At an annual picnic for a therapeutic foster care unit, foster children, their bio and foster siblings, all generations of foster families, and all unit staff members come together for a day of fun: swimming, horse rides, baseball, barbeque, and a community art project for all ages. This is art therapy in a different sense, an art project that’s a fun and healing happening. In this particular unit, the children fare better when they work individually, so this year each person there is given a paper mâche mask to paint and decorate.
The resulting masks, each one highly unique, are hung on a wall, gallery-style, in the front window of the agency in midtown Manhattan. Children coming to agency appointments proudly lead others to see their work and admire the work of others. Staff members regularly comment that it makes their day to see the masks as they pass them going into work. Passersby are so taken with the masks that they come in off the street to ask if they are for sale. They are tangible works of beauty, and everyone who participates or witnesses the works knows that they are also a triumph of something much bigger.
Children in foster care commonly struggle with extreme feelings of isolation, with the feeling that they are different, that they are not a part of the world. Seeing their work as part of a whole can be a very powerful experience. Community art events have the potential to create a culture of fun, acceptance, and accomplishment. A group project can be a metaphor for a community that shares space and supplies; that helps neighbors with support, encouragement, suggestions, or an extra hand; that values the contributions of all. Community members experience real joy in seeing the beauty of a communal creation that has been assembled from their individual contributions.