A healing presence for art

Suicide: Kim Strouse has undertaken a mission of therapy and education after the death of her sister, an aspiring artist.

July 23, 2002|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

At 17, Kristin Rita Strouse was a promising young artist heading to Manhattan's Parsons School of Design, fresh from her Hunt Valley upbringing and a good education at Notre Dame Preparatory School. Six weeks later, she killed herself.

She left behind many puzzling questions, often posed in the wake of a young person's suicide: Why did she give up on her life? What went through her mind at the end? How could she abandon her family and friends?

But she has also left behind a legacy of sorts for her older sister, Kim, who wants to turn some of the mystery into a message - to be delivered through art.

"We're dedicated to using the arts to help bring an end to suicide and celebrate life," Strouse says on a recent evening at the Maryland Art Place, where "The Rita Project" premiered with a circle of family and friends. In an unusual art therapy concept, participants were encouraged to create artistic pieces that will shed light on a subject often left in the dark.

Strouse is applying the art therapy method to 12-week art workshops in Baltimore and New York, a series designed for those who are grieving over a loved one lost to suicide. Art therapy is commonly defined as a mode of psychotherapy that encourages the creation of visual art, such as painting or sculpture, in order to understand and express one's feelings.

Strouse is also looking ahead to other cities, scouting sites in Washington, Philadelphia and Boston.

"My hope is to take this to the major cities and cultural centers," says Strouse, 24, a Manhattan resident who gave up her job in documentary film-making to organize the Rita Project full time. "Once I get enough art from the workshops, I'll travel with the art for exhibitions and offer workshops to schools."

Rita Project organizers will encourage participants in the forums to paint, work with clay, make collages, knit or quilt, or simply make bookmarks. They hope the art therapy will offer a meaningful way to mourn, understand and perhaps prevent suicide. A second series of workshops is being planned for those who are feeling suicidal.

The issue is a timely one in the Baltimore area, where there has been an outbreak of youth suicides among private-school students. Over the past few years, student suicides at Maryvale Preparatory School, Park School, Friends School and St. Paul's School have put parents, health professionals, school administrators and fellow students on alert and stirred debate about how best to handle the problem.

Many schools have had meetings among teachers, counseling sessions for teens, and talks by psychiatrists about depression and treatment options.

Strouse's agenda reflects the social toll taken by youth suicides, which run higher than the rate in the general population, statistics show. In Maryland in 2000, the most recent year for which state figures are available, there were 70 suicides among people ages 15 to 24. That works out to about 15 percent of the state's suicides that year. In Maryland and the nation, suicide is the third-leading cause of death for people ages 15 to 24.

For Strouse, the issue is more than just a recital of numbers. But there are still logistics to be dealt with, not the least of which is money for art supplies, travel and hiring professionals in art therapy.

Of primary concern to Strouse - the daughter of an art therapist and an organizational psychologist - is getting across the message of her crusade.

"We're adding a different component to healing than a white doctor's coat," she says. "Art saves lives."

The Rita Project's launch at the Maryland Art Place condensed the experience into three hours - not as intense as the process Strouse envisions for the public programs. Still, it was therapeutic for the Strouse family to see Kristin's classmates become the first participants in the Rita Project - just as it was a comfort to the young women who came together for the first time since Kristin's funeral last fall.

About 40 young alumna of Notre Dame gathered at the gallery, many anxious to understand if they could have kept Kristin from committing suicide. A psychiatrist was on hand to talk about depression, then an art therapist took over.

"Choose pictures and words for all the feelings that say where you are right now," says Peggy Kolodny, an art therapist, as she places piles of fashion and news magazines on the floor. The idea, she explains, is to cut out phrases and images - or just a single word - to create a small collage that expresses feelings. In this case, the participants were making a bookmark.

Making art, however simple, to honor Kristin's memory is "very symbolic," says Kristin's father, Douglas A. Strouse, who witnessed the recent workshop.

Dr. Paramjit Toor Joshi, an adolescent psychiatrist who spoke at the first Rita Project gathering, says many writers, composers and artists - including Virginia Woolf, Mark Twain, Vincent van Gogh, Edgar Allan Poe, Gustav Mahler and Georgia O'Keeffe - had mood disorders.

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