Art as Therapy – My journey to the Mural Crew.

There is something magical that happens- no matter what the age- when you sit a student/client in front of a fresh palette of paints or other creative materials. A magical zen atmosphere unfolds as the student looks, smells, feels, and begins to create.  This moment is not about talent or “being able to recreate ” a subject, it is about therapy. Art as therapy. 

Working in Chicago I am often working with students that have never touched a paintbrush and are 14-18 years old. Many have little to no art exploration what so ever. Materials are too costly for families and teachers often view creation as “too messy” or “not on the test”. This is a sad, yet all too common, misconception. Used properly, art is the most accessible and cost effective therapy we can offer a child in need. It does not require travel, money, access to healthcare, and is private and portable. Expression skills learned doing this can be applied to life and help a student garner more respect due to pro-social advocacy skills and  by giving them an outlet other than gangs and drugs. 

Prior to my current school, I worked extensively with students incarcerated in the Cook County Juvenile Detention System. Our youth’s offenses ran the gamete from DUI to Attempted Homicide. The youth I worked with were also dually enrolled in a court ordered drug and alcohol treatment program based on AA ( Alcoholics Anonymous). I served as the special education case manager/ disability liaison and also worked to open schools and classrooms under this program. The problem I saw with the program was that it relied on average reading and reasoning skills and was also Christian faith based. A majority of our youth claimed to be atheist and or where associated with Nation of Islam and followed the teachings of the Qur’an. A majority of our clients could not access the reading materials and/or did not identify and/or agree with the message. This coupled with the fact that drugs and alcohol affect judgment and aggression made for tense therapy sessions and many cases of youth re-offending once paroled. I worked in the men’s unit and often found boy’s in their units drawing in lieu of attending sessions. Drawing, doodling, and tagging helped them express themselves and made them feel less aggressive they claimed. Already in graduate school for behavior, I began to steer my practice towards art as therapy. I soon found that many of our clients -previously not participating in sessions -became more willing to attend if a creative exploration activity was planned. Also those who would attend sessions and then verbally engage with others in an aggressive manner would become more affable and engaged in ways that was productive for themselves as well as the group. By engaging the client in art therapy types of activities -first individually than into the group setting- many had a significant reduction in incidents and were more able to work with staff in ways that were safe and productive, thus assisting their rehabilitation.  This is also the same work also led me back to the public schools. As fulfilling and challenging this was I also saw that this intervention needed to occur years, decades, before.  My clients stated the same in sessions. Early intervention is the key to all skill/disability remediation, art as therapy is no different. 

I currently work with middle school aged children. This I find is a perfect age for art therapy. They are old enough to reason and understand the events in their life that led them to where they are now, but can still change paths and their course in life. They can circumvent destiny so to say. They are also more eager and willing to take chances. Many have not had children yet and/or entered the justice system. On that same note- the risk and issue with middle school is this is in fact the time that all these things begin to become a reality. Many begin having children, using drugs, drinking, getting arrested and will start to end of their educational aspirations. Catching the youth at this age is critical to reduction of crime and to upset the cycle of poverty. The other “elephant in the room” with this age group is that they are impulsive and require instant and authentic gratiifaction. Art as therapy serves as the perfect tool! One can devise activities that catch interest, are accessible no matter the ability, and are meaningful. 

I am one of the lucky few that gets to work in a building that is run by proactive and realistic administration. My principal embraces art and accepts my special education students without condition. This is also the reason I choose to stay at my school. In my almost 15 years working with youth, this is the only building that has embraced “my kids” and “my role”. We are also in dire straits, being the last surviving neighborhood school in our area of the south side.  We have operated on literally little to no money for years. We fight daily to keep our doors open and our kids safe. We are also just one of the “forgotten many”. We have great passion and drive and plenty of amazing things occurring within our 130 year old walls- but we go without- every single day. Whether or not one want to admit this – this affects our kids. High violence and poverty brings stressors to our building that most other schools do not see day to day. Our kids have passion but many do not even have the ability to buy a single pencil and pen. In comes art. 

brush 1


This year I was given the opportunity to take a group of kids that were failing, not attending school, and getting into issues in the community and begin a mural “club” with them. With the help of a co-worker/ friend of mine we identified a core group in need of intervention. I also recruited some of my leaders to serve as “student teachers”.  This group was not well received by some staff, many were adivsaries of one another, and or in constant upheaval at school.  I first met with each child individually for a few sessions and we worked on identifying issues that kept them from progressing. We then met as a group and participated in several group activities. In the course of these sessions this mis-matched group identified with each other and discovered many had similar stories, issues. 

Through the course of this year’s group I have decided that community mural projects serve as the PERFECT therapy/ teaching platform. The group must work as a whole and support one another, much like life and work. Disagreements must be handled in a timely manner and each participant is a part of a whole. Without one, everyone fails. Murals require building trust in your crew, communication, dedication, and the ability to adapt and think fast on your feet,. Skills required in life.  A mural is a teaching tool, to engage in this one becomes a teacher. An issue in need of a solution must be identified, to engage in this process one becomes an active and productive community member. Ownership is given to those who often have nothing. Ownership breeds pride- and pride heals. 

The “crew” has grown and will now be a daily activity at my building . We have the blessing of my admin to “tell stories and work together” throughout the entire building. Fundraising is underway to assist in this initiative. Our group grew as well. Our older, exiting children brought in younger ones to teach them the process. I am also happy to report that our “crew” began attending school and all graduated! They also began to take an active role in school and had less disciplinary infractions. Art as therapy does not require “art skill”.  A child can mix color, sculpt, express, and plan. There is a role and place for everyone in art. There is no “one right way” to intervene. There is no ” you are doing it wrong” when one creates. There are no words needed to tell their stories. There is no end to potential. 



Sketching the community mural “Growing Great Leaders”. The topic is how our school has played a role in the community for over a hundred years and is rooted in history as a school that can help children succeed. 

This is our before - walls that has seen better days and in need of a face lift.
This is our before – walls that has seen better days and in need of a face lift.

wall detail

Our wall with the primer coat. 


mural session 1 whole shot mural session 1 #2 IMG_6330 IMG_6331 IMG_6332 IMG_6335 IMG_6339 DSC00497

Collaboration and teamwork

Working to make decisions 

DSC00519 DSC00522 DSC00524


The finished piece!

10 feet by 7 feet. Acrylic on plaster wall. Entirely student dreamed, created and crafted! The "roots" are scenes from the neighborhood- this depicts how our building is "rooted" in the community and how important it is to allow it to remain open so it can continue to "grow great leaders".
10 feet by 7 feet. Acrylic on plaster wall. Entirely student dreamed, created and crafted! The “roots” are scenes from the neighborhood- this depicts how our building is “rooted” in the community and how important it is to allow it to remain open so it can continue to “grow great leaders”.

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