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


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. I will argue in this study that the HHAS approach engages children, first and foremost, as art makers who independently participate in their own healing process. In this sense, art helps to build on what is intact rather than to remediate what is lost. Many of the principles of the work described here will also be relevant to art education in general. A Bridge that Connects Art Therapy and Art Education

One of the central issues of this study is to define HHAS as a bridge

between art therapy and art education. Art therapy has evolved over the last 20 years as practitioners in the field acknowledge the need to bridge the gap between the two (Drachnik, 1976; Edwards, 1976; Kramer, 1980; Parashak, 1997). In his article about expressive arts therapy as alternative education, art therapist, David Henley (1997), enters a classroom of severely emotionally disturbed teenagers in an alternative education program and describes the difficulty of the art therapist in the role of the art teacher by referring to a particularly difficult student:

How were this child's issues handled therapeutically when the mission was to teach social adaptation, impulse control, and academics? …

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