I never thought I would go to Africa. When I finally had the chance to, my motives were all wrong I was excited to be in the heat, get a suntan and go to the beach with a group of my closest friends

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I never thought I would go to Africa. When I finally had the chance to, my motives were all wrong. I was excited to be in the heat, get a suntan and go to the beach with a group of my closest friends. What ultimately changed my perception was the actual realization that I would be doing meaningful work. Once I arrived in Mozambique I was surrounded by people overcome with happiness, yet that same group of individuals resided in some of the most uninhabitable conditions on earth. It was their generosity and appreciation for the work that we did that made me realize how spoiled and unappreciative I was. I had lived extremely comfortably, where everything and more was essentially handed to me. I experienced perhaps the most influential transition of my life, from a wealthy suburban society where everything seemed in excess, to a third world way of living where almost all citizens live in extreme poverty. My naivety vanished with the understanding that I was not just there to enjoy vacationing time, but instead to help the people around me, and to spread the joy that those individuals carried with them everyday.

It was during my first trip when I found that the children had limited resources. As I planned my trip back to Africa, I wanted to find something that I could bring to the children that would enable them to create something, instead of just games and toys. I had to overcome the language barrier and thus I had to bring something that could be explained without words. That’s when I chose art, the universal language. Now I had a way to communicate with them and give them the ability to express. Art was now something that I suddenly was looking at with a different view. I started figuring out how I could use art to better the conditions of these children and open a window in which they could learn how to let go of themselves. With a new interest in art I found myself exploring the idea of art therapy and art as a means of expression, as well as remembering my own past connections to art.

I remember being in Nursery at the Session House in East Hampton. As most people know, Nursery is mainly about the self-expression and exploration a child can experience at a young age. Nursery is usually composed of different subjects so that young kids with their limited attention spans, can enjoy a mixture of activities while exploring the ideas of future school subjects. I remember story time, playtime, making snacks, and of course art class. My parents’ collection of artwork from my childhood reminds me of my past experience with making art, from the drawings I scribbled in Pre-K, to the sculptures I attempted to make in 5th grade. Although art has never been a main interest for me, throughout my primary school years it always gave me the chance to express myself, and has thus been a class I have always enjoyed. Although I have never considered myself to be a strong art student in my ability to create art, I have always found that a personal, therapeutic release occurs when I work in any type of medium.

There seems to be an element in art that causes everyone to like or dislike it at some point in his or her life. In some cases, art is not a favorite subject among students, but later an understanding of art builds an appreciation of it. Sometimes it is the other way around and students enjoy the creative aspect of art, and not the in-depth analysis of it. In one way or another art always manages to succeed in letting a person express his or her own ideologies, thoughts, and feelings. In my opinion, art has been able to do such things internationally as well.

Art “speaks” a language that breaks the barriers between cultures. It was my realization that the resources needed to create art are not present everywhere in the world that sparked my interest in trying to bring it to others. With art being such a predominate element in our world, sharing it with the places that did not have it seemed like an interesting idea to me. It was my second trip to Africa that I would get the chance to do this. After traveling to Mozambique and working with African Impact, (a volunteer company located in Africa), in March 2008, I planned to return with Taylor Montemarano and her mom, Veronica, in July 2008. The African Impact: Zanzibar project in Tanzania was not yet fully developed so the project managers eagerly agreed to my idea of creating art projects to do with the children from the nursery school I would be working with that had not previously been exposed to anything like this. They left the details of my project up to me, giving me the opportunity to explore this idea however I pleased. Here was my chance to impact others and project my own personal vision.

By giving these kids a chance to express themselves, I became interested in the idea of art therapy. Although I would not be interpreting their art or helping them cope with specific issues I did think I would be giving these children the opportunity to express their feelings, or even just experience the release that occurs when being creative.

