Witnessing the power of art

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The Network will be in Burlington, NC on Thursday, May 10th for the “Behind the Seen: Encounters with the Contemporary Family.” Read about this exciting project in the article by Molly McGowan of the Times-News and congrats to Courtney Cormier and her crew at North Carolina Families United for their excellent work. Behind the Scenes draws its inspiration from the work of one of our Advisory Council members, Anne Ferrier, who developed the Observer Observed project in Sarasota, Florida. 

Witnessing the power of art
April 29, 2012 3:00 AM
By Molly McGowan/Times-News

artAt first glance, Kelvin Godfrey of Graham seems a little rough around the edges, like someone who’s had to be tough for too long. But his heart is soft, and belongs to his youngest child, Kelvin Christian Godfrey, 5.

It’s hard to believe that a year ago, Christian was acting out, cussing and throwing things across the room. Now, Christian uses “please” and “thank you” while interacting with Tammy Campbell, the family partner assigned to the Godfrey family through North Carolina Families United.

Zelma Enoch of Burlington has been told countless times she’s too old to be raising her 5-year-old great-grandson, Jarahzio. She said she’s heard, “You’ll be 90 when he’s out of school,” to which Enoch replies, “I sure am. And I’ll be at his graduation … Me and him got a bond that can’t be broken.”

These are just two of the four families featured in a local, upcoming art and documentary project, following family members with varying dynamics as they raise young children suffering from emotional, behavioral or mental health issues.

“Behind the Seen: Encounters with the Contemporary Family” opens May 10 and is a project intending to shed light on an age group often assumed to be unaffected by physical or mental trauma. Sixteen artists have teamed up with four local families to show, through depictions of daily life, that trauma is evident in children from birth to age 5. And more importantly, that there’s help in Alamance County.

Before the Godfreys were connected to therapists through Alamance Alliance for Children & Families and North Carolina Families United last year, Christian was throwing things, cussing and experiencing night terrors.

“When we started with this, he had been so bruised and battered by what his mom had done,” said Kelvin, explaining Christian’s mother had physically abused Kelvin first, then their son.

Kelvin said he had stayed with his ex to get her help, but had to take Christian out of the environment when his mother started being violent toward him.

“He won’t let me sleep (next) to a window to this day,” said Kelvin, explaining his ex had told Christian she was going to kill Kelvin. And the 5-year-old still has a hard time warming up to women.

But he’s learning how to express himself better, and not acting out as much.

“I’ve seen great improvements with Christian, with his behavior,” Campbell said. And, she said, “It wasn’t just Christian learning new things — it was dad learning new things, too.”

Before, Kelvin said, “I was afraid to let him out of my sight,” after Christian’s mother took him away for a week. Now, Kelvin’s learning to trust the court order banning Christian’s mother from taking him away, as well as other people entrusted to take care of his son at Pre-K, and soon, summer camp, then kindergarten next year.

Jarahzio also was abused before his great-grandmother took him in. Zelma said a few years ago, Jarahzio’s father was incarcerated and Jarahzio was living with his father’s girlfriend, visiting Zelma regularly.

“He kept coming up with a cut here … a bruise there,” she said. Zelma remembers one day when Jarahzio showed up with a large gash on his leg, and his father’s girlfriend said Jarhazio had fallen on a piece of glass; the gash was in the wrong place for that to have been the case, Zelma said.

Jarahzio also suffered from neglect. He wasn’t dressed in shoes, even when there was ice on the street, Zelma said. He wasn’t given new clothes to wear and had to wear the same outfit for a week at a time. When Zelma first took Jarahzio in, “He hoarded food,” didn’t trust anyone, and “cussed every word,” she said. When Zelma would make him hot meals, Jarahzio would hold the plate over vents in the floor to cool it because “he wasn’t used to hot food.”

Now, Jarahzio doesn’t use cuss words, is very happy and animated, and shares everything with Zelma, who he calls his mother.

“He’s a special little boy,” she said. “He loves everybody.”

Of course, that doesn’t mean he’s completely past his trauma.

“He was young when it happened,” Zelma said. “But he hasn’t forgotten it.”

Once connected to therapists through North Carolina Families United, Jarahzio started to improve, said Zelma, who was impressed by the ways counselors would sit and talk to him on his level.

“Just the way they talked to him, it changed him,” she said. “He’s a changed child.”

The Godfrey and Enoch families are just two of the four participating in the “Behind the Seen” project, but all face similar daily challenges in raising a child whose mental health has been jeopardized at a very young age.

“All four of the children have trauma-based issues,” said Courtney Cormier, project coordinator.

And each of the children has been enrolled in the Alamance County “System of Care,” through the Alamance Alliance for Children & Families and North Carolina Families United, and are linked to appropriate services and supports in the community.

“Our (federal) grant is focused on the social-emotional health of children from birth through five … and their families,” said Gary Ander, director of Alamance Alliance for Children & Families. He said that while plenty of attention is given to mental, social and behavioral problems in children six and older, the issue in young children “has not been on the community’s radar.”

