By Marianne Szegedy-Maszak
crayon portrait of a weeping Statue of Liberty. Two construction paper children, tears dropping from their cheeks, hold a MISSING poster with a photograph of Police Officer Jerome Dominguez. Pictures of burning towers, of firefighters, of people flying out of buildings. Images of revenge and vulnerability, yes, but also of resilience and hope.
Art serves many purposes, but after September 11, none was more crucial than its therapeutic value for children. "Art as healing happened everywhere, spontaneously," says Shaun McNiff, the president of the American Art Therapy Association. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, schoolteachers across the country encouraged children to start art projects. The very process of creating art, as Salt Lake City art therapist Cathy Malchiodi explains, "prompts children to tell more than they would if you just talked about it." And for adults, children's art offers both a window into children's emotions and a particular kind of reassurance.
Art therapists say that by reflecting on both the creative process and the art itself, children gain control or deeper understanding of their own emotions. For some, this leads to recovery; others experience, if not a literal recovery, at least a greater sense of well-being. "When you know you can erase something, cover something over, rip it up and throw it away, these are all kinds of small, metaphoric expressions of having control," says psychotherapist and art therapist Ani Buk.
Consider 9-year-old Laura Salerno. She experienced no immediate loss, but her surrounding Staten Island community suffered enormously. As part of an art project sponsored by the group Freedom From Fear, Salerno drew an elaborate picture of two women, one with eyes closed, the other with eyes open, one standing on a staircase, the other on a pedestal. They are flanked by tall buildings and an American flag. She explains that one of the girls in the picture is about to cry while they are talking about how much they love America. The staircase, she explains, goes directly to heaven, and these girls are children who lost members of their family. "I felt so sad and so happy when I drew this," she says. "I expressed all my feelings in this picture and got them all out."
No one else could have provided this narrative to Laura's pictureand experts believe letting the kids explain their images is another important element of the process. Says McNiff: "If you really want to understand what is going on in a child's mind and really understand the child's reaction to a work of art, ask the child. Don't project your interpretation on the drawing, but instead use it as a stimulus for further engagement."
Lenore Terr, a psychiatrist who has studied children's trauma in disasters, sees a progression in the images from 9/11. Initially they reflected a heightened sense of fear, with pictures of people falling out of buildings, for example, or terrible fires. Later, children attempted to make sense of the event. They made maps of the world and wrote the question, "Why did this happen?" Finally, children attempted to correct for what occurred and drew firetrucks, patriotic symbols, or pictures of the World Trade Center towers still standing. One picture from a New York elementary schooler showed children and dinosaurs rebuilding the city.
In the aftermath of 9/11, kids' art has popped up all over the country, for the benefit of children and adults alike. The New York University Child Study Center and the Museum of the City of New York sponsored an areawide art project that has become both an exhibit and a book, The Day Our World Changed: Children's Art of 9/11.
Last November, Miami International Airport introduced an exhibit of children's art with contributions by students in Los Angeles and Oakland, Calif., "to offer travelers an uplifting sense of comfort and unity through the eyes of the nation's children." Since then, a children's 9/11 art exhibit has appeared in the Boston and Chicago airports. Early this year, the Internation- al Child Art Foundation published a special "Peace & Healing" issue of ChildArt magazine in order to "help in the healing of our nation at this time of ongoing crisis." On the Web, dozens of organizations have sponsored projects for children's art concerning 9/11.
Every day the firefighters at Rescue 5a Staten Island firehouse that lost 13 men at ground zerosee the art from children nationwide thanking them for their heroism. "We don't have enough room for everything ... " says Capt. John Ferry. "It meant a lot to all of us here to see this." There is something about the almost primitive quality of children's art, experts say, that touches basic emotions. Its appeal emerges from the directness of its emotional content. Psychiatrist Terr says children's art "bypasses sophisticated intellectualizations" and thus communicates something elemental about the tragedy. But it also recalls the simple but soothing comfort of sitting down with crayons and a blank piece of papereven when something terrible has happened.