Art therapy sessions at library center on Emanuel tragedy

Art therapy sessions at library center on Emanuel tragedy

At the Charleston County Public Library on Calhoun Street, there’s a little coloring and a whole lot of healing taking place. Three times a week, a group gathers in the story room. There’s not too much conversation taking place. The participants range in age from 4 to 70.

Why are they coloring and what possible common thread could attract preschool children and senior citizens alike? It all has to do with what happened on that same street, barely a block and a half away, just a couple of months ago.

When nine people died in Emanuel AME Church at the hands of a gunman, the eyes of the world shed tears with Charleston. Just a few days after that tragedy, four women felt they needed to help. More specifically, they wanted to help Charlestonians heal.

These four are Dr. Sharon Martin, psychotherapist; Dr. Deborah Milling, psychiatrist; Dianne Tennyson Vincent, art therapist; and Laura De La Maza, an art teacher. They believed people of Greater Charleston would need a vehicle to identify their feelings. It would be necessary to find a path that promoted healing and self-discovery. It was determined that the arts could heal the hearts.

Color my world

In early July, art therapy sessions started in the library. They will continue until the end of September, free of charge. The program is called “heArts Mend Hearts.”

As a teacher for 36 years, De La Maza used art to help children in the area after Hurricane Hugo. “I know this works.”

Dianne Tennyson Vincent, an art therapist for 14 years, has worked with people in war-torn countries such as Bosnia and earthquake victims in Haiti. “Art therapy breaks through trauma,” Vincent says.

What no one really knew, though, is how many might actually come to the library to participate.

So far, some sessions consisted of barely a handful of people who weren’t really aware of the emotions deep inside. Other gatherings have included groups totaling close to 20.

Some participants have been relatives of those who died, some were co-workers, others were young children who had a relationship with their librarian, “Miss Cynthia.”

The sessions have nothing to do with artistic skill and everything to do with hope and help.

The therapy begins with the drawing of a mandala, known as a healing circle. Drawing a circle establishes order, a sense of place.

In those circles emerged various images. One drawing depicts a lighthouse shining from Charleston. Another depicts the sun coming up on the Battery. On one sheet, a broken heart rests next to the letters RIP. Not too far away, multiple crayons draw a rainbow-colored hand.

Every drawing indicates deep-seated feelings that the person often can’t verbalize.

Powerful images
Each session at the library results in another moment of self-discovery. There are no right or wrong drawings. As the art teacher De La Maza says, “They’re not being graded.”

But there are definite revelations.

A 32-year-old daughter of one of the victims simply drew a church in the center of her circle because she still wanted Charleston to be known as the “Holy City.”

A 4-year-old girl who knew librarian Cynthia Hurd kept asking her mother where “Miss Cynthia” was. She would later draw a rocket ship carrying Miss Cynthia to heaven.

Every stroke of a crayon or colored pencil shares something from the subconscious. One specifically sticks in my mind. Drawn by an African-American woman who brought her daughter to a session, her art reveals this: On one side of the circle, a mother and daughter walk to church during a storm, with dark clouds, lightning and rain. On the other side, the church is bathed in sunshine, after the darkness is chased away. This is powerful imagery, as a mother and a daughter fear going to church, only to realize that love can overcome those storms of evil and hatred.

Fears and feelings often bury themselves during traumatic occasions. At the moment, an opportunity to heal and find hope is available just down the street from where it all happened, simply by having the courage to pick up a crayon.

Reach Warren Peper at

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