Olga Stamatiou is taking her 35-foot-long Seewall painting, her "art therapy disaster relief" food truck, her husband Rocco Zappia and their two rescued dogs to ArtPrize in Ann Arbor, Mich., this month. ArtPrize is a major art event with $500,000 in awards and crowds in the hundreds of thousands perusing, collecting and voting on 1,500 pieces of art. It's also a great setting for the couple to launch their just-finished (and built by Zappia) EMSv, or Emergency Mobile Seewall vehicle.
For the past decade, in their arching quonset huts out on Coosaw Island, the couple has been building art-based interactive installations called Seewalls for children's crisis centers. They've installed these for free for organizations like CAPA and Hope Haven in Beaufort, and the Medical University of South Carolina and the Dee Norton Lowcountry Children's Center in Charleston.
"We're now building the capability and funds to mobilize and take these tools to natural disaster areas and emergency situations, acting as an art therapy command center to help art therapists work with children," Stamatiou explained.
During the festival, sales from the food truck component will fund future excursions. The EMSv "provides a positive distraction for children" with underwater seascapes painted by Stamatiou, marker boards and colorful markers, screens with underwater fish imagery, art and films from aquariums worldwide, a classical music soundtrack, a puppet theater and more.
The result they seek is to "to engage, enthrall, educate and heal through a fusion of art and technology." Stamatiou is quite fortunate as an artist to have witnessed the effects of her carefully designed work already: little hands happily drawing, laughter from kids who were crying earlier, the calm gained from cool blue visual beauty. Now she can rely on these effects enough to expand her idea into another phase of responsiveness to human need: Being there, with art; arriving with creative care. It's a brilliant response to this era of shootings, droughts, floods and toxic spills. Her website, www.seewallchild.org, has testimonials from health care professionals.
"The next phase of emergency shelter Seewall units will be durable, quick and easy to set up in temporary shelters, and will help to maintain a calming effect that Seewall installations are noted for," Zappia explained. His background includes a career in mobility and technology, sometimes in the form of tour buses for bands.
"Preventing and treating the distress experienced by children as soon as possible is crucial for optimal long-term health and recovery," Stamatiou said, whose degrees include a graduate program in art therapy at the Metropolitan College of Boston University.
"I know the healing power of color and have seen research that validates the use of art as a tool in children's crisis management. I also know the power of aquariums to transport children to fantasy worlds of peace and calm, if only for a few moments," the artist said, thinking specifically of children awaiting painful procedures, or who were the victims of domestic violence, homeless children and children of poverty, the underserved -- profound sources of inspiration for an artist. Stamatiou has developed her empathy along with her painting skills. Her first Seewall installation at MUSC was recognized in 2007 by the Society in Arts in Healthcare with one of their Blair Sadler Awards.
Hopefully the crowds in Michigan will recognize the good, the colorful and the value of their work as well. Rocco and Olga are on their way there right now.
Lisa Annelouise Rentz lives and writes in Beaufort.