Paint Love promotes healing and growth through art

Paint Love Executive Director Laura Shaw in front of Hyatt Collage. (Photographs by Isadora Pennington)

In Decatur’s Legacy Park, a quaint cottage is bustling with activity. Beyond the cherry-red front door is the home of the local arts nonprofit Paint Love.

Dedicated to “bringing extraordinary arts programming to youth facing poverty and trauma,” the organization was founded in 2014 by artist Julie McKevitt. 

During my recent visit to the Paint Love headquarters, summer camp was in full swing. Children milled about between two adjoining rooms in the cottage, making art, sharing their creations, and explaining their ideas and processes. 

Tables covered with butcher paper were splattered with paint and covered in doodles. Teaching artist Leah Kellaway was leading the students through a presentation of their storyboards, as this summer camp class was working on using art to tell stories. One by one, the children stood in front of the class and explained their vision and the story depicted on their pages. 

In another classroom space, paintings, art, and emotion charts lined the walls. The focus on emotional awareness is something that is central to the mission of Paint Love as an organization. “We always start with emotional regulation,” explained Executive Director Laura Shaw, who emphasized the importance of trauma-based practices. 

You see, Paint Love is far more than just a summer camp. It is an organization dedicated to reducing the barriers between youth facing poverty or trauma and accessible artmaking opportunities. 

Studies show that art can provide a healthy outlet for communication and self expression, particularly when combined with trauma-informed standards and processes. Unfortunately, some of the children who could most benefit from these programs have the most limited access to them due to circumstances out of their control.

When McKevitt envisioned Paint Love a decade ago, it was in response to unmet needs she saw in her community. Notably, she was bothered by the distinct lack of artistic programming that is available to low income youth. Schools and organizations that cater to impoverished youth are often stretched thin in their operations and therefore cannot spare the time, energy, or resources to provide additional creative experiences. 

As a result, Paint Love has flourished and evolved and now facilitates art-making events at Legacy Park as well as mobile workshops at schools and various venues around the city.

Paint Love also partners with local educational and nonprofit organizations to produce artist-led projects, such as community murals, that connect artists with youth. These projects not only provide a conduit for communication and expression, but also to offer a connection between youth and working artists in their communities. 

Shaw and I sat down in a quiet room in one of the buildings on the Legacy Park property to discuss her story, the organization’s impact, and why Paint Love is so important. In the next room, a group of youth from the Global Village Project – a Decatur school dedicated to meeting the needs of refugee girls – were busy working on a woodworking project led by a local artist.

Shaw explained that she first got involved with Paint Love as a volunteer grant writer around 2015. Over time, she eventually migrated into a role focused on community engagement. At the time, Paint Love was operating out of a warehouse space near the Your DeKalb Farmers Market. 

Shaw later stepped into the role of executive director in 2019. When the pandemic hit the following year, Paint Love had to shift their practice to move outdoors. They began hosting art events on the sprawling grounds of Legacy Park. In April of 2022, Paint Love officially took up residence at the park, moving into the Hyatt Cottage where they offered yoga, art, and social-emotional learning. 

Shaw went on to explain how the pandemic’s far-reaching impact on youth mental health has cemented the importance of art opportunities for kids even more. When the world shut down, some of the hardest hit were the children facing food insecurity, instability, and the impacts of poverty.

“Art is such a valuable vehicle for connection, for telling your own story, and for processing life,” said Shaw. She explained how a creative outlet offers a tangible way to keep your hands busy so that your brain can process difficult scenarios.

“It’s really hard to be a person,” Shaw chuckled knowingly. 

Beyond its therapeutic qualities, Shaw also talked about how the act of making art is fun, and how it can be used as a means of celebration as well. “We need fun!” she exclaimed.

For Paint Love, summer is far and away the busiest season due to their robust 6-week summer camp programming. Their community programming doesn’t stop during the summer, however, so the organization is tasked with splitting focus during the overlap. During the academic year Paint Love provides residency programs, murals, and group projects with schools.

And Paint Love’s reach continues to expand. 

Shaw said that in 2023 they served over 10,000 kids, providing essential outreach and a “reconnection to joy” that she feels is so important. She shared how the uncertainty faced by the public during the pandemic mirrors some of the instability experienced by impoverished children on a daily basis. She emphasized that it is important to acknowledge these struggles, but also to embrace a sense of fun and joy in the act of making art. 

Paint Love relies on a combination of grants, fundraisers, individual donors, and sponsors to fund their important work. In addition to providing the materials, teachers, the wisdom of their robust artist cohort, and direction to students for their regular programming, they also continue to grow with the support of their community. 

Paint Love, like so many small nonprofit arts organizations, offers powerful opportunities for socio-emotional building that bring empathy and understanding to entire generations of youth. Learn more about the organization and their upcoming Paint the Night Gala at Fernbank Museum on Fri., Aug. 16 by visiting their website.

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