State of the State: Art is helping kids cope with the September 11 tragedy

Dec 1, 2001

Aaron Chambers
Credit WUIS/Illinois Issues

Buddy the dog split New York City after the September 11 terrorist attacks. He was scared and ran to Springfield for comfort.

That’s how a group of Springfield-area children first depicted their feelings about the attacks. It was four days after the incident, and the children, ages 8 to 11, thought the golden retriever would be better off in their hometown. They were gathered at the capital city’s airport to talk about their thoughts, and to put them into fiction. Their assignment: Write a book that would be illustrated and sold to other children.

“The early part of it was just being scared: ‘We’ve got to get away,’” says Delores Palmer, president of WeWrite Corp., the Springfield-based publishing company that ran the workshop. “That in itself is reflecting the process of coping. You’re running.”

But the children soon moved on. 

At their second workshop, held about a week later, the children changed the story line. This time, Buddy returned to New York after staying a year in Springfield.

And during their third and final meeting on the book, held about a month after the attacks, the children dropped Springfield from the picture. They had Buddy stay in New York, where he regroups and tries to help with relief efforts.

He travels the city with his owner, Shelly, after they’re evacuated from her apartment. Along the way, Buddy talks with other dogs, including a police dog, about the tasks they perform in the aftermath.

The two end up staying at a shelter, where Buddy decides he can help matters by playing with children, distracting them from watching television, and by comforting people separated from family. In the end, Buddy ventures to the attack site, where he fetches food and water for other dogs searching for victims in the rubble.

“The basic message of the story is that through everything that’s going on, you can try to help fix the situation by being part of this team that’s trying to remedy the whole thing,” says Jacqueline Goodwin, director of creative services at WeWrite. “There are so many things that you can do, even if you’re not a fire dog or a police dog or a military dog. If you’re a normal dog, or a child, there are little things that you can do to help, and that makes you feel better.”

The story is an extraordinary example of art created by kids working to cope with grief after a tragedy; children generally don’t create such a complex product as part of art therapy. Still, those children are not alone in their efforts.

Across the state, children are using art to deal with emotions related to the terrorist attacks. They’re drawing, painting, sculpting, writing and acting. It’s happening in schools, at private art centers and in workshops, such as the one conducted by WeWrite.

As a result, the kids learn to articulate, and to deal with, their thoughts and feelings. They develop their imaginations. And they learn to communicate with each other.

“In troubling times, art can be used as a therapy,” says Rhoda Pierce, executive director of the Illinois Arts Council. “Sometimes, when something tragic happens, children may not be able to express their feelings in words, but they often can alleviate their sorrow through drawing, through music, through dancing.” 

Elaine Steiner knows all about that. As assistant principal at Hitch Elementary School on Chicago’s northwest side, she feared her students weren’t sufficiently dealing with feelings related to the attacks, and she thought they should begin a dialogue.

The school gave each of about 350 students a square of cardboard, and asked them to draw or write about their thoughts on the attacks. One student drew an eagle in tears. Another drew the World Trade Center towers with a heart around them.

Parents sewed the squares together with red, white and blue yarn, and the school had the quilt laminated. It’s about 10 feet high and 12 feet wide.

“I think, unfortunately, children are not allowed to communicate as much as they should be, so I think it’s good for them to get the feelings out,” Steiner says. “I don’t think people listen to the kids enough. Adults don’t have time; parents don’t have time a lot of the time because they are working and they don’t sit down and talk to their kids and they don’t listen to them.”

Across town, staff at the Hyde Park Art Center had the same idea: Give children a forum to vent about the attacks. The South Side group opened its doors for an afternoon and offered a free workshop to children ages 6 to 11.

The kids were asked to take images from news magazines, stuffed with coverage of the attacks, and build a collage. They were asked to depict how they felt about the event, what they were thinking and what impressions they were left with.

