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Art can be an outlet, to lessen the pain of past horrors

It was the final day of the Studio Sfumato art therapy workshop. About a dozen young ladies were concluding their five-week journey of self-discovery.

Enrolled in a mentoring program at Children's Advocacy Center, the girls wielded paint-filled brushes, putting finishing touches on their self-portraits.

Earlier in the week, I'd been rocked back on my heels during conversations with Marlene Mish, the center's director, Anna Loeffler, the mentoring leader, and two of these young women.

All 13 girls are victims of child sexual abuse. People often assume the abuse is perpetrated by strangers. But most children are betrayed by trusted family friends. Or even family members, said Mish.

Today it was time to witness what could be learned about their story — and their healing — through unspoken communication.

Art has the power to enlighten and transform. But it is not only the viewer who benefits. The process of putting paint to paper can change the artist's life, as well.

I used to teach watercolor painting. The classes were free-wheeling and fun, once we broke through some childhood dramas.

Many of my students had "teachers" in their past who'd scared them off of their artistic path. Yearning to reconnect with their inner artist, the women in my classes (and sometimes the men, too) were haunted by the acts of adults who'd abused their positions of authority.

"I can't," one middle-aged woman said. "I'm horrible. My middle-school teacher told me I shouldn't even be allowed to hold a brush in my hand."

Her eyes still shimmered with tears at a decades-old memory.

I could relate. My high-school music instructor, frustrated at my inability to overcome a case of stage fright, popped me in the stomach one day and screamed in my face.

"God should never have given you that voice," she shouted. "You'll never put it to any good use."


Adults should be careful of what they say and do to a child. The pain they inflict could come back to haunt them. Sometimes the child finds a way to flip the pain around and use it to help others.

"It's only paint, pigment and a little water," I assured her. "It's not like we're performing brain surgery. Besides, there is no right or wrong in art."

Mostly, I urged the woman not to let some old biddy's misery block her own joy.

"She's probably dead by now anyway, bless her bitter little heart," I said.

Our teachers' artistic lashings pale in comparison to the abuse these girls have endured. Imagine having your life ripped apart by someone stalking your innocence because they can. Because they're bigger, stronger. Imagine if that person were your own father.

Some of the older girls' paintings portray indomitable spirits depicted in a joyous riot of color. One teen had always used music to express her feelings before the workshop. But painting was opening her up in different ways, she said.

"I didn't know I would like it so much," she said. "It's calming. But it's also exciting."

Painting allowed one tomboy to lose herself in a peaceful place. It brought back memories of wonderful times shared with family members.

"Before ... " she said.

If you look closely, there is a certain sadness in the eyes of many of the self-portraits. Sometimes there is fear. One young girl's single, tear-filled orb peering through prison-like bars illuminates the heart-wrenching pain and betrayal of sexual abuse.

No one has the right to make themselves feel powerful at the expense of another's soul.

I've been pondering teaching art workshops again, to help young girls understand what another teen survivor told me: "They can feed you the poison. But you don't have to keep drinking it."

Reach reporter SanneSpecht at 776-4497 or e-mail sspecht@mailtribune.com.