Therapy as defined in the Merriam Webster dictionary is “treatment especially of bodily, mental, or behavioral disorder”. Therapy is designed to give patients a means to be released from the difficulties that may surround them whether they are physically or mentally unsound. Of the many different forms of therapy when referring to those most connected to children, art therapy is the most popular. By combining a way of relief with a familiar form of expression, art therapy can make it easier for a patient to show their feelings. Instead of using words, they are encouraged to draw, paint, or sculpture their emotions. In the Fall 2008 edition of the American Art Therapy Association Newsletter, Art therapy as a profession was formally defined. In their opinion:

Art therapy is the therapeutic use of art making, within a professional relationship, by people who experience illness, trauma, or challenges in living, and by people who seek personal development. Through creating art and reflecting on the art products and processes, people can increase awareness or self and others, cope with symptoms, stress, and traumatic experiences; enhance cognitive abilities; and enjoy the life-affirming pleases of making art. (American Art)

By using art as a medicine or treatment patients are able to find a place where they can better understand him or her self. Through interpretation of their art and acceptance of their condition or unresolved obstacles, patients can find a physical and mental release by letting the color flow off their fingertips.

Two of the main characters that helped in the developing of art therapy and psychoanalytic thinking were Margaret Naumburg and Florence Cane. Both sisters explored the ideas that would later progress to be categorized as the two sides of art therapy. The school that Naumburg created in New York City, The Walden School, was based upon the ideas of establishing “the basic psychoanalytic insights concerning the importance of the unconscious in education as well as in psychotherapy” (Naumburg, 1966, p. 30) Naumburg focused on the emotional aspects of children and letting their feelings come through the art work in which they produced. Naumburg was keen with encouraging the idea of randomized art and created impromptu art experiments. This she felt would have the most beneficial effect on the children. (Junge)

Cane shared the same enthusiasm for getting children to express themselves as her sister, but mainly focused on psychoanalytic thinking. Cane was intrigued by art as experimentation, and rejected the idea of any instruction behind it as specific art classes had. As she worked with the kids from the Walden School, “Cane realized the importance of the emotions as a source for creativity.” (Junge, p.15) Her main goal along with giving the children the mediums to let out their creativity was to give them a chance to move away from the stereotypical ideas of drawing and painting. Through her experiments she incorporated movement, sounds, free association and similar strategies to “tap into fantasies and the unconscious” (Junge, p.15)

Something about the flexibility of this therapeutic relief seems to make it appealing to not only children but adults as well. Many therapists find that by letting the children express their emotions through art the issues are masked to the patient, but can later be interpreted by the therapist. One of the most important aspects of art therapy is how the patient can remain unaware of the emotions that they are expressing through their artwork.

To get a deeper insight into the ways in which art therapy is beneficial and how it is actually utilized, I spoke with Sue Lichtenstein a professional, licensed, art therapist from Sag Harbor. In her opinion, expressing emotion in the form of art is a non-threatening way of communication where her patients, especially when children, can convey their true, inner intentions to her, in a nonjudgmental way. In her understanding, the ability to create is an innate skill and basic mode of communication that comes before the main mode of communication, language. Art is a form of relief that needs no words, and is hence an easy way for the shy and uncomfortable child to show how he or she feels. Creating art needs no training; art simply requires a medium and a host. According to her, the most important factor of following a good practice of art therapy is to remind the patient that it is about the process in which they go through when creating their art pieces, not the final product that they end up creating. (Litchenstein)

The exploration that occurs when children do art can help them in the development of their ability to express feelings and emotions. Whether it is drawing, painting, or sculpture, starting activities like these at an early age opens a door to children into a world where their inner-selves can be thoroughly communicated. It is these art works that offer an insight into the child’s way of representing him or herself. The developmental patterns that occur during the use of various art mediums, help children find comfort in creating their own identity. Making art causes them to use the creative parts of their minds, and helps to prove to them that they are capable of such creations. (Rose) Once they become aware of the results of their actions, they then are able to realize the ways that they can impact other things.

For children, creating an art piece is similar to using their imagination. The brainstorming on ideas onto their clean-slated minds is just like coloring on a blank piece of paper. (Rose) When children think of ideas, stories, and fantasies, they can use art as a means to project such thoughts into actual creations. As the minds of children are developing, activities like these help secure the basic fundamentals of self-creation into them.

In the fall of 2008, after I experienced my trip, I became familiar with an organization called ZimKids. Run by Dennis Gaboury, ZimKids gives orphans in Zimbabwe a chance to be creative and make dolls that they later sell for money. When Dennis sells the dolls he gives the buyer a picture of the child with their doll and then takes a picture of the buyer with the doll to give back to the children. He uses the money to buy the children food or supplies, instead of handing out the cash for safety reasons. I became instantly interested with ZimKids, since it seemed like Dennis’s goal for these children was similar to the one I had wanted to give my kids. Dennis visited the Ross School, and after we met I sent him a few questions about his organization to see how he felt it helped these orphans from Zimbabwe. According to Dennis, the dolls have created a bond between him and the children and also have given them hope for a better future. Over e-mails I interviewed Dennis:

ARM: Do you see a difference in the children's behavior after they have created the dolls? 

