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St. Francis House's expressive therapy program helps heal the poor and homeless

Posted by Laura Gomez  March 29, 2013 03:37 PM

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Rebecca Isenhart for

Donny Saarela, a landscape painter who has been using the Expressive Therapy program for about two years, examines his past work and gets ready to begin another landscape.

Efon Elad has painted more than 80 individual pieces of art over the past four years. His artistic career began for a surprising reason: he was hungry.

“I lost my job nine or ten years ago. My world came tumbling down. It was horrible,” said Elad. “I became partially a nomad.”

Elad came with a friend to St. Francis House for a meal when he noticed people coming and going from the art studio there, and he became curious about what was going on inside. The studio he walked into hosts the Expressive Therapy program, a service provided by St. Francis House to Boston’s poor and homeless community.

“Sometimes I think people perceive the art room as nothing more than arts and crafts, or they might equate it to some other experience they might have had in a school or camp setting,” said Karen LaFrazia, executive director at St. Francis House. “But beyond that, it’s a therapeutic intervention. It has always been designed to be a place of healing so that folks can grow from their current circumstances to a healthier, more productive life.”

Resident art therapist Linda Dolph said, “Art therapy is a way of communicating; it’s a kind of counseling. ”said. “Instead of using words as the primary interaction, art and images are what speak for people.”

One of Elad’s first paintings depicted a memory of disaster in his home country, Cameroon. “It was tough to get that first picture out,” he said.

But when he continued to paint, he felt himself moving forward. “It gave me new dimension: the pursuit of my passions,” he said. “I’m not going to stop. A real artist should be able to live on their art.”

Dolph said the Expressive Therapy program “gives people a different perspective on themselves, that they are artists in the world. They don’t have to define themselves as being ‘homeless’ or ‘poor.’”

In fact, a unique facet of St. Francis House’s art therapy program is that the artists do sometimes profit from their work. “Even though sales is not a necessary part of art therapy, it is a need here, in this setting, so we try to provide that for people,” Dolph said.

“There’s somewhat of a contradiction because art therapy is about the process, and not the product, necessarily,” she said. “But we end up with some really wonderful products.” Dolph facilitates the sales, and all profits go directly to the creators.

One such artist is Donny Saarela, a landscape painter who has been using the Expressive Therapy program for about two years. Saarela said he was inspired when he sold a couple of paintings at an art show two years ago. “Then I started doing more and more paintings, and people wanted them,” he said proudly.

While being paid is a perk, Saarela said he has also reaped the deeper benefits art therapy offers. “When I started coming here, I was so depressed,” he said. Painting scenery helps him identify his mood swings based on the colors he uses. Sometimes, he said, he goes back over “dreary” paintings to brighten them. “It makes me feel cheerful,” he said.

The Expressive Therapy program also encourages the creation of other, less common art forms. “We do Saori weaving, which is out of Japan, and it’s just a very forgiving, wonderful free-flowing spontaneous kind of weaving,” Dolph said. “And it’s considered that everything that goes into a weaving is just a fingerprint of the artist. So basically there are no mistakes. It’s very meditative.”

“Saori is my best friend. I love the machine,” said Angela Cartagena as she worked a colorful fiber into one of St. Francis House’s six looms. “I like to work with my hands. It brings me peace of mind; it makes me feel like my life is the whole world.” Cartagena estimated that she makes more than 100 scarves in a year, which she then sells at art shows.

Ivelisse Cribb, who has been using the Expressive Therapy program for about two years, also works with her hands. “I like making people stuff,” she said. “I did construction my whole life.” Some of her projects include purses and bags, shadow boxes, teddy bears, sculptures, and paintings.

These three-dimensional media represent a valuable inner process. “Art therapy is very much a mind-body connection,” Dolph said. “Just the action of the arms and the hands and the movement that goes into creating something can be very therapeutic, cathartic, releasing for people to do."

Guests at St. Francis House’s Expressive Art Therapy program may spend just a few hours there each morning, but the rewards last much longer. “I got my self-esteem back. I had put it in a box somewhere,” Elad said. “Every moment of my life is exciting because of this.”

St. Francis House’s Expressive Therapy artists will be showing selected works as part of the City HeArt Show.

City HeArt
May 4, 2013
11:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.
Prudential Center, 800 Boylston St.
Free admission

This article is being published under an arrangement between the Globe and Emerson College.

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