Nonprofit uses art to help students cope with violence

In Room 219 at Steinmetz High School in Chicago’s Belmont Cragin neighborhood, six girls are engaging in an art therapy exercise called Model Magic.

The participants mold and sculpt clay representing how they are feeling about themselves. During the exercise, the girls try to figure out what each other is trying to make.

After everyone offers a guess, the sculptor talks about the clay expression of her feelings.

The session is run by Gwenn Waldman, a veteran art therapist, who heads Art Therapy Connection, a nonprofit organization founded in 2002 that uses art to connect troubled kids with their emotions. 

Kids in the 34-week program have faced problems ranging from abusive homes to post-traumatic stress disorder after having witnessed or experienced violence.

“There are students who are walking the halls of Chicago Public Schools who have experienced violence, have witnessed it and have heard about it in their families." Waldman says. "They’re affected by it. And, then they’re expected to come to school and do their homework and participate when they have all this stuff going on. Does anybody understand that these kids are living in environments that are not conducive to success and learning?”

Art Therapy Connection’s curriculum helps troubled students learn about problem solving and how to develop coping skills. 

Chicago Public Schools officials, including Stephen Ngo, assistant vice principal of Steinmetz, say they see a difference in the behavior of students in the program. Ngo says that they perform better academically once their social/emotional issues after working out their issues.

"They have helped a number of students deal with their emotional and social issues," says Ngo of Art Therapy Connection. "It would be great if the program could be expanded throughout CPS because their work could benefit so many other students." 

At Steinmetz, Room 219 serves as a safe haven for children to save, display and talk about their artwork. Classical music plays softly in the background and the walls are decorated with murals drawn by students.

“In every room, we have an anger and frustration wall," Waldman says. "It’s an anonymous way for kids to post their frustrations in a safe environment.”

A breakthrough, as Waldman defines it, is when participants are able to open up and discuss their feelings and how they see themselves. Waldman says the difference between art and talk therapy is that participants are able to document their emotions to reflect upon later.

Crystal (the students' last names are being withheld by the Daily News to protect their identities) is a 15-year-old ninth grader at Steinmetz. She says that a teacher suggested she attend Art Therapy Connection after experiencing some parental tension at home.

“I haven’t started working on that particular problem yet, but it opens my eyes to different ways of seeing things,” says Crystal, who wants to go to Princeton University and become a lawyer.

Another Steinmetz student in the program, Roshely, 14, describes herself as "a ticking time bomb.” The ninth-grader says that she used to have explosive arguments with her teachers.

Now, Roshely says, “I think about things before I do them. I’m learning how to control my anger.”

Roshely says she enjoys art therapy because it’s interesting and allows her to express her feelings how and when she wants.

"When somebody gets me mad, you have to be patient with them as much as I want them to be patient with me,” she says.

ATC also operates at Jenner Academy of the Arts in Cabrini Green; National Teachers Academy, next to Harold Ickes public housing in the South Loop; the Henson School in North Lawndale and North Lawndale Community Academy.

The organization is holding a fundraiser Saturday.