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Black Construction Paper with a Powerful Meaning • by Robin Laws

When I think of the phrase ART SAVES my mind rolls back in time to more than 30 years ago. It is 1977 and the scene is Mercy Hospital, located in the heart of the south side of Chicago. I see my young self dressed in torn jeans and T-shirt, long straight hair unkempt and tangled. I am sitting quite still in the center of a hospital bed, cross-legged, my hands motionless upon my knees. I am facing a window with my back to an open door. When someone glances in from the hallway it appears as though I am looking out the window at something of interest beyond my hospital room. The truth is I am looking at nothing at all. I am sitting motionless, staring beyond the common boundaries of sight.

Memory of a Frightening Scene
Three decades later this forlorn image of myself remains imprinted as a visceral memory. I can hear the memory call out, taking me back in time and into the heart of the frightening scene.
I am living in the eye of the raging storm that is my own mind. All I hear is an unearthly silence; all I see is blackness. Within this wretched world an impenetrable cloud of misery blankets all thought. I haven't spoken a word or listened to the voice of another person for days. I will not talk. I will not listen. I will not look up to see anything outside my vigilantly guarded island of false stability and calm. Someone walks into the room, places a large sheet of black construction paper upon the bed. Various genres of magazines and newspapers are also laid at my side. Time passes and these items sit companionably inanimate as if respectfully mirroring my stone-like appearance.

As darkness falls I shift my tired limbs and with that small disturbance of the atmosphere what I fear most happens. My sight refocuses; sound rapidly invades my mind. My tenuous hold over that odd windless center of gravity shatters. The terrible storm breaks and washes over me with the force of a tempest. Black billowing clouds burst with a thunderous crash of sound and there is a ringing in my ears. A cold torrential rain pours down upon my head leaving me breathless with shock. It feels cataclysmic in its intensity. I am without shelter — no raft, no raincoat, or hand up from the depths of my bitter despair.
The Terrible Assault
That is what happened to me in a lone hospital bed in the summer of 1977. No one witnessed this terrible assault on my mind because there was no betrayal from my body. Mind and body existed as separate islands on my sea of misery. While my mind frantically sought to regain a foothold within the heaving sea my body remained quite calm, gracefully floating upon the surface.
From that window of wakefulness I look with curiosity at what lay upon my bed. In addition to the black construction paper, newspapers, and magazines, I see a pair of blunt-tipped scissors, scotch tape, and pencils. I tear the paper roughly into two halves, unwittingly revealing the warring selves that live within me.

On one half I tape images depicting violence, anger, isolation, and despair. I carefully cut out and place words associated with hate, fear, and persecution. This half of the black paper is covered in a mood of darkness. For the other half of the paper I seek out images of people from all over the world helping one another — Families laughing, grown-ups smiling encouragement to children who are exploring their world. Words and phrases related to peace, compassion, and community are everywhere. The colorful words of hope and love cover the black surface.
Artful Angel of Mercy
Some angel of mercy within that hospital understood that art had the power to literally save my life. I was gifted with the tools and opportunity to find shelter from the storm where I could quietly externalize my pain and misery. While in the expressive flow I was oblivious of the polarized nature of the imagery. The creation of this mind map was a process that took days and it was only later that I could reflect upon the meaning of what had emerged.

For the next 25 years those two large sheets of construction paper were packed along with all the rest of my treasured belongings each time I moved to a new home and into another chapter of my life. A few years ago I came across the ragged and rumpled remains buried beneath boxes in the hot attic space and marveled at the fact that they still carried such powerful and personal meaning. The black paper was brittle and faded to a dull grey. The tape was yellowed and tore at the rough surface when I finally dismantled the aged collage of my troubled mind. I kept only a few of the images and words, carefully placing those tattered memories in a file folder where other collage materials await their time for expression.

These days I work as a therapist. I can be that artful angel of mercy, passing on the gift to the person who sits before me feeling lost and bereft. I know with the deepest part of my soul that that art has the power to save, to rescue, and to release the spirit of hope.

To learn more about Robin Laws, visit


Wow-I am in awe-your words are just captivating. Thank you for sharing this very important story. It makes me wonder how many others need the help of creativity to heal. Amazing. God bless you.

i read this yeaterday morning and couldn't get it out of my head ~ those pieces of black cardboard that i could see so well. i was without words, but not thoughts, not without heartache and joy that this is past for you. i am still stuttering this morning, unsure of what to say. except ~ well, you know.

An artful angel of mercy, indeed. Blessed was she and blessed are you.

Your words paint a soulful journey; You went through the eye of the storm and flew out, onto a different path. I am sorry you had to deal with such darkness and despair, but through it you found a glimmer of hope. Your universe tilted and your reality became clear. Alone in a sea of darkness n' despair, someone gave you a life preserver. The gift of expression to release your storm. I am sorry for what you endured, but happy you found yourself and are giving back. The tides of change allowed your treasure, your gifts to shine through! Your journey would make a inspiring book!

I have no words- your words have taken my breath.
Welcome back. Sister.

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