Art Therapy Helps New Yorkers Cope with Trauma from 9/11

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Ronalda Nicholas stood next to her mixed-media collage. On it, flames constructed from yellow, red, orange and black paper engulf two gray towers. Dark colors shaped like binoculars, a hand and eyes obscure a bright blue sky and glowing sun. Nicholas, who said she has had no professional art training, said the image took her over a year to complete.

“When I started art therapy, I knew I wanted to express that moment,” she said. “But the fear of it was greater than being able to do it.” Nicholas said that when she finally finished the piece, she felt the same as someone who climbed Mt. Everest.

On Wednesday morning, while thousands gathered at ground zero to commemorate the 12th anniversary of 9/11, Bellevue Hospital set up a memorial art exhibit in the lobby of its building. The temporary gallery, entitled Shifting Clouds, featured illustrations, paintings and 3-D pieces created by World Trade Center Environmental Health Center’s art therapy patients like Nicholas who come seeking solace from the trauma of the attacks.

“Aside from prayer and my faith, art therapy has been the only program that has helped me tremendously,” said Nicholas, who has attended sessions nearly every week for about two years.

On 9/11, Nicholas said that she was in midtown and watched the attacks using strong binoculars. She said her mother and son were two blocks away from the Twin Towers.

“As I was looking at the first tower and thinking about the flames, the other plane crashed.” She paused, fighting back emotions. “It was totally surreal.”

Another patient whose works were on display, Maria Segaline, said she started experiencing shortness of breath and itchy eyes after working long hours near ground zero as an air-sample technician. Making art to express her emotions about the physical and psychological effects of 9/11 has changed her life, she said. She said art therapy has even helped her remember to take her medication.

“Art makes me happy and helps me to move forward with my life,” said Segaline through a hospital translator in Spanish. She had numerous pieces at the show, including several paintings, sets of jewelry and figurines, and said she has been a patient since 2006.

The women’s art therapist and organizer of the exhibit, Irene Rosner-David, said that unlike curating other art shows, where works are chosen based solely on quality, she picked pieces based on their evocativeness.

“Mental health teams will identify patients for art therapy. Many have difficult expressing feelings verbally,” said Rosner-David. Making art helps them control self-esteem, she said. “It’s a way to externalize the trauma.”

According to the American Art Therapy Association’s website, people who have experienced challenges in living can cope with traumatic experiences by making art with the assistance of a professional counselor. But, the therapeutic effects of creative expression seem to exist even without a professional counselor.

One visitor to the Shifting Clouds exhibit, Jim Donohue, said he does drawings of 9/11 too. When he saw Ronalda Nicholas’ artwork of the Twin Towers in flames, he said the hairs of his arms “came up a little bit.”

Ronalda Nicholas was one of about a dozen World Trade Center Environmental Health Center's art therapy patients whose work was featured in a 9/11 memorial art at Bellevue Hospital.

Ronalda Nicholas was one of about a dozen World Trade Center Environmental Health Center’s art therapy patients whose work was featured in a 9/11 memorial art at Bellevue Hospital. (Photo: Hope King/NY City Lens)

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