The Healing Power of Art

by Kathy Wechsler on Mon, 2012-10-01 09:45

Award-winning young artist uses art to help deal with mother's ALS diagnosis

"The Unwavering Daughter" was created by young artist Batrek Yassa, who received the Portfolio Gold Award from the Alliance for Young Artists & Writers.
Article Highlights:
  • Batrek Yassa, 17, received the Portfolio Gold Award from the Alliance for Young Artists & Writers at the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards national ceremony in June 2012 for a collection of work that focuses on his mother’s ALS diagnosis, and the ways in which his family has adapted.
  • Before his mother’s ALS diagnosis, Batrek says artwork was just technical exercise that really didn't have a concept or idea behind it.
  • Batrek realized that putting his observations down on paper helped him make sense of the changes occurring for his mother and his family.

As Batrek Yassa, 17, received the Portfolio Gold Award from the Alliance for Young Artists & Writers at the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards national ceremony in early June, he thought of his mother, Sawsan Yassa, the inspiration behind his winning artwork.

Unable to attend the ceremony at Carnegie Hall due to exhaustion and fatigue, Sawsan, who was born and raised in Egypt and is a devout Coptic Christian, received a diagnosis of ALS in 2010.

Sawsan says she’s extremely proud of her son — but not too surprised.

“I remember how he would spend many mornings and nights devoted to his work,” she says. “I was concerned about his diet, as he would often skip meals to finish his work.”

Art from the heart

Before his mother’s diagnosis, Batrek, who has been interested in art since he was young, says his artwork was just technical artwork that really didn’t have a concept or idea behind it. He was only concerned with perfecting his techniques to make beautiful artwork.

“I was just making artwork with my eyes and not so much my heart,” says Batrek, who graduated from Jersey City Arts High School in New Jersey at the end of June, and now studies fine art at Cooper Union School of Arts in New York City.

Born in Egypt and raised in the United States, Batrek’s artwork began to take an emotional journey when his mother, now 54, was found to have ALS and her symptoms were progressing.

Instead of merely drawing an object or a figure, Batrek put his heart and soul into sketching his mother, capturing every detail of her weakening body. This became a way to spend more time with his mother.

Sawson said her son would come home and “stay by my side, creating artwork, and keeping me company. He also creates beautiful pieces that put a smile on my face, and there’s great comfort in having him near me.”

Before recording in his sketchbook, Batrek works out the composition and chooses the media. He usually paints with acrylics on canvas or wood panel and occasionally uses vellum, which is a very thick, crispy and transparent paper that is similar to tracing paper.

Exploring the definition of ‘family’

The Scholastic Art & Writing Awards, presented by the Alliance for Young Artists & Writers, is one of the nation’s largest and most prestigious creative competitions and source of scholarships. Having entered submissions twice in the past and earned recognition and enrollment in a precollege program, Batrek again entered the Awards in September 2010, this time in the “portfolio” category, which consists of eight pieces that follow a central idea.

Yassa, with his mother, Sawsan, who has ALS.

“I started to think about how my family interacts with her, and that was kind of the jumping off point for my portfolio,” he says.

Wanting to explore the definition of family, he considered how his father, Fedaa, sister Ereini, 21, and he pulled together and took on extra responsibilities after his mother’s diagnosis. Using his family members as models, Batrek captured the emotion in the subjects’ faces and the reality of everyday life with ALS, recording everything in his sketchbook.

Each piece of artwork in the portfolio focused on the role of the mother and the definition of motherhood, even though his mother couldn’t do some of the things that people usually associate with motherhood.

Batrek also thought about his nightly ritual of helping his mother with transfers and included a self-portrait of him assisting her in the portfolio, to show the bond between him and his mother.

"My mother couldn’t do all that, but she was still my mother,” says Batrek “I tried to explore that theme through my pieces, and that’s how I expanded on my portfolio.”

Art as a saving grace

When Batrek found out his mother had ALS, he didn’t know how to react, but while working on his portfolio, he realized that putting his observations down on paper helped him make sense of everything around him.

“I don’t know how I would have handled my mother’s diagnosis if I didn’t have art,” says Batrek.

It also helped release emotional tension and anxiety, he says.

“When I’m making art, I can get to kind of suspend all of those things and focus on the moment of the act of creating artwork,” says Batrek. “That’s how I started to consider artwork as a form of catharsis with a purging quality to it.”

Backstage at Carnegie Hall, Yassa meets three-time Academy Award-winning actress Meryl Streep before the national ceremony begins. Streep supported young artists and writers that night with a special address.

National recognition

Virginia McEnerney, the executive director of the Alliance for Young Artists & Writers, was honored to present the Portfolio Gold Award to Batrek.

“We admire the artist so much for bravely exploring such emotional and difficult issues, and for creating something so poignant and beautiful,” says McEnerney. “We’re truly humbled in the face of this evidence of art's power to heal, to represent and to help process information."

“This is truly the essence of these awards: to encourage young people to explore and create, to look inside themselves and communicate their reality.” As recipient of the Portfolio Gold Award, Batrek received a $10,000 scholarship for his education. His work is being showcased in noted New York City galleries, and he has the honor of joining a 90-year legacy of celebrated Scholastic Art & Writing award winners, such as Andy Warhol, Richard Avedon and Sylvia Plathe.

Sawsan, a proud mother, says she is honored to have contributed to the portfolio that won her son such a prestigious award.

The Unwavering Daughter

The Unwavering Daughter,” was created with acrylic paint on a wood panel, It is one of the eight winning pieces in Batrek Yassa’s winning portfolio. In this piece, his mother, Sawsan Yassa, is lying on a fading hardwood floor and has her head on the knee of her 21-year-old daughter, Ereini Yassa. Their hands join near the center of Sawsan’s chest.

By drawing the viewer’s focus to his mother’s and sister’s hands meeting, Batrek’s piece communicates the idea of touch, a vital component of motherhood. The transparency of his mother, made possible by a type of tracing paper called vellum, indicates that she is still a mother, even though she can’t do everything mothers usually do.

In creating “The Unwavering Daughter,” Batrek also captures an intimacy between his mother and sister, whose relationship had been rocky in the past and is now closer.

Kathy Wechsler
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