteen girl start molding clay.

BY SUSAN KIM | JACKSON, Miss. | October 20, 2005

"The artwork that unfolded was a variety."

—Susan Ainlay Anand

As art therapist Susan Ainlay Anand took out her supplies in a hurricane shelter, she watched a preteen girl start molding clay. "She took the clay and made a 3-D piece. Then she glued it on a sheet of paper. Then she started coloring the paper.

"When she finished, I asked her to tell me about it," said Anand. "She said: 'This is what Katrina did. This is a tree and it doesn't have any leaves anymore. She had painted green on the base for the fallen leaves. She painted the clay - the tree trunk. And the paper had purple on it."

The purple, the girl said, is bad. "It's disease and sickness and if you touch that, you'll get sick."

As she watched the artwork unfold, Anand said she could see fears about what Katrina did - and the fear of what's to come. "That piece in particular was extremely captivating - for her to be able to put it down on paper and contain it. It was abstract and metaphoric. She loved to do art."

One of the girl's sisters was working nearby. "She started out with rather messy looking paints and chaos, then she drew a line down the center and divided all that chaos over to one side and wrote 'Katrina.' " For the other side, the girl cut out pictures of people's faces that were sad. "And she said: 'this is what Katrina has done.' "

Watching the creative process of children offers a tiny, veiled glimpse into their mind's eye. Art is a natural form of communication for children because it is easier for them to express themselves visually rather than verbally. "The artwork that unfolded was a variety. I'd glance over and see somebody getting pretty messy with the paint - and then it would turn into Katrina," said Anand.

But the children expressed a surprising amount of hope, too. Anand helped one group make books. "They made whatever story they want to make. I brought mat board to be the covers. A few older boys who you might think would generate their own story reverted back to biblical stories. A very popular story was Genesis and creation - a great deal of emphasis was on that."

To Anand, that communicated a sense of resiliency. "That's the way I interpreted it," she said.

Art therapists like Anand are part of a growing field of professionals serving disaster survivors in many states. Anand has worked in church-based storm shelters, American Red Cross shelters, with family groups, and with Camp Noah, a week-long therapeutic day camp founded by Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota.

Art therapists bring formal training - many are licensed - and ultimately a sense of creative space into often chaotic post-disaster situations.

When Anand arrived at one shelter housing hurricane evacuees, she brought a big plastic box full of art materials. The shelter, she said, was "pretty chaotic. There were mattresses all over. There were parents that just appeared to be off. Children were running all over the place."

Anand found a couple of tables and put out art supplies. "We typically bring drawing materials like markers, crayons, oil pastels. We bring a special type of clay, and we bring paint. And lots of paper. I also took in collage materials, not knowing what ages I would see."

The children simply came, she said, from toddlers to adolescents. "They were attracted to it. It was some structure. I was this island of structure in the middle of chaos."

Artwork also gives kids a break from the onslaught of media reports, pointed out Anand. "In the shelters, televisions were going all the time. People were seeing pictures of New Orleans - and the horrible stories. The children were hearing, too."

Sad reverberations of the media reports showed through when the children created their books, said Anand. "I would hear them when they would tell their story. Sometimes they'd get the media reports mixed up with what they knew to be true."

Media coverage was pervasive, she said. "We had to be in the midst of large screen televisions. The exposure was pretty intense. One time a policeman who was there walked over and said, 'I'm really glad you guys are doing this because the kids need to do something besides watch television."

Anand said even if shelters do not invite art therapists, she wishes they would have a quiet space for reading a book, doing artwork, knitting or quilting.

Ultimately, Anand said she'd like to see art therapists become an integral part of disaster response. "People often think of art therapy as a technique rather than an actual field or discipline that works with other professions. We go through training so the people we work with can feel safe - especially after they've been through trauma."

There are about 5,000 art therapists in the United States, she said. "There are eight in the whole state of Mississippi. But we still have a state license for art therapy. We have a code of ethics."

Anand said the American Art Therapy Association - the networking organization that links art therapists nationally - is the best way to partner with art therapists interested in post-disaster work.

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Related Links:

American Art Therapy Association, Inc.

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