SIL­VER LIN­INGS

Pho­tog­ra­pher Deb­o­rah Smith’s Cloud Work­shop art pro­gramme helps chil­dren feel less alone in their grief.

North & South - - In This Issue - CATHER­INE STEEL

Cloud Work­shop helps chil­dren feel less alone in their grief.

Kelly Ma­janja paints the fi­nal touches of her vol­cano onto a T-shirt. “I love how we can take home what we make,” she says with a grin. At a ta­ble nearby, three broth­ers whis­per, plan­ning how to im­prove their de­signs.

It’s a Sunday af­ter­noon, and the young­sters have gath­ered in a large, sunny room at Auck­land’s Mercy Hos­pice. Paints and brushes cover ta­bles as they cus­tomise their T-shirts, which some will later pa­rade.

All of those tak­ing part share some­thing in common: a per­son close to them has died. They’re here for Cloud Work­shop, an art-based pro­gramme for griev­ing chil­dren that “of­fers com­mu­nity and sol­i­dar­ity”, says pho­tog­ra­pher Deb­o­rah Smith, who co-founded the ini­tia­tive with artist Melissa An­der­son Scott in 2008. The ses­sions don’t pro­vide ther­apy as such, but es­capism from grief. “We of­fer a safe space to be with other be­reaved kids.”

When a friend of Smith’s died more than a decade ago, he left be­hind three chil­dren. Hav­ing lost her own fa­ther at 18, Smith un­der­stood the need for them to have a sup­port net­work, but strug­gled to find one. “What helped me when my fa­ther died was art, lit­er­a­ture and cin­ema,” she says. “I watched how oth­ers pro­cessed loss and suf­fer­ing.”

Ses­sions are held in Auck­land eight times a year for chil­dren aged five to 18 (www.cloud­work­shop.co.nz).

Peo­ple are wel­comed with an in­tro­duc­tion touch­ing lightly on why they are there and then set loose to cre­ate some­thing fun. A ther­a­pist is present for any­one to talk to, and par­ents leave once their child is set­tled to en­cour­age them to in­ter­act.

“There have been in­ter­changes where chil­dren have spon­ta­neously dis­cussed why they are there,” Smith says. “It seems to have been com­fort­ing for them. But they aren’t forced to talk, every­thing is op­tional.”

An Elam grad­u­ate and high-school pho­tog­ra­phy teacher, Smith cre­ates projects for each work­shop that might res­onate with the chil­dren’s feel­ings. The T-shirt ses­sion was in­spired by Skele­ton Tree, an al­bum by Nick Cave, whose teenage son died in 2015. Smith can li­aise with a child psy­chother­a­pist over the con­tent, and a team of artists helps run the work­shops, which are usu­ally fully booked – and are free, thanks to vol­un­teers. Sep­a­rate ses­sions are also run for young peo­ple liv­ing with a life-threat­en­ing ill­ness in the fam­ily.

“We’ve given 53 work­shops, all run on love,” says Smith, who hopes to ex­pand to other main cen­tres. “Griev­ing adults can ac­cess help on their own, whereas chil­dren can’t. Cloud Work­shop of­fers tools to be cre­ative and to process tough things. Young peo­ple re­spond to so­phis­ti­cated projects. We show them that cre­ativ­ity may be a use­ful skill to deal with dark stuff.”

Child psy­chother­a­pist Lorna Wood says we live in a world where chil­dren are seen, but pos­si­bly don’t feel able to be sad. “A lot of adults can’t bear their kids hav­ing big feel­ings. Groups such as Cloud Work­shop pro­vide a sup­port­ive op­por­tu­nity for them to make sense of their ex­pe­ri­ence.”

One par­ent de­scribes the ses­sions as a won­der­ful out­let. “Kids don’t nec­es­sar­ily ex­ter­nalise ver­bally,” she says. “A death can af­fect them more deeply than adults may re­alise.”

Ros­alind Sach O’hoy says her sixyear- old daugh­ter, Mee­lan, has met young peo­ple she can talk to about los­ing her fa­ther with­out feel­ing out of the or­di­nary. “She came back from the first work­shop buzzing.”

Skele­ton Tree.

Cortez Tet­ley, 11, holds the T-shirt he de­signed in a ses­sion in­spired by Nick Cave’s al­bum

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