SANTA MONICA — The mask sculpture that 14-year-old Lourdes made has an open mouth because, she says, "it has too much to say."
She carved deep scratch marks in one cheek to show her pain. The brow is furrowed in anger and frustration, and a broken heart on the forehead symbolizes people who abused her trust, especially the men who she says pushed her into prostitution.
"I poured everything into it," said the miniskirt-clad teen-ager. "In a way it made me angrier because it brought everything back out that I tried to push down."
Even so, the mask for Lourdes is a step toward getting better. It is the product of an unusual art therapy project at Angel's Flight Shelter, a temporary home for runaway and homeless youths in downtown Los Angeles.
Last week, masks made by Lourdes and other Angel's Flight residents went on display in Santa Monica at the Ken Edwards Center for Community Services, and she and some of the other young artists were on hand to talk about them.
A mask made by Danny (to protect the children, shelter officials insisted that their last names not be disclosed, and some unusual first names have been changed in this article as well) depicted utter despair--teardrops, downcast eyes, a frown. But its creator, a 17-year-old former gang member and drug abuser, was upbeat as he talked about his work in a tone of compassion and self-acceptance.
"This is how I used to be," Danny said. "For the longest time I was depressed and sad. (The mask) helped me come more into reality with the problems I had. . . . Before, I ran away from them."
And that's the idea. The mask-making process is a way Angel's Flight residents confront hidden, often troubling emotions and feelings. The resulting sculptures, made of clay, papier-mache and paint, reveal a face, a side of the self that many see for the first time.
It's a painful exercise, said Judy Leventhal, an art therapy consultant and social worker who oversees the art classes at Angel's Flight. Many of the students are angry, suicidal or feel isolated. Many have experienced sexual abuse, gang violence and drug addiction. But expressing one's feelings, and finding that in doing so one doesn't fly apart, is the first step toward healing, Leventhal said.
"This is therapy through the hands. They pound and push clay. It gives them a primitive, gut-level way to deal with what's in their minds and hearts," she said.
Angel's Flight, a program of Catholic Charities of Los Angeles, helps about 400 youths each year. The shelter accepts youngsters ages 10 to 17, and works to get them off the street and into stable living arrangements. When possible, they are reunited with their families.
During their limited stay--usually no more than three weeks--the residents receive individual and family counseling. They may participate in music therapy, art therapy, an acting program, supervised recreation and on-site schooling.
Completed masks often serve as a starting point for counseling because many teen-agers find it difficult to put their feelings into words, said Angel's Flight residence director Heidi Amundson.
"Once they deal with it at one level, they can usually come back later and deal with it verbally," she said. "It's very effective."
Mask-making is voluntary. The students work at their own pace during art class, which is held for five hours a week. Most students tackle the project after completing several drawings and paintings. Some students find the mask exercise too difficult and give up. Some spend weeks perfecting their work.
Leventhal encourages students to put into their masks what hurts, what they are angry about, and what they hope to change.
"We want to know how you survived and what your hopes are for the future," she said she tells them.
The mask, Leventhal said, is a particularly powerful art form used in cultures around the world. Masks are worn during rite-of-passage ceremonies. Healers use them to drive away illnesses and stave off death.
"When you make (fear) visible, it's no longer so threatening," she said.
The mask exhibit in Santa Monica was made possible through a $500 donation from the city of Santa Monica and the offer of free display space. The purpose of the exhibit is to celebrate the courage of the young artists, Amundson said.
Some masks in the colorful exhibit take on characteristics of the abuser in the artist's life. A mask titled "My Stepfather's Mask" features bulging eyes and ridiculously contorted lips. The caption beside it reads, "His blue grin tells how cold he is. His red, yellow bulging eyes show his anger."
Jessica, 17, chose to focus on dreams in her mask, a silver and gold work inspired by the musical "Phantom of the Opera."
Early this year, Jessica hopped on a Greyhound bus in South Carolina and headed for Hollywood with $318, two years' allowance, in her pocket. She hopes to become a singer.