I was an Art Therapist in Jersey City where I had helped create and build the art therapy program. One of my first groups consisted of teenagers, students with special needs, most of them were designated as emotionally disturbed. I had to come up with creative art therapy ideas to help them communicate. They had all experienced severe trauma in their lives, and their artwork told their story in a very graphic way.
One particular teenage boy I worked with was a “selective mute” who had never spoken a word at school to anyone. At the beginning of his art therapy, he made a series of pencil drawings of women being killed or tortured in a variety of ways … stabbed, strangled, drowned, even raped by faceless attackers. He was a talented artist, but his work was chilling.
I worked with this boy five days a week for three years. Very slowly, he began to change; he grew to trust me more. I never addressed his silence directly; I accepted it, and I accepted him. I let his artwork speak for him. Soon, he began to be respected by other students for his talent. He began writing poetry to go with his work. This boy always featured a female character in his drawings who wore a purple dress. She represented his alter ego whom he named Katy. He always drew Katy with blackened eyes, or with her hair, hand, or blood covering one eye. Symbolically, he seemed to want not to see what was happening to Katy; it was too painful for him, because at that time, he related more to this character than he did to his true self.
I spoke to his other teachers and the school psychologist about his case history, and learned that as a child he had lived with his mother and her boyfriend. As an adolescent, his mother’s boyfriend raped him, and rather than defending him, she threw him out of her home and sent him to live with his grandmother. Tragically, his grandmother’s boyfriend also sexually assaulted him. As a result, he went totally silent; the trauma was too great. This information explained a lot about his behavior. The school counselors tried to work with him with no success.
As he came to art therapy for 90 minutes every day, he was immersed in his artwork. Every student in my art room had his or her own table; a personal space which was not violated, not even by me. Students would invite me in to their “inner sanctum” when they were ready. My students suffered from lives out of control, and for them, the personal feeling of control they gained by having their own space was empowering.
Little by little, slowly but surely, the boy began to heal. At every session, he was able to release his rage in his drawings, and as time went by, he began to change. His demeanor became more relaxed, and even his physical appearance changed. When I first met him, his appearance made him stick out among his peers … he wore tight pants when all the other boys wore baggy ones, and he dyed his hair an odd shade of orange. By his second year with me, he began to dress like the other boys, and although he did not talk yet, he began to interact with his classmates. By the end of the second year he was an accepted member of his school community and was known for his obvious talent in art.
During the third year with him, he began to talk … in short, one word answers at first. As he began to talk to me, gradually the “wall of silence” was lifted and he also began talking to his classmates. During that year the New Jersey Education Association television program, “Classroom Close-ups NJ,” had chosen to spotlight our school. It was an amazing experience, complete with lights and cameras. The students were interviewed, telling about how art therapy had affected their lives. To my pride and amazement, this once silent boy confidently stood in front of the cameras and explained clearly how art therapy had changed him, how it had opened up his world, and brought him out of silence.
By the end of the third year with in art therapy, this young man was talking, functioning, and looking like any other teenager. An amazing transformation had taken place. He was doing well in school, talking to his friends, and even producing and directing small neighborhood productions in the apartment project where he lived. He was a different child.
At the end of his senior year, he approached me one day with a large yellow envelope … on it he had written “Mrs. K, this is it!” He asked me to open it, inside was a purple dress, neatly folded. At first, I was puzzled. Then I remembered that in his drawings, Katy, his alter ego, always wore a purple dress. I asked him to whom the dress belonged to. He answered, “me.” I asked him why he was giving it to me. He said, smiling, “Because I don’t need it anymore.” His message to me became crystal clear … he was no longer Katy. He had found his true identity, his true self… an amazing victory for him and a proud moment for me.
And that is the Power of Art Therapy.
This article was originally published in the ATCB Review Spring 2018, Volume 25, Issue 1
Ali Karamanol, ATR-BC Retired