Using the Arts to Tame Katrina’s Emotional Force

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Using the Arts to Tame Katrina’s Emotional Force | Connect for Kids

Using the Arts to Tame Katrina’s Emotional Force

Published: June 12, 2006

by: Martha Pitts
[Final products of the Whole Schools/Dream Yard kite-building project take flight.] Final products of the Whole Schools/Dream Yard kite-building project take flight.

A high school sophomore in New Orleans takes a picture of the green mold covering the walls of her house and writes in her journal about the much-anticipated day she and her family can return home permanently.

A young boy from Pascagoula, Mississippi sits in an art center in Fairhope, Alabama during a “hurricane healing” workshop. He draws a picture of a face, colors it blue, and draws waves under the eyes.

And another young boy, one of many displaced children living in a trailer park in Baker, La. with their families, makes an ant out of pipe cleaners and tells a therapist the ant is scared of drowning.

In the nine months since Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast, many children have used art and other creative activities to express themselves and to cope with the traumatic events associated with the hurricane. The concept of art therapy rests on the idea that creative activities offer ways for children and young people to revisit a traumatic experience in ways that are healing. And in the aftermath of Katrina, there’s a whole cohort of kids who need ways to process terrible loss on a large scale.

Why Art Therapy?

“Because of its interdisciplinary qualities—art, psychology, child development, arts education—art therapy is uniquely positioned to assist children with trauma,” said Paige Asawa, therapist and co-author of the book A History of Art Therapy in the United States.

Asawa and several of her colleagues from Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles have taken numerous trips to the Renaissance Village, a FEMA trailer park in Baker, La., to work with children displaced by Katrina.

And while Asawa has worked with both children and adults who’ve experienced different kinds of trauma—death in the family and witnessing violence, for example—she says the experience of Katrina was different.

“You can’t compare them,” Asawa said. “You’re talking about the displacement of hundreds of thousands of kids, and the trauma went for days, in some cases for weeks and months. Families were relocated and torn apart.”

Because the complexity of the disaster was incomprehensible to many of the children, art therapy has been especially beneficial, allowing the kids to express the inexpressible and to unlock hidden feelings.

Simply by re-telling a story, Asawa said, a child can be re-traumatized as he or she vividly remembers troubling events. However, if they have something else to do in the context of remembering—drawing, playing with clay, for example—they are less likely to become traumatized again.

Initially, Asawa and the other therapists provided art supplies to get the participants—ages 4 to 21—engaged in a creative activity. When they were ready to tell their stories, Asawa helped them do that through art.

“We sit with them, hear what they say, and take what they’re saying to a therapeutic level,” Asawa says. She explains that by asking questions about a piece, or encouraging the children to use a different art medium, the therapists help the children understand the emotions the artwork is expressing. Continued…

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