Camp helps teens express themselves through art

MOUNT VERNON — Love. Anxiety. Sadness.

Jordyn Mott, a 17-year-old junior at Burlington-Edison High School, illustrated each of these emotions as facial expressions on a piece of paper.

These were the emotions she chose to express as she thought of the stress she harbored from struggling in school and her parents' divorce. 

"I love art because I suck at expressing how I feel," she said while sketching. "I might as well put some beauty into my sadness."

This exercise was Wednesday's session of Rachel's heArt, a week-long art camp hosted by Oasis Teen Shelter and international artist Benjamin Swatez.

Each day of the camp, which continues through Saturday, explores themes for teens to discuss and represent visually, such as peer pressure, chemical dependency and symbolic self-portraits. 

On Wednesday, the camp partnered with Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Services (DVSAS) to help about 10 teens explore the importance of expressing and recognizing internal feelings, Swatez said.

The goal was to create a safe space for teens to express difficult subjects they may be facing, such as drug and domestic abuse, in a constructive way, Swatez said. 

"Whether what they are painting is dark or full of light, it's all positive," Swatez said. "Because the point of this is to express what you're feeling."

The camp was a collaboration between the Oasis Teen Shelter, Swatez and a local film director, Mel Damski, whose mother left money in her will to support local art opportunities for children.

The camp was named after Damski's mother, Rachel, who died last year. She was a Holocaust survivor who picked up art as a means of therapy later in her life and wanted to share that passion with others, Swatez said.

An opportunity like this wouldn't have been possible without the involvement of Swatez and Damski's donation, Oasis Teen Shelter Director Claudia Avendaño-Ibarra said. 

"When you are trying to engage with at-risk kids, money is tight and the needs are great," she said. "I'm just happy something like this can happen so the kids can express their thoughts in a way that is healing and healthy."

Avendaño-Ibarra said with the donation, the shelter is hoping to make this an annual program. 

"Even if they just show up one day, and they learn something about themselves that could reroute their life, we'll take it," she said. 

Swatez, who has worked internationally with children on art projects for almost a decade, said the curriculum was a mix of lessons learned from working with child soldiers and slaves in other parts of the world and programs offered through Oasis.

He said he was grateful to be able to give back to children who need support in Skagit County. 

"When I get to create a safe space for kids' voices, it's wonderful," he said. "When things were hitting the fan at home growing up, my refuge was making art. I love when each child expresses their unique perspective of the world."  

—Reporter Brenna Visser:, 360-416-2139, Twitter: @Brenna_SVH