Next, they performed a similar exercise on fresh paper. But this time they worked with magazines covering events not related to the attacks, such as National Geographic, and were asked to illustrate what the world could or should do to move toward a better future.

Finally, the children were asked to talk about their work.

“They couldn’t fully articulate what exactly they were feeling, but you could clearly see it in the images,” says Eliza Duenow, the center’s education director. “Even if they were stumbling through sentences or stuttering, as a confused 7-year-old does, saying, ‘The plane crashed, and there was the fire, and Bush was very angry and everyone was scared,’ you could tell what was sticking in them. And then they talked to each other about that: ‘Oh, I saw Bush mad too’ or ‘I saw the plane crash.’”

She says the contrast between the two collages was startling. One of the children, an 11-year-old girl, chose gray, smoke-colored images for the first exercise. In the second exercise, she used parts of bright commercial advertising, abstractions from art magazines and wilderness shots.

“She said simply that this is her art piece, that she liked making art because it made her happy, and that she liked this picture much better,” Duenow says.

Paula Kowalczyk, development director at Street-Level Youth Media, works with older, more sophisticated youth. But on the afternoon of September 11, they nevertheless showed up at the nonprofit media arts agency, which offers kids access to technology, in search of an outlet for their emotions. They came straight from school, feeling scared, and wanted to talk. So, utilizing the center’s video cameras, they started talking and filming each other.

“It’s an ongoing struggle: ‘Should they be afraid, should they not be afraid?’” Kowalczyk says. “But I think it’s definitely helpful to talk about your feelings in situations like this. It’s hard when the adults here were also feeling afraid or in shock, so it was a process that we all went through together.”

And when Traci Stanton showed up to teach an improvisation class to teenagers the Sunday immediately following the attacks, she says she had her work cut out for her in trying to motivate the students to act. They were exhausted, she says, and felt uncomfortable moving through different roles.

“At first, it’s almost as if you didn’t want to do it,” she says. “You’re afraid to laugh, you’re afraid to be funny. You felt like you shouldn’t be, that maybe you should still be sad. You know, is it really fair that I’m laughing when all these people just lost their lives?”

But in time, she says, the students rose to the occasion. Improv can be therapeutic, she says, because students are encouraged to be creative while following their true feelings.

“You don’t have to do what your boss says or be happy for the sake of the company,” she says. “You can be upset in a scene if you want to be upset, or you can be happy if you want to be happy. You get to pretend, but you don’t have to put that game face on.”

Back downstate, Nan Carlson is an art therapist and is education coordin-ator at the University Galleries of Illinois State University in Normal. After the attacks, she says, she wondered whether art teachers in high schools around the university were pushing their students to work out their feelings in class. She made some phone calls and asked the schools to send over whatever art had been produced.

She was overwhelmed by the response. One group of students showed up with a model of the Statue of Liberty, eight feet tall and four feet wide, which was plastered with media images related to the attacks.

Another student produced a cigar box with an orange interior and strings wrapped around it. “The student made a statement, saying basically that we need hope, that the strings represent different facets of who we are and how we come together as a community,” she says.

In October, Carlson co-curated a two-week exhibition featuring September 11-inspired art by students in the McLean County area. 

The work was juxtaposed by “professional” art in the university’s galleries, which are geared toward adults. And if adult visitors to the exhibition were paying attention, she says, they stood to learn something about themselves.

“If you’re a person who chooses to say ‘kids are kids and they don’t know what they’re talking about,’ you’re not going to take it in; you’re not going to take what they have to say seriously,” she says. “But if you are an open and perceptive adult, you have the oppor-tunity to take in the perspective of a person who’s in a vulnerable position. Children are really at the mercy of what adults say and do.”

As for Buddy the dog, WeWrite, the publishing company that has been funding the project, plans to release the book, War? I’m Scared!, early this month. It looks like Buddy will spend some time around Springfield after all. 

Illinois Issues, December 2001