Give a room full of kids a few paintbrushes and some construction paper, says art therapist Susannne Barzacchini Sheehan, and you’d be surprised how quickly they open up.
Children who’ve never met are soon sharing stories about race, divorce and culture, talking through the sorrows and difficulties of growing up.
"It’s all about the space," Sheehan says. "If I can create a respectful environment, where they respect each other and their artwork, then this becomes a safe space where they feel comfortable talking. They know no one’s going to shut them down."
Sheehan is an instructor at Connection Arts Chicago, a nonprofit organization offering year-round free art classes for kids ages 6 to 17.
Working out of a tiny classroom in Commercial Park’s fieldhouse in the West Town neighborhood, the 5-year-old organization reaches some 150 kids each year.
Sept. 15 and 16, their paintings, sculptures, sketches and snow globes will be on display at a gallery the West Loop. Professional artists such as Layne Jackson and Lee Tracy are also contributing, along with West Town Chamber of Commerce directors Kara Salgado and Matt Westfallen.
Nearly all the students come from the neighborhood, says cofounder and director Melissa Molitor--kids whose schools often lack arts programs.
"I’ve never done any art before, but I like it," says Jeremy Perez, a freckled 11-year-old.
It’s the last day of Connection Arts Chicago’s summer program, and Jeremy and his four classmates are showing off their masterpieces: miniature paintings of city scenes, "wish sticks" wrapped in crepe paper and feathers and superhero dolls made from stuffed socks, clay, buttons and cloth scraps.
"This is the ocean, all this blue," says 9-year-old Nazar Dimnych, showing his four-inch-square painting of Chicago. "And here’s the grass for people to sit down, and here’s the parking lot. That black building is the Sears Tower or whatever."
"Why is it black?" Jeremy wonders aloud, only half teasing. "Why not white or Mexican?"
Meanwhile, Nazar’s 11-year-old brother, Andy, explains the summer-long creation of Mrs. Hero, a superhero doll with electric powers.
When Sheehan asks Nazar about the origins of his superhero character Fartzan, he laughs and shrugs. "I don’t know," he says. "He’s adopted."
Molitor and her staff have worked with a number of budding artists, but "It’s not really just about art instruction," Molitor says. "We give them attention they might not be getting at school, where teachers have so many kids to look after."
Connection Arts Chicago’s exhibit runs from 1-9 p.m. Sept. 15 and 2-10 p.m. on Sept. 16 at Landmark Arts Gallery, 841 W. Randolph St., Chicago.
Call (773) 294-7051 or visit www.connectionarts.org for more information.