By Sam McManis
email@example.com Published: Sunday, May. 17, 2009
Reggae music blares from the front of the classroom and, after a while, Edgar Velasco gets into it. Soulja Boy is more his style, really, but this reggae groove proves infectious, and it inspires him.
Shaggy head bobbing and dyed yellow rattail flapping to the beat, the 19-year-old from Tijuana, Mexico, wields oil pastel crayons to work on his latest artistic creation on the desk before him.
He looks up only to change colors and briefly acknowledge encouraging words from around the room.
In 10 minutes – OK, 15 tops – Velasco finishes a swirling Van Gogh of canvas, fraught with vivid purple, green and yellow circles resembling upside-down peace signs.
"This is great," says Barbara Brooks, his teacher at Shriners Hospitals for Children Northern California in Sacramento, speaking loudly over the reggae tune. "But aren't you going to do the watercolor now?"
"No. I like it like this." "Did you sign it, at least?" "Yup."
With a smile as luminous as his painting, Velasco excuses himself and wanders off. Later, he will be seen shooting pool and laughing with other kids in another part of the common area on the second-floor school that Shriners hospital provides for its patients and outpatients.
But while in the midst of creating, Velasco seemed transported from what has been an ordeal. An accident several years ago burned a significant portion of his body; the scarring is visible on his face and running up the arms he covers with a T-shirt.
Such is the power of art as therapy.
Since the early 2000s, Shriners has held a weekly art class as part of its school curriculum, providing an outlet for pediatric patients to express emotions that are not easily verbalized.
The program has been popular with patients and captivating to outsiders, so much so that the Sacramento Fine Arts Center approached Shriners officials with the idea of hosting an exhibit of student artwork. Titled "ArtSpress Yourself – A Celebration of Children's Achievements through Art," the show opens Tuesday and runs through June 6.
The public will see visual manifestations of hopes, dreams and, yes, fears that children dealing with burns, spinal-cord injuries and orthopedic conditions harbor.
"It's giving voice to people who might not necessarily have a voice," says Kathrine Lenke Waste, a Sacramento artist who helped start the program and still serves as an informal artist-in-residence.
A welcome change of pace
"When kids come into that school room, they are no longer in the hospital. It's like any other (school) room. This is a place where we make art, not a place where you get a shot or have an exam and have to take meds."
A sanctuary, as it were.
A guy like Edgar, who is bilingual, doesn't like to talk about the circumstances that sent him to Shriners. He's faced some tough issues. But his mood brightens considerably inside the classroom during the two-hour weekly art period.
"Edgar's a real perfectionist when it comes to art," Brooks says. "He puts a lot of effort into it."
On this day, the assignment Brooks put forth was "Paint What You Hear" – hence the reggae music – and Edgar was the first of the eight students to finish.
"I am better now (as an artist) than before the accident," he says. "I have more time to practice."
Indeed, given his druthers, Velasco said he'd rather be playing soccer or conversing with his friends in Mexico via e-mail on the computer in the corner of the classroom.
But would he consider himself an artist?
He pauses, looks at the painting still in Brooks' hand and says, emphatically, "Yes."
Across the way, 8-year-old Robert Bishop Smith, arms wrapped in protective bandages, looks up from the landscape of sea and sky he's sketching and shakes his head.
"I don't really do art," he says. "I color."
Participation and expression
Ability doesn't matter, of course. It's all about the participation and the expression. Hospitals can be scary and stressful places, especially for children. Art-therapy programs such as the one at Shriners try to defuse that anxiety.