Using Crayons to Exorcise Katrina

September 17, 2007
By SHAILA DEWAN

Art Therapy – New York Times


Trinity Williams, a child displaced by Hurricane Katrina, works with Karla Leopold, an art therapist, above. At right, other work by children at a FEMA trailer park in Baker, La., shows that the trauma of the hurricane has influenced thoughts of home and safety.

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.
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