David Gussak Ph.D., ATR-BC

Art on Trial


Art Therapy in a “Murdered Out” Community

Art therapy with victims of violence in a bereavement support group setting

Posted Nov 20, 2014

About three weeks ago, I had the distinct honor of providing the keynote address for the Illinois Art Therapy Association’s annual conference. It was then I had the pleasure of meeting a relatively new, delightful, compassionate and intense art therapist, Rachel Nelms. The passion for which she approaches her work was contagious.

Rachel, a graduate from the Adler School of Professional Psychology’s Masters of Art Therapy and Counseling program in 2012, provides art therapy and bereavement counseling support groups for children and families experiencing loss and grief, particularly those who are victims of the violence inherent in the Chicagoland area.

Rachel and I spent a great deal of time talking about where our respective work intersects; while I may work with the aggressor, the violent, the inmate, Rachel will often work with the victim and those left behind. Our work may intersect when the victim becomes the aggressor. Upon hearing Rachel’s passion in her role as a Socially Responsible Practitioner I asked her to write a post for this blog on her work.

Survivors of Chi-raq: Art Therapy in a bereavement support group setting

By Rachel Nelms

Nicki Minaj co-wrote a song with Lil Herb that proved to be a decadently visual appeal of what it means to exist in Chicago or, according to the song title, “Chiraq.”  The song referenced a whole new level of attractions including: king pins and drug lords, no gun laws, and “guys down to ride for a homicide.” The most compelling part of the song is not the heart-warming lyrics and its rhythmic beats, but rather the frightening chill of how it depicts the realistic nature of the South and West side neighborhoods.

Our culture is constantly engrossed with the most tragic, repulsive, or sensual scandal of the day then transitions to the next day to a blank slate. Yet how can we continue to exist in a world in which violence and terror is happening less than a mile away from our homes, schools, and work, while we remain blissfully ignorant every day? Indeed there is a comfort in ignoring the ‘inflamed’ current statistics that are replicated on our highway digital signs. Rather, file it away as the governments attempt to scare people away from the concrete jungles and encourage others to stay within the comfort of their safe places because who would want to look at the depressing stories. 

As an art therapist, concerned about helping this downtrodden community, people often ask what could I, as a single person, do to possibly affect the many lives around me?  I remind them that it is important to stop ignoring the socially excluded parts of the community and be aware; doing so can alter the present perspective, and grant the power of creating change.

In other words, become a Socially Responsible Practitioner (SRP).

Socially responsible practitioners incorporate the following:

  • Ask what the community needs right now and what can be done to help
  • Challenge stigmas
  • Promote change to ensure well being

As a socially responsible practitioner, I created an art therapy based bereavement support group to reach out to the children in densely populated “murdered out” neighborhoods to empower and give them a voice.

I initially feared for my physical security, and of being viewed as “Snow White” coming in to save the day. However, one of the most beautiful paradoxes is that not only are some things more entertaining in our minds, but that our thoughts can be unequivocally false.  While I challenged the stigmas of the communities I worked in, these communities challenged me by accepting me into their world. I was overwhelmed.

I learned that when I simply listened to the needs of staff and students around me instead of asserting what I thought they needed, they responded well. As  I learned from the good faculty members at Adler School of Professional Psychology, socially responsible practice underscores that we do not have to walk in another person’s shoes to empower them, and bear witness to their stories through the act of compassion. 

Through my experience of running small group art therapy grief support groups for various students who experienced first hand the challenges inherent in “Chi-raq” I was able to vicariously experience a snapshot of their journeys. Working with Kiki (not her real name) was just such an experience.


Kiki was seven years old, a tiny girl when she entered my group. She was referred because her brother was violently murdered; Kiki told me that her brother was shot and killed. This was the first time she openly talked about her brothers’ death and was ‘relieved’ to discover that she was not alone.

Kiki described her safe place as her tree house that she and her brother used to play in. When she wanted to be close to him she would revisit this place. The art process was so moving and sacred for her that she folded up this artwork in placed it into an envelope that she created and decorated.

Kiki--Exterior of Safe Place

Kiki--Exterior of Safe Place

Kiki--Interior of Safe Place

Kiki--Interior of Safe Place

Kiki also made a ‘mask’ (see the figure) that she created and wore throughout the day. It was an apt metaphor of her daily experiences.

Kiki-The Mask

Kiki-The Mask

Kiki-Introduce your Special Person

Kiki-Introduce your Special Person

It has been some time since this session with Kiki; she is now in a much safer place. She has seemed to have come to terms with her grief. Most significantly, Kiki has obtained the ability to express herself openly through art as well as the spoken word. She continues to be an advocate and an example to other students who have had similar experiences of violent loss. She has developed a deeper understanding of how to digest the intense feelings affiliated with this grief.

Personal Reflection

I had a very strong reaction to the students’ artwork; yet I had to be clear with myself that my time with the students was not about me. People often ask me how do I work with children and deal with the potential despair that comes with talking about death all day. I remind them that death is the start of our grief journey but it is not all consuming or the whole process. It has been humbling to watch children learn how to not only experience their own feelings through their art making but to also gain a sense of confidence and realization that it is okay to have feelings to learn how to express them in a safer way.

Consequently, my personal art has evolved greatly since starting the program. It now highlights themes of finding support in the presence of others and the power of human connection. I am reminded every day that today is a gift; I have witnessed first hand the healing power of the art therapy process that has vastly aided these children in this downtrodden environment.



The next step is connecting, through fragile bridges, the city, communities, and survivors through art. No one should ever disregard the power of human compassion and healing to those in pain because of fear of being vulnerable. Early interventions with art can help promote emotional wellbeing to the children experiencing horrific grief.  Art provides a safer distance from their raw intensified feelings while simultaneously giving an outlet of the incomprehensible realities that is the students’ present life. It can provide the surviving bereaved children an opportunity to shed their ‘good solider complex’ and allow themselves to be vulnerable and in touch with their feelings, to which they gain a lifetime of benefits.

Furthermore, art can bridge the gap between gang identity and the need for violence inherent in Chi-raq by working behind the mask of defiance and faux strength.

On a larger scale, can’t we in turn, as a nation stop numbing our pain and embrace the power of vulnerability by providing an outlet of expression through art as well as the spoken word?

I hope so.