HEFLIN — With music and crayons, an artist led a roomful of girls through an exercise to let go of their emotions and express them on paper at the Community Arts Center Friday.

Cat Brendel of Anniston said she created the technique in 2006 while working with Americorps. She’s used it at Family Links and in Anniston public schools. This is the second year she’s done it with Be Extreme, a program for girls aged 12 to 15 in Cleburne County.

“Art therapy was one of the things the girls really liked,” said Cindy Beam, administrator with the Alabama Cooperative Extension System, which through 4-H organizes Be Extreme. She explained that the girls learn many other things through the week-long leadership program.

The art therapy program is a way to help build self esteem for young girls to teach them “to be happy in the skin you’re in,” Brendel said.

She said in this age of technology, girls take self-portrait photos and post them online, always looking for approval from their friends.  In the program, Brendel said, she has just a few hours to work with them and make them look within themselves.

She was inspired by an art class she took in which she had to listen to what she considered the most awful music — like something out of a 1970s horror show — and paint a picture. She closed her eyes, started painting, and at the end of the exercise she realized that what she had painted wasn’t half-bad. So now, she tries to bring music she thinks the girls won’t like and she tells them to just move the crayon on the paper — not trying to draw anything in particular.

“There are no mistakes,” Brendel said as she moved around the room talking to the girls. “It’s just between you and that piece of paper.”

Still, when she first turned the music on, beginning with a classical symphony, the girls looked confused. Some hesitated before starting. One, who arrived late and slouched in her chair with a frown on her face, picked up a purple crayon and dragged it back and forth across the paper, her other hand still in her lap. But as the session went on, the girls bent over their papers and worked intently. One girl filled up her entire page with different colored stripes.

Even the girl who was late became more involved in her drawing, leaning forward, using one hand to draw and the other to hold her paper. She filled one of her pages with wavy blue lines and drew small green and purple circles in between them.

As music played, Brendel talked to the students about it. “Miles Davis was the toast of France,” she said, noting that the jazz legend wasn’t treated well in the U.S. during the age of segregation. When an Etta James recording was played, Brendel said that without her, there would have been no Beyonce.

She also talked to the girls about art itself: “Drawing is our earliest form of communication,” she said, stating that it’s immediate and found throughout popular culture.

And, she kept repeating, there are no mistakes.

“I need them to stop looking at their friends for approval,” Brendel said. “I need them to look within themselves.”

After they finished drawing, she gave the girls a small frame through which to view their drawings and accent their favorite part.

Hannah Collette, 12, said she was surprised by her drawings. She’s taken art classes before and never felt like her work was very good, she said.

“I thought I was going to be drawing scribbles,” Collette said.

But she depicted a guitar, a maraca and a boardwalk — the instruments she thought she heard in the music and a place she had been in Florida.

Alyssa Champion, 12, said she had no clue what she would be doing in the art therapy session, but she liked the result.

“It’s kind of unique,” Champion said of her pictures, which she described as swervy lines and a broken heart.


Staff Writer Laura Camper: 256-235-3545 or, in Heflin, 256-463-2872. On Twitter @LCamper_Star.