Black History Month: Cincinnati Children's specialists use art to reach psychiatric patients

'It helped me calm down'

CINCINNATI -- Tamika Acoff arrived at the Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center College Hill campus as a teenager with anger problems that required inpatient treatment.

Just one month and a few days later, she left as an artist.

Tamika was among more than 70 psychiatric patients who worked in small groups to create paintings of famous African-Americans for Black History Month. This month the patients completed 12 paintings, most of which are on display at Children's Hospital facilities throughout the region. The effort was the brainchild of Brent Billingsley and Michael Coppage, two mental health specialists at the Cincinnati Children's College Hill campus who also are trained artists.

Brent Billingsley, left, and Michael Coppage

"I got challenged by Mr. Michael and Mr. B.," Tamika said, explaining how she went from being a disinterested teen to an aspiring artist. "It helped me calm down."

For anyone wondering how a painting could be a group project, here's the answer: Billingsley took photocopied portraits of famous African-Americans and ran them through a filter so there were fewer tones in each image. Each picture was then divided into a grid of squares, with a number placed on the back of each square. Then Billingsley cut apart the grids and gave each of the artists one or more squares to paint onto larger pieces of paper.

The two men wouldn't tell the patients what the finished picture was supposed to look like, no matter how they begged.

After all the pieces were finished, the groups assembled the tiles into one large painting, often made up of individual parts painted by many patients. Tamika was so driven that she completed a large portrait of the writer Langston Hughes almost entirely by herself.

An image of Langston Hughes, left, and after it has been run through a filter.

"It don't look like nothing at first," Tamika said. "But when you're done, it looks like art."

The exercise also provided the young patients with a concrete example of an effective approach to solving a big problem: One step at a time.

"Before you can deal with everything that's going on in your life," Coppage said, "You have to start with one issue."

'Something good'

The Black History Month paintings aren't the first works of art that patients have created with the guidance of Billingsley and Coppage.

Coppage estimates that more than 200 patients have helped create various works of art over the years that he and Billingsley have used the approach.

But these paintings of such people as Hughes, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Frederick Douglass and the singer Prince are different because the leadership at Cincinnati Children's agreed to preserve them and display them throughout the facilities that Children's operates in Greater Cincinnati.

There are roughly 30 Black History Month images in all, Billingsley said, with more still being completed.

For Tamika, the project helped her discover a talent she didn't know she had. Before the paintings, Tamika was never all that interested in art, she said. But once she got started, she worked so hard and so well that she was able to complete the Hughes paintings and large portions of other paintings on her own.

Patients created this painting of Prince.

By the time she was discharged from College Hill, Tamika's room there was covered with artwork she had created. And she left with plans to continue painting and pursue a college degree in fine arts. Drawing has become a way to cope with her feelings, Tamika said.

"If I get mad or something, I just get a piece of paper and start drawing," she said. "Just knowing that you're going to accomplish something -- that's what calms me, makes me feel like I'm doing something good, knowing I'm going to have something good to look at when I'm done."

Just working through the process also helps many patients improve the way they communicate with each other, Coppage said.

"When you don't have the ability to communicate your needs, your wants, your grievances, that turns into behaviors of some sort," he said. "It creates problems. Frictions with school, with friends, with family."

Working with a team of patients on a painting can prompt teens to talk about the problems they're having with a painting -- and eventually the other problems at the root of their struggles.

"We utilize art as a coping skill," Billingsley said.

'Like, that's cool'

Even the kids who can't draw at all can take a square that is entirely black or gray and paint a larger version of it in order to be part of the project, he said.

Coppage said if he had to describe the results in one word it would be "powerful."

Shaylynn "Shay" Greer, a 14-year-old patient at College Hill, said she was skeptical about the whole process at first.

She already was devoted to art and creating her own manga-style comic book characters.

"First I didn't really think I could do it because it was so many pieces," she said.

But she persisted, painting square after square. And after she had them all put together, she said, "I was like, 'Wow -- like what? Like, that's cool."

Shaylynn Greer

Shay said she still sometimes gets anxious and worries about messing up a square in a way that will ruin the whole painting. But Coppage stressed that paint is forgiving. And once all the pieces are assembled, the patients can touch up panels here and there if needed.

There's a lesson in that, of course.

"Perfection is overrated," Billingsley said. "Art is not supposed to be perfect. If I want a picture, I'll take a picture of something."

The learning comes in the process, not the product, he said.

When the process works, beautiful results can follow -- in the same way an angry teen can become a creative force.

From left, Brent Billingsley, Tamika Acoff and Michael Coppage.

Lucy May writes about the people, places and issues that define our region – to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and shine a spotlight on issues we need to address. To read more stories by Lucy, go to www.wcpo.com/may. To reach her, email lucy.may@wcpo.com. Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.

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