Dennis: Most are proud of their creations.  When they carry home the food that their dolls earned them they are all smiles.  Even the little ones will insist on carrying 20 kg’s (44lb) bags of maize meal home. Often their gogo’s (grandmothers) come running back to thank me. I remind them that their child made the doll that was sold in order for them to get the food. With each year of the project they become more confident and more experimental with their creations. Their work has improved both in quality and quantity.

ARM: Does it give them a sense of accomplishment? 

Dennis: When they get their food parcels yes, absolutely. But not until they have the food in their hands.  They don’t trust in promises or future events.  When they have the food it becomes real. When they see the photos of the people who bought the dolls it becomes more real.

ARM: Once they have developed the skill of creating does it carry over any parts of their lives?

Dennis: Kids go to school even though there are no teachers. There’s a cholera epidemic right now, no food, seldom any electricity, often no water.  Survival is the basic thrust of life here. I guess it gives them a shade of hope but when you see and smell open sewers, frayed clothing, drunken men, women struggling that hope diminished dramatically when the money from their dolls runs out and the food packages end.

ARM: Have you seen this project impact their lives beyond just the money?

Dennis: The groups I work with have become more cohesive and self supportive.  Following the trip to the camp last year for the winners[if the doll making contest], the bonding that took place was strong and kids help each other.  Older kids teach younger kids how to make the dolls.

Arm: Does the project have the same impact for boys and girls? 

Dennis: Absolutely. 

Dennis explained to me that the idea of self-expression does not exist in Zimbabwe simply because most of the kids efforts in making the dolls is for survival. However he did tell me that he knows the kids enjoy the doll making, and when they get together on Saturdays to make them it seems to give them a chance to escape the world around them which in a sense could be considered therapeutic. (Gaboury)

Speaking to Dennis reminded me of the reactions of the children with whom I had worked with. After the first day that I set up a project with them, they always acted excited to see me walk into the classroom. They would pull on my shirt and bag to try and get a glimpse of the activity that we would be doing that day. Since I could not explain to them how to use the materials verbally, I would always make an example so they could get the idea of what to do. I always would laugh to find that after I painted a squiggle on my page that same squiggle would appear on many of the kid’s pages. It amazed me to see how some of them were really good at drawing or painting the objects that they were so familiar with. I would always end the day with a painting of a palm tree or a Dahla-Dahla, the local bus that drove up and down the town’s street. After each child felt as if they had finished their project they would run and bring it to me for approval. Originally, I had planned on bringing some of the art works home with me to display, but ended up not when the children seemed so excited to bring them home to show their parents.

I cannot use words to express the happiness I felt when I watched the kids draw and paint. I was overcome with an unbelievably fulfilling emotion that really showed me how helping others could change oneself. The experience I had working with those children in Africa influenced me to continue my research on art therapy and children integrating art into their everyday lives. My new appreciation for the Arts has made it possible for me to enjoy such a large part of culture, and perhaps my interest could grow to become a profession or starting point for a future career.

Works Cited

American Art Therapy Association Newsletter. Fall 2008 Edition. Viewed November 25, 2008.

Gaboury, Dennis. ZimKids Annie Rose McGrath. 25 October/November 2008.


Litchenstein, Sue. An Introduction to Art Therapy Annie Rose McGrath. 3 November 2008.

Junge, Maxine B., and Paige P. Asawa. A History of Art Therapy in the United States. New York: American Art Therapy Association, 1994.
Landgarten, Helen B. Clinical Art Therapy: A Comprehensive Guide. Pennsylvania: Brunner/Mazel, 1981.
McNiff, Shawn. Art as Medicine: Creating a Therapy of the Imagination. Boston: Shambhala Publications, Inc., 1992.
Naumburg, M. (1966). Dynamically oriented art therapy: Its principles and practice. New York, NY: Grune & Stratton. [Reprinted in 1987. Chicago, IL: Magnolia Street]
Rose, Margery D. Childhood Revealed: Art Expressing Pain, Discovery & Hope. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Incorporated, 1999.
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