Painting Their Way Out: Profiles of Adolescent Art Practice at the Harlem Hospital Horizon Art Studio

By Wexler, Alice | Studies in Art Education, Summer 2002 | Go to article overview

Painting Their Way Out: Profiles of Adolescent Art Practice at the Harlem Hospital Horizon Art Studio


Wexler, Alice, Studies in Art Education


This article addresses a need of increasing importance: adolescents with disabilities have few opportunities to come to terms with illness and the isolation it often brings. This need is particularly urgent for children in America's inner cities, where poverty and lack of resources further exacerbates illness and isolation. The article describes how the Harlem Horizon Art Studio (HHAS) addresses these needs with an approach to painting with young people that falls between art education and art therapy. The purpose of this article is to help art educators reach this population more effectively by examining how adolescents find solutions to both artistic and physical problems with minimal intervention. Two case studies are offered as examples of what youngsters at HHAS experience as significant change as they challenge their daily obstacles by making art.

The more personal and introspective an artwork is, the more universal it becomes. Artists go into the inner world-the world of the imagination-to discover not only themselves but the unchanging essences of humanity. (T. Berlant cited in Clothier, 1991, p. 113)

Children and adolescents who suffer life-long trauma from serious injury and devastating illness require special attention in their treatment, particularly because their level of mental and emotional maturity presents particular problems (Plank, 1962). Depending on the severity of disability, children and adolescents suffer both physical and psychic separation from family, friends, and school-separation that interrupts crucial growth. Identity crisis, for example, is a normal and predictable developmental event and is usually supported within the context in which the young person lives (Burton, 2000; Churchill, 1970; Csikszentmihalyi & Larson, 1984). In the face of hospitalization and trauma, however, self begins to fragment even further, and the adolescent often returns to dependence. But this time the object of dependence is not a parent or caretaker, but the hospital which, paradoxically, provides security but also creates anxiety.

Art has played a therapeutic role in hospitals by engaging youngsters with purposeful activity. One will commonly find a form of art therapy in an institutional setting. However, as children who were once educated in institutions or self-contained classrooms are mainstreamed into the public schools and the regular classroom, the boundaries that separate therapy and education have become unclear. Although the mainstreaming of children with special needs is not the focus of this study, it is the cause for discussion about the intersection between art therapy and art education, which is significant to this research.

The purpose of this study is to look at how an art studio in the Harlem Hospital Center, the Harlem Horizon Art Studio ( HHAS), has contributed to this history by diverging from traditional practices of both art therapy and art education.1 With the help of its founder and first director, Bill Richards, youngsters at HHAS are making peace with cerebral palsy, spina bifida, paraplegia, quadriplegia, and an assortment of traumatic injuries, by learning to paint. Painting teaches them how to work through their losses, take ownership of their health and, as often depicted in their paintings, envision a better life than the one that has been offered thus far. With the support and encouragement of adult mentors, they build a peer community with other young artists that supplements their often impoverished family and social lives. The significance of creating a peer community in an art studio of serious young artists with disabilities is that educators and therapists often view children with disabilities as damaged, and therefore, employ strategies that fix what has been broken (Kivnick & Erikson, 1983). One way to challenge that view is to broaden the current knowledge base about the power of children's artwork. In doing so, the foremost purpose of art-to communicate experience-might be reclaimed in the education of children with special needs. …

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