Ander said the project’s intention is to “de-stigmatize mental health,” and explain that not all behavioral problems in young kids stem from bad parenting; Many times, Ander said, children act out because of deeply-rooted mental trauma from a negative social, emotional or physical experience in their pasts.

“It’s such a complex issue,” Ander said.

“Behind the Seen” was inspired by a similar project in Sarasota, Fla., called “The Observer and The Observed,” by Anne Ferrier, PhD. The difference with this one, Cormier said, is that Behind the Seen will also have interactive discussions with exhibit attendees, and will hopefully tour the state.

“A lot of our families pushed for this project to come here,” to Alamance County, said Cormier. The exhibit will be unveiled at Holly Hill Mall and Business Center on May 10, and include a documentary compiled by one of the artists. Cormier said the effect of the project will extend past the exhibit and attendees, since now the 16 artists are childhood mental health advocates after observing the families.

“(They) were part of their lives for a moment,” Cormier said.

The 16 artists involved are Adrian Schlesinger, Alfonso A. Tobar, David Weppner, Don Stewart, Donn Young, Eleatta Diver, Elyse Gambino, Krystal Fullwood, Nikki Jaeger, Justin Johnson, Mechelle LaVelle, Monique de Latour, Ray Noland, Sherry McAdams, Susan Soper and Rachel Hazlett, the videographer who is also making a documentary on the project.

Four artists were matched per family in October 2011 and have been partaking in the families’ activities since then, working to create a piece or multiple pieces illuminating various aspects of their lives.

“You kind of get a 360 (degree) observation … through the artists’ eyes,” Cormier said. Several artists are painters and photographers, while others express heir observations through music, mosaics, and textiles.

Each artist has been asked to produce one final product for the May 10 exhibition, but many are creating multiples. In fact, there are so many pieces that a second exhibition at the Alamance County Arts Council will simultaneously show the artists’ secondary work and processes.

One of the artists working with Jarahzio and Zelma is creating a quilt from clothing Jarahzio’s father left behind when he was incarcerated, adding words from his letters to the fabric. Monique de Latour, who lives in Glencoe but is from New Zealand originally, said, “when I heard his father is in prison, I wanted to make something that would bring the family together … even closer.”

De Latour said the piece, using Jarahzio’s father’s clothing will create “mana,” a Maori word for “the spirit or the essence that that object holds.”

“Objects that hold mana get passed down from one generation to the next.” de Latour’s leaving pockets on some of the clothing pieces, and plans on tucking some of Jarahzio’s father’s letters into them.

De Latour is using mostly denim and has distressed the jeans.

“That sort of is representative of the trauma that the son has been through,” she said. “And then I’m stitching it back up,” she said, which shows even though Jarahzio’s life may not be neatly arranged, it’s been put back together.

“Behind the Seen” was always intended to be a partnership between families and artists, which is perhaps epitomized by de Latour’s project.

“I really wanted to involve the whole family in the creation of it,” she said.

Zelma will be adding the batting to the quilt.

“She’s a seamstress, so she wants to do that,” de Latour said.

But several of the artists took it a step further and actually collaborated with each other, oftentimes basing some primary pieces off images another artist developed.

Nikki Jaeger, who creates mosaics and installations, wanted to make a mosaic based off a photograph taken by another artist working with the Duross family. She told photographer Donn Young that she wanted to use a photo that captures an intimate moment between mother and daughter, and he went from there.

“I used his photograph to go by and sketched the mosaic,” Jaeger said.

To create the roughly 2-foot by 3-foot mosaic, Jaeger used iridescent glass instead of black. She said its finish changes color at different angles, representing the way every family situation has many facets and looks different from multiple angles. Jaeger said the mosaic itself symbolizes how “everything can come from a broken, fractured history,” and come together as a more beautiful, finished piece

A secondary painting done by Sherry McAdams also is based on a fellow artist’s photograph. Back in October when the families met the artists for the first time, David Weppner snapped a shot of Christian interacting with Hazlett, who showed him how to use her video equipment.

Christian’s interest in the project seemed to carry over to Weppner’s work, as well.

“Christian’s a creative mind. I let him use a back-up camera,” Weppner said. “He’s created five themed panels for his final product and I tried to show the influences at the present time on Christian’s life.”

One is focused more on “first impressions,” and others go more in depth into Christian’s relationship with his father.

Some photos reflect the progression of Christian’s behavior, including one where Christian is butting his head into Kelvin’s stomach. Almost epitomizing the scope of the project, Weppner said he didn’t know if that action was caused by frustration or tenderness — he just saw the one moment.

“It’s symbolic of what his problem is, it expresses itself,” Weppner said. But, he added, “Yes, these families have problems, but in many respects they’re normal. They also have family life where things aren’t centered around the problem.”

The “Behind the Seen” exhibit will be unveiled in the center of Holly Hill Mall at 6:30 p.m. May 10. For more information on Behind the Seen, visit www.behindtheseenart.com. A secondary exhibit will be at Alamance County Arts Council at 213 South Main Street in Graham. For information on this exhibit, call (336) 226-4495.

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