By Sarah Klingenstein

Paints, crayons, and art paper cover a table at the Casa Alitas shelter in Tucson, where several children are busily drawing and telling volunteers about their work. In response to the question“What do you love?” they draw vibrant images of home, family, and pets. They also portray images of their journeys from Central America, showing fear, hope and longing.

A traveling exhibit of the children’s work called “Hope and Healing: The Art of Asylum,” co-curated by Valarie James, Casa Alitas Trauma-informed Arts and Activities Coordinator, and Arivaca sculptor Antonia Gallegos, will be shown at Cady Hall in Patagonia March 12 through 21. There will be an opening reception and gallery talk by James the evening of March 12, catered by Patagonia Youth Enrichment Center.

The exhibit came out of Catholic Community Service’s work with asylum-seekers at Casa Alitas. Since 2014 they have provided those travelers a short-stay stopover with food, lodging, basic necessities, and travel assistance.The asylum-seekers are en route to live with sponsoring family members as they await their upcoming hearings.  Families, mostly from Guatemala,  Honduras, and El Salvador, are welcomed daily by staff and volunteers at the shelter. 

They’ve traveled by various means – overland, on foot, or by bus – for days or weeks. Some flee from immediate danger and/or after the murder of family members. In the immediacy of getting situated, the emotional toll can be overlooked. The art program gives refugees an opportunity to reflect on what they are going through and perhaps find comfort through the act of making art.

 “The children draw and paint quietly with singular focus. They are intent on conveying what cannot be said in words, James said. “Their feelings rise up and through their art. Young guests draw what’s in their hearts. They draw prayers to God for having spared them and multiple thanks to volunteers. Drawings rich in symbols, paintings of birds in flight, volcanoes erupting, roads and rivers, vehicles and barriers, testify to the trauma of migration and family displacement. Art-making eases the trauma and lends a bit more resiliency for the rest of the journey.”

The exhibit also includes four large quilts stitched from dozens of drawings the children did on cloth. In addition to making these quilts, Esperanza Quilters, a group from Oracle, has designed, created, and given away over 150 child-sized quilts and children’s books to the youngest travelers at Casa Alitas. Gale Hall, a member of the Esperanzas and the education coordinator for the Art of Asylum exhibit, shares part of the mission of the quilt group. “Memories of how we are welcomed to a new place last a lifetime. We hope that when the children wrap themselves in our quilts, they will feel safe, warm, and covered with love. We hope that this will help to create a positive lasting memory of when they first came to the United States.”

Local partnering organizations are planning ancillary events during the exhibit’s run. These will include a film series, guest speakers, a storyboard walk in Town Park, a portrait gallery at the Gathering Grounds, and a culminating celebration. Details will be made available as the exhibit nears.