Wed | Dec 1, 2021

Leslie Belnavis Healing through Art

Published:Sunday | June 8, 2014 | 12:00 AM
The colourful tactile wall adds a ltouch of vibfncy while appealing to movement, sense of touch, and visual stimulation.
Art therapist Leslie Belnavis beams proudly as she speaks about the tactile wall located in the Sensory Garden at the S.T.E.P. Centre. -Gladstone Taylor/Photographer
Eight-year old Akeem Enis points out his favourite aspects of the tactile wall for Belnavis.

Artists will tell you how therapeutic their craft is, but for Leslie Belnavis, art is the medium through which she helps her patients defy expectations to achieve physical, emotional, and psychological stability.

Working at Caribbean Tots and Teens, Belnavis deals with children and adolescents with physical disabilities who overcome their struggles through art therapy. "This is a combination of art and psychology, and knowing how innately creative we are as Jamaicans, I found it to be interesting and decided to tap into this desired area of expertise," she explained to Outlook.

It was while a student at St Hugh's High School that she discovered her love for art. In 2001, she went abroad to pursue this passion, returning eight years later with a bachelor's degree in studio art and a master's in art therapy from Florida State University. "It has been quite a journey. It is extremely challenging to spread awareness of how art therapy can be used," she explains, adding, "funding proves to be the prevailing barrier. On one hand, people do not really want to get help and those who want the assistance can't afford it. While, on the other hand, the funding currently being invested is limited. So while it is generally supplied for about six months or so in grants, there is no follow through and therapy takes time."

She notes that there is also a misunderstanding of what art therapy is. "They think that we evaluate the drawings of our patients and that's it. But it is so much more. For me, I have to assess the client developmentally and emotionally. Then create specific images targeting their diagnosis and I guide them through: there is a purpose, a process, and goals that need to be met."

Belnavis recently worked with students from the School for Therapy Education and Parenting (STEP). An independent school for children with multiple disabilities, the children had physical limitations such as cerebral palsy, global developmental delay and other undiagnosed disabilities. Since some of them cannot speak, art helps them cope with their difficulties.

"A lot of people believe that these children are not aware because they don't speak, but the beauty about this type of therapy is that they actually communicate their awareness through art. I exposed them to sensory-oriented artwork and I loved working with them, seeing the little improvements that occurred over the period." These accomplishments don't happen overnight. "Because of their physical limitations, it takes time, but their responses were truly priceless. Just to see them grasping a paint brush after five weeks - coming from not being able to grip anything, with a happy face at the end of that, is an amazing feeling."

Beaming with pride about something so close to her heart, she told Outlook, "I had a student, who had cerebral palsy, and after a year, he had made a positive shift from just pouring water or paint into a cup to communicating through gestures where he wanted to place his tools and paper, for art. That, to me, was remarkable."

Along with the assistance of artists Stefan Clarke and Bianca Bartley, as well the Canada fund, Belnavis created a special art form called the tactile wall. The tactile wall appeals to movement, sense of touch and visual stimulation. This was her first time creating such a wall. After doing her research, she played around with different colours, patterns, materials and textures, and with assistance from those at the centre, they created a masterpiece.

Today, it stands proudly, draped in vibrant colours as a major part of the centre's Sensory Garden. The wall is not only a work of art, but a form of therapy, boosting the children's sensibilities.

Outside of the children at STEP Centre, Belnavis also works with adolescents and the elderly. "I have experience with depression, grief and trauma. I have also worked with Autism and Down syndrome."

For Belnavis, her profession is a very rewarding one that she would encourage others to pursue. "You have to be patient to pursue art therapy. Know yourself. It's going to take work, maybe in another five to 10 years, the awareness will be there, but I would encourage anybody to pursue it and come back to Jamaica. It is a new and rewarding profession."

For more information, Leslie Belnavis can be contacted at