To Bosnia, With Love
A local art therapist takes her curative skills to the Balkans.
Thursday, September 27, 2001
Art in the Right Place: Rowan Wolnick, right, has been to Albania once and Bosnia twice on missions to bring art therapy to children of the battle-scarred region. Above left, students from the town of Gorazde.It''s not the typical dog, cat, mommy and daddy art, however. One child''s drawing shows a truck running over a dead body. Another''s, a skull and crossbones. Wolnick, an art therapist who volunteers her skills in the Balkans, has seen children draw chalk "rabbits" on shot-up buildings (the bullet holes are the eyes) and, as they played soccer with crumpled bits of paper, heard kids talk wistfully of the ball they once had before all the fighting.
For all the horror she''s encountered, Wolnick is a true believer in the healing power of art. Her particular passion is ArtReach, a nonprofit Atlanta-based foundation that offers art therapy training to teachers and children in countries recovering from war and natural disasters. Wolnick, an LA transplant who has a private practice in Monterey, got her first taste of working with victims of war in 1997 when a friend working in Albania volunteered Wolnick''s art therapy skills to help kids in the classrooms of the shell-shocked country.
Reluctant to go, Wolnick found Albanian schools riddled with bullet holes and kids traumatized from hiding out from tanks for two months. Believing that art would allow kids to work through some of their pain ("It''s so simple and obvious but effective," she says), Wolnick trained local teachers in art therapy techniques with simple materials that helped the children process their intense feelings of fear. One of Wolnick''s first projects was to have the kids build themselves a "safe place" out of construction paper. They responded by designing intricate castles and homes complete with protective walls and trees.
Wolnick soon discovered the intensity of the children''s suffering. Using another technique, she asked the kids to draw something happy or sad that happened to them in the past week. One child''s drawing showed men from a car shooting at him. Wolnick encouraged that child to draw in some protection, so the child scribbled in a green shield in front of the drawing of himself.
After seeing the impact of the simple interventions, Wolnick came home to the States eager to share her experiences, only to learn that "people didn''t want to hear about it." A sympathetic friend introduced her to Susan Anderson, the director of ArtReach, and Wolnick found her calling. She made a five-year commitment through ArtReach to travel with art therapists to Bosnian towns.
Although a series of mishaps plagued her first trip, in 2000, to teach workshops in Sarajevo ("I was robbed, missed my flight, and the Fourth of July barbecue the American troops held for us burned down a field"), Wolnick became one of a handful of art therapists to train teachers in Bosnian towns. The team grew larger and better organized in 2001 and took over a children''s center in the town of Gorazde for several weeks. Working with translators and assistants, Wolnick spent her first week acclimating to the culture and working solely with the Bosnian teachers. "The art therapy techniques were designed to release the trauma the children experienced, but helped the teachers as a by-product," she explains. The teachers, too, had suffered.
"I asked the teachers what was the worst image from the war that kept playing in their head," Wolnick recalls, "and they started talking reluctantly. One woman was pregnant and her mom was shot dead coming to visit her. She felt so guilty that she had died coming to help her. Others talked of seeing neighbors that they had known their whole life floating dead down the picturesque Drina River. I''ve never seen so much pain in my life that was contained in that room."
Using almost 12,000 pounds of donated art supplies airlifted over by the US Army, Wolnick and the other art therapists devoted the second half of their stay to supervising the teachers in the classrooms. Some Serbs were even invited to observe.
"The Bosnians were cordial to them," notes Wolnick. "I don''t know if I would be able to do that." Wolnick had her classroom start the emotional journey slowly by drawing a picture of something "a friend and I did together last week." She was shocked when an adorable child held up a picture of a skull and crossbones. The week before, the child had gone to play with a friend when they realized they had walked into a minefield and had to pick their way out of it, as they had been trained to do at school. Wolnick shakes her head at the memory. "For these youngsters to live in this kind of danger is absolutely immoral to me," she says.
For all the heavy emotional purging, there were lighter moments as well. The Bosnians sang songs of welcome, stuffed the ArtReach team with meals of goat and lamb, took them sightseeing (13 adults crammed into one Audi), and marveled at the foreign toys. Wolnick laughs at the memories. "I brought over 30 cans of silly string and they went crazy with it! I wanted to give them things that came through the air that were fun, after they had been living with mortars and snipers."
Despite the horrendous experiences that the Bosnians suffered through, Wolnick found almost no bitterness. "Astonishingly, even though they still hurt a great deal, they don''t talk of revenge," she says. Wolnick encountered a culture in the process of rebuilding their physical structures as well as emotional strength. "They managed to put Band-Aids on, but if we don''t help with the kids, there are going to be big problems," she says. "If we can get them to do just this tiny bit and incorporate the art therapy in the school curriculum, it would help the next generation. It makes them feel valued, and that someone cares."
It seems clear that the Bosnians felt the caring message. Many approached Wolnick to say how valuable the workshops had been for the village, and to ask for more training. The team of art therapists left behind permanent gifts: California wildflower seeds planted in the children''s garden ("so they could have some California love") and a spiral walkway to the children''s center made of clay tiles, carved with wishes for the Bosnians. "I put peace on mine," Wolnick smiles, "and drew a picture of the hills from that gorgeous country."