Pictures of healing

Six months passed without the counselor getting to the source of the family’s problems. Then when art therapist Paige Asawa, Ph.D., was brought in as a consultant, what the wife drew in a series of pictures supported the suspicion that something unspoken was going on.

The couple and their child were instructed to draw themselves on the same large paper, and in the first drawing, the mother drew herself in a bubble at the edge.

That sparked something for Asawa, who is director of the Helen B. Landgarten Art Therapy Clinic at Loyola Marymount University (LMU) in Los Angeles, a licensed marriage and family therapist, and a registered art therapist.

“I thought that was very interesting,” she said. “As the drawings progressed, the grass that she was drawing underneath her portion of the paper kept getting progressively aggressive, from tiny little grass to huge blades of grass undulating on each page. In the final drawing of them doing something together, the father eliminated the mother entirely. I advised the primary therapist to talk to her alone. It turned out that there was domestic violence, and the therapist had no idea.

“So art is a way of giving a voice to the unspeakable experiences of life.”

The clinic reflects LMU’s culture of service and core values of commitment to the community, Asawa said.

“There’s an emphasis on really addressing social injustices and supporting human dignity. The clinic flows from that faith perspective and is in concert with the academic excellence and transformative experiences for everyone involved in the LMU community.”

Art therapy’s goal

The center was founded 10 years ago by the late Helen B. Landgarten, a pioneer in art therapy and founder of LMU’s Graduate Department of Marital and Family Therapy.

“The students are an integral part of the clinic on several levels,” Asawa said. “They participate in the Art First Trauma Training and Response Program by engaging in the training and also responding to traumatic events and disasters. They participate in the Thomas Riley Program by providing group and individual treatment as students, then again when they graduate as fellows.”

Art as 'A Spark of Hope'
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Students participate in evaluating the programs in their second-year research projects, and the practicum support program enables them to provide clinical services in the community.

“Helen was my mentor,” Asawa said. “She really had a vision for providing pro bono art therapy services to underserved populations. She was an artist, and she was among the first art therapists on the West Coast.”

Art therapy is a specialty in counseling services that uses art material in the therapeutic process.

“The goal is to address whatever obstacles of stressors that are preventing that person from living a happy and productive life,” she said. “People have many events or experiences that become sticking points and may prevent them from progressing. They may not even be aware of what that is. The art helps to tap in to that unconscious realm and provides a venue for that material to surface. Then it becomes visible to that person, and they recognize it for what it is.”


The need for the center emerged years before it was founded. Requests kept coming to the department, and Barbara Minton, an English teacher and outreach coordinator at Thomas Riley High School in Los Angeles, was persistent for a decade.

The school for pregnant and parenting girls tried several programs that weren’t as successful as when an LMU student introduced an arts-therapy program.

“My students have so many emotions that they want and need to express, and expressing them means healing,” Minton said. “But they don’t have a lot of verbal agility. If they can write it or draw it and let it out of them, they know that this is the way to heal.”

Courtesy photo

The clinical program at Loyola Marymount kicked off with a project for the Thomas Riley students. It was facilitated by Landgarten and Judy Flesh and has been held at the LMU campus.

“I want the girls to see another world,” Minton said. “I want them to experience college and where they could envision themselves being. The idea was to take them to a sacred space to take their minds off everything.”

The students face issues with their families and the fathers of their babies. Some girls were impregnated through rape or incest.

“It’s very rare for them to consider adoption,” Minton said. “They feel that the child is a blessing from God, regardless of the circumstances. They want to be good parents, and they want to give their children the best they possibly can. They are survivors.”

One girl who had been homeless drew a picture of clouds over a house and tree with herself “scared and alone” sitting out in the rain. “Now I have a place to talk about my problems, and [I] have learned that even though there is darkness, people are there to help me.”

Minton calls the school’s partnership with LMU “lifesaving” for the students who experience the complexity of poverty, gangs, society and now parenting.

“The girls are an inspiration,” she said. “I thank God for this program. It works and the kids feel loved.”

‘Connecting through hearts’

The trauma program has several modules for people affected by house or apartment fires, wildfires, flooding and other disasters. LMU graduate Sandra Shields is senior disaster services analyst for the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health Emergency Outreach and Triage.

Courtesy photo

“LMU can deploy students and alumni to Child Friendly Spaces, a program of Save The Children, so that children have a place to play and draw while their parents work on recovering,” she said. “The children use the therapeutic art to express what happened to them.”

One boy drew a picture of a “fire hero” to protect families.

In the New Directions for Veterans program, one man made a spring from pipe cleaners to illustrate his resiliency to spring back. A woman who joined the military to escape violence and childhood trauma had returned to violence. She drew herself sitting and hugging her knees.

“Now I can start a new story,” she wrote.

The Resilient and Ready school-based program provides opportunities for at-risk youth to visualize and tap into their innate resiliency.

“It’s about creating universality, the idea that ‘I’m not alone in this struggle,’” Asawa said. “It’s about identifying with what you’re saying and connecting through hearts.”

Maryann Gogniat Eidemiller writes from Pennsylvania.

Read more of the articles from the Fall college section here.