“Firefly Illuminations,” the exhibit created by the students at Carson Valley Children’s Aid in Flourtown, will be at the Helen Millard Children’s Gallery at Woodmere Art Museum through Feb. 22. (Photo by Sam Fritch)

“Firefly Illuminations,” the exhibit created by the students at Carson Valley Children’s Aid in Flourtown, will be at the Helen Millard Children’s Gallery at Woodmere Art Museum through Feb. 22. (Photo by Sam Fritch)

by Lou Mancinelli

If repression leads to angst or worse, then perhaps expressing that angst can heal. For more than 40,000 years humans across countless generations have used art as a way of making sense of their place in the world.

“Firefly Illuminations” is a collection of work created by teenage artists as a form of healing. Since 2013 a group of girls from Carson Valley Children’s Aid (CVCA) in Flourtown who have been through traumatic experiences have worked under the guidance of Dr. Lisa Kay, art therapist and art educator at Tyler School of Art and a Mt. Airy resident.

On exhibit through Feb. 22 at Woodmere Art Museum’s Helen Millard Children’s Gallery, 9201 Germantown Ave., the pieces give a voice to girls who may even have faced the kind of trauma that comes with the murder or incarceration of a parent. Emotional or physical abuse in some cases have led to the girls winding up at Carson Valley, a school that works with troubled adolescents.

For the girls, creating the work builds self-esteem. It’s observed in little hints, the attention of the girls while they work and the sincerity they bring to it. At its simplest, these are young girls, 15 to 18 — almost women — whose lives have landed them in a situation where they desperately need help.

The artwork is a way for the girls to talk about what has gone wrong. It’s a way to draw meaning from chaotic, disturbing experiences. A way to understand and define who they are. With the work, Kay has the girls explore different themes and revisit crucial moments and memories in their lives.

“Someone else’s story could be your own,” said Audrey Flack, the “artist name” (pseudonym) used by one of the girls. “Somebody’s story can be different, but you never know until they express their feelings and themselves freely.”

“I learned that everything may not be my fault,” said Gunta Stolzi, another student. “I got it out; my heart healed.”

For CVCA therapist Denise Wolf, the project has been an immediate success, more than just getting the girls to create art. At first some of the girls were resentful. They showed up late and didn’t want to participate. One withdrew into herself, essentially opting out. “Now she’s there on time. She’s excited,” Wolf said. “She’s invested. I’ve seen the transformation.”

“My Dad,” one of the paintings in the exhibit, was created by D.A., whose “artist name” is Eva Hesse. (Only each girl’s initials and the female artist's pseudonym, which each girl selected, are provided by the school.)

“My Dad,” one of the paintings in the exhibit, was created by D.A., whose “artist name” is Eva Hesse. (Only each girl’s initials and the female artist’s pseudonym, which each girl selected, are provided by the school.)

For the past 30 years, Dr. Kay has made a career of bringing about that transformation, bridging art education and art therapy. As an art educator, she teaches the next generation of classroom and local art center teachers. The collaboration at Carson Valley is part of her research, exploring how art works on a therapeutic level. Kay has worked collaboratively with many professionals including special educators, occupational therapists, speech therapists, recreational therapists, social workers and psychiatrists.

A former Fulbright Scholar who earned her doctorate from Northern Illinois University, Dr. Kay’s work now is providing art teachers with a different perspective on how to connect with students, one that’s self-reflective and empathetic.

“I bridge both worlds,” she said. “I’m not educating teachers to be therapists to analyze artwork … But having that therapeutic lens can be helpful. There’s a spectrum of trauma.” It could be “the trauma of poverty” or violence in the community.

In Wolf, herself an art therapist, Kay found a like-minded thinker. “Art making is intrinsically healing,” Wolf said, explaining why CVCA was willing to try the class. “Let’s create something that has evidence that public teachers can use … It takes what I know … and puts some facts and figures and hard data behind it. Resilience is the buzz word right now in mental health.”

Therapists want to know what qualities successful adults who’ve overcome devastating hardships have demonstrated. This program is developing resilience in the girls and building character and confidence.

Wolf talked about one of the girls who was back and forth about inviting her parents to the current exhibition. Her relationship with them is on and off, but the girl finally decided to invite them. “That says something about her level of pride … These kids just light up,” Kay said about the girls seeing their work on the walls of a real museum.

“I learned to express myself instead of holding everything in,” said a girl whose “artist name” is Frida Kahlo. “I learned to let it out.”

There will be a reception for the artists Thursday, Feb. 12, 3:30 to 5:30 p.m., at Woodmere. More information at 215-247-0476 or www.woodmereartmuseum.org.

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