Can art fix a bruised heart

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November 29, 2004 // UPDATED 4:46 pm - April 25, 2007
By: Britt Johnsen
Britt Johnsen

How a Downtown group helps abused kids express emotion through creativity

At a luncheon this month, a cryptic card sat on a table. With a bright pink background, the card showed a girl wearing a wide, gap-toothed grin. "Meet 'Cassidy,'" the card read. Opening the card reveals a story no one would suspect from an innocent-looking 11-year-old.

From age 4 to 9, Cassidy (not her real name) endured physical and sexual abuse from her father. He taught her to lie about her bloody noses. He taught her to lie about why she could not sit down after riding in a car with him. Fortunately, not everyone believed her, and child protective services took her to a safer place, the card read.

That safer place, in some ways, is through Downtown. Free Arts Minnesota, 112 N. 3rd St. Suite 201, helps children such as Cassidy heal -- through art. The nonprofit is the only one in Minnesota that concentrates solely on creativity as therapy for abuse.

The group's executive director, Michelle Silverman, is one of three Downtown staffers coordinating more than 200 volunteers who help over 1,400 Twin Cities children.

There is no shortage of kids in need. Silverman said 7,800 cases of child abuse are confirmed each year in the metro area. However, she added that 25,000 cases are reported in Minnesota each year, and perhaps seven times that many are undocumented for other causes such as verbal abuse.

"You can't really take a picture of a bruised heart," Silverman said. "Just because a case isn't confirmed doesn't mean abuse isn't in fact there."

The creative process

One Tuesday afternoon at Bridges, an elementary school where Free Arts volunteers work, "Carrie" (also not her real name) joined a group of kids making "spin-art" turkeys out of paper plates.

Carrie wore white, bow-shaped hair clips in her hair. One person working at the school said the 8-year-old's mom is now in jail and likely doesn't know where her daughter is.

Carrie concentrated hard as her small fingers gripped the plastic spinner, twisting it as hard and fast as she could. She splattered colors of red, blue and green that graced her turkey -- and her shirt.

Whether it's making turkeys, or writing poetry, Free Arts program director Kristin Schurrer believes the creative process can safely unlock emotion in kids who commonly turn to violence given their life experience.

"It helps them from expressing themselves in unhealthy ways," she said. "A lot of them have never known they could write a poem when they're angry...or sculpt something and smash it again."

Free Arts board member Katherine Werner, who volunteers every Tuesday, said many people take these forms of expression for granted. They don't stop and think that some kids have never picked up a paintbrush or been given a chance to draw a picture. For abused children, the opportunity to express themselves builds confidence and a gives them sense of achievement.

"They can play with clay, they can draw, they can make a mess - and it's OK," Werner said.

Silverman said these kids, no matter what age they are, need the chance to be heard and recognized -- one step to healing.

"Life is really made up of a lot of little experience, not just the big ones," she said.

Volunteers also benefit. Jill Eckhoff-King works for a store called P.O.S.H., which was located in the Warehouse District until September. She was going through her own personal traumas when she started volunteering last year. Two kids in her extended family were in an abusive situation where she couldn't help much. But volunteering is a way to help others.

Marc Headrick, a volunteer and employee at a Loring Park architecture firm, said his volunteering is a societal contribution. He hopes the influence extends to school systems, which Headrick said could be part of a negative cycle. Schools often think abuse is the parent's problem to deal with -- even when the parent is the one causing the problem.

Many kids "don't have people they can count on," he said. "They're not interested in school. No one asks them. No one cares. They need someone that cares, and I don't think people realize it."

The experience has also been a way for Headrick to give back. He said he's been extremely lucky in his life, with a nurturing family and good education.

Free Arts board chair Werner said she has learned a lot from children and their creativity.

"They amaze me every time," said Werner, 50, who because of the experience is going back to school for child psychology at Metro State University. "I can't hold a candle to these kids."

Volunteer challenges

Founded in 1997, Free Arts Minnesota partners with 12 area facilities and 28 programs overall. The idea for Free Arts began in Los Angeles, and has spread throughout the country. It now exists in New York City and in Arizona as well. Volunteers usually commit to 32 weeks straight of helping children.

Those who help commonly face challenges. One of Headrick's is that he's male -- the same gender as some abusers.

Werner said for many volunteers, one difficult aspect is not knowing what effect they've had on a child.

"The kids come and they go," she said. "You never really know. You just have to trust the process."

You have to earn a child's respect and trust, because they don't know if you're going to abandon them, Werner said

"They're so surprised to see you, they don't believe you," she said. "Why should they? Everyone else has failed them."

To keep helping, Free Arts must constantly raise funds. They raise money from their annual luncheons and other private donations. It usually costs the group between $5,000 and $10,000 for programming at each facility. There are currently 600 children waiting to get into facilities, and 25 facilities around the Twin Cities waiting for funding from Free Arts, Silverman said. And Free Arts Minnesota is always in need of more art supplies, more donations, and more volunteers, she said.

Eckhoff-King said giving starts with smallest contributions. Her life is very busy, and she can't usually contribute much more than one hour per week. However, five minutes of a child not crying is a success.

"It's all in little steps," she said.

Editor's note: Free Arts Minnesota received consent forms from parents or legal guardians of children pictured in this story.