At IOL, Connecting Young Clients Through Giant Murals

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Eleven-year-old Xavier Hill had never really done anything artistic until he met a woman who managed to coax acrylic images of rainbows, skulls and basketballs out of him simply by sharing her personal story about art and mental illness.

The Wethersfield boy, who attends the TOPS Extended Day Program at the Institute of Living, says he felt connected with Olivia Nguyen (above), a 29-year-old New Britain artist known professionally as Fiyabomb, when she talked about her three-week stay at the IOL after depression and bullying led her to attempt suicide as a teenager.

Nguyen, who has always enjoyed creating art, found it therapeutic in her recovery and in combating the pervasive stigma around mental illness.

“They don’t teach us in school how to help yourself,” she said softly. “It’s important to talk to someone when you’re having problems. That’s what I want these kids to know.”

Reconnecting to the IOL was serendipitous for Nguyen. IOL caseworker Jessica Lewis found countless images of her artwork on social media, including pieces commissioned by such famous rappers as Rick Ross and Big Sean, and then learned of the woman’s personal connection with the program. Lewis worked with Melissa Deasy, program manager of the TOPS Extended Day Program and Child and Adolescent Day Program, to secure funding and hire Nguyen to create four murals with the young clients.

Towering 9-by-5-foot canvases now decorate the outpatient units with red hearts, purple flowers, silvery spaceships, glowing yellow suns and slabs of pizza as representation of what the clients love most. The kids worked side-by-side over four weeks creating the murals. While painting, they talked and connected with each other, Deasy noted.

Fiyabomb mural

“We tried to incorporate as many kids as possible so they could leave their mark,” she said.

While some clients were initially nervous, Nguyen said they were soon using brushes and colorful paints to boldly create.

“One of the best releases for any child is art,” she said. “When we see colors and utensils, we get lost in it and that’s exactly what happened with these kids. Then they began venting when they were painting and suddenly kids from different towns, who never knew each other, were talking.”

Xavier worked with 11-year-old Caleb Maloney-Hastillo of Tolland, who attends the Child and Adolescent Day Progam, on one section. He said picking what he liked to do was part of the fun.

“It was really cool to put your ideas out there for people to see,” he said. “It was interesting to see how it came out.”

Maloney-Hastillo, whose aunt is a painter, now totes a sketch pad from his counselor to create images on a whim. Another client, 12-year-old Hartford resident Shawn Spicer, added drawings of the galaxy and space ships to the mural and planned to continue creating.

“(Nguyen) taught me techniques to make it look three-dimensional,” he said.

It was Nashalie Davila, a 14-year-old from New Britain, who verbalized the connection to their shared mental illness, saying she found art helps relieve some of the stress she feels.

“Art is an outlet that allows you to express yourself in a different form, in your own lane,” Nguyen said. “It’s not in a set way, either. Art is so subjective.”

She also hosts art camps for children in state care, talking each about what they’d like to paint. One girl only painted hands with cuts where they’d been hurt. By the end of the camp, the girl was painting flowers growing out of the cuts.

“They’re young so they’re delicate and innocent,” said Nguyen, the child of Vietnamese immigrants who wanted her to find a professional career like her X-ray technician brother or the sister who owns a nail salon. “I know from personal experience how healing art can be.

“When you make anything important, people have no other choice but to respect it. I hope my journey helps inspire kids to keep doing what they like.”

For more information on the programs at the IOL, click here.

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