Art helps heal after Andy Lopez shooting

Maria de los Angeles came home for the summer to a community still grappling with the fatal deputy-involved shooting of 13-year-old Andy Lopez.|

After wrapping up the first year of her master of fine arts program at Yale, Maria de los Angeles came home for the summer to a community still grappling with the fatal deputy-involved shooting of 13-year-old Andy Lopez.

The kids who knew Lopez or went to school with the teen have spent the past nine months voicing their anger and grief over the Oct. 22 shooting by sheriff’s Deputy Erick Gelhaus, who reportedly mistook a BB gun Lopez was carrying for an assault rifle it was designed to resemble. De los Angeles said many of the kids lack other outlets to cope with their friend’s death.

“They’re heartbroken and need help,” she said.

She sprung into action, launching within weeks of her arrival a free children’s art program at Cook Middle School, where she and Lopez had been students. She also rallied support from local businesses and community leaders, who have been donating to the project, One City Arts, aimed at helping kids with the healing process, De los Angeles said.

“Through the arts, they can express themselves and deal with emotions,” the 25-year-old artist said.

On a recent morning, she instructed the dozens of students packed in the classroom to draw from memory their neighborhood. Luis Diaz, who said he was friends with Lopez since both were 1 year old, drew a picture of a street and sidewalk. The 13-year-old drew the street where Lopez was killed, De los Angeles pointed out.

“They’re telling us what they feel,” she said. “(But) they’re not talking about it. They’re drawing it.”

She’s also working with the kids on painting a mural to memorialize Lopez. She said the kids hope to display at the site where Lopez was shot, which county officials hope to turn it into a park.

“It takes our minds off things,” Lisbet Mendoza, a 16 year-old girl who has been active in the protests, said about the art program.

After the Lopez shooting, various groups held community forums to allow residents to air their concerns and grief. Mental-health professionals came into the schools to meet with children.

“Our response was immediate. I was personally at Cook Middle School two days after the shooting,” said Elizabeth Goldman, Social Advocates for Youth’s counseling services program manager.

She said the organization continued to have a counselor on campus until December. However, about a half-dozen kids and their families continued to seek services at their facility off campus. Although some kids suffered previous traumas, Goldman said the shooting triggered more mental-health problems. She said many suffered post-traumatic stress disorder and struggled with suicidal thoughts.

“Many talked about having difficulty at school, (like) zoning out, which is a reaction to trauma,” she said. “Of course, there was a lot of anger, but there’s also hurt, sadness and confusion.”

However, Goldman added there’s a lot of work to be done to help kids cope with the tragedy.

Cook Middle School Principal Linsey Gannon said she was thrilled to see several of her students in the art classes after such a “challenging year.”

“I believe through art there’s always an opportunity for healing,” she said.

Dozens in the community think so, too. They’re pitching in to help the art project, which De los Angeles hopes to resume next summer.

For example, Herman J. Hernandez, president of the Latino leaders group Los Cien, this week ran an email campaign, asking the group’s members to support the One City Arts by sending in checks to the Community Action Partnership of Sonoma, which is administering the funds for the project. Members so far have pledged more than $2,500.

Wells Fargo Center for the Arts is planning to hold a one-day exhibit on Aug. 10 where the kids’ work would be displayed in the main lobby.

Redwood Empire Food Bank provides lunch for the kids each day, while Lola’s Market and La Tortilla Factory supply food for breakfast, De los Angeles said.

She said she also received $9,500 from the nonprofit Voices youth center to pay for art supplies, which have been provided at a discount by Friedman’s Home Improvement and Riley Street Art Supply. Voices’ executive director, Amber Twitchell, sits on the Community and Local Law Enforcement Task Force, which Sonoma County supervisors created last year to examine options for community policing programs after the fatal shooting.

County Supervisor Efren Carrillo allocated $3,000 of his district’s hotel bed-tax revenue that usually goes to marketing and boosting tourism. He said the project could boost art in southwest Santa Rosa and promote tourism in the future.

“She’s engaging kids in a community that often lacks resources,” Carrillo said. “These are the efforts we need to support as we deal with what happened with Andy Lopez.”

But the program has reached beyond southwest Santa Rosa and those directly affected by the shooting.

De los Angeles has more than 50 students coming from all corners of Sonoma County, including Rohnert Park, Cotati and Windsor, to learn how to blend paint colors, draw perfect circles and use continuous lines to create images - techniques she proudly tells the kids are learned at the college level. She said many of the kids have not picked up a paint brush before and come from families who otherwise would not be able to afford art courses.

The free classes are held weekdays from 9:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. and run until Aug. 8.

She still needs $10,000 to cover supplies and other program expenses, said De los Angeles, who this week asked other county supervisors for support.

Sonia Romero of Rohnert Park also addressed the supervisors.

“We would love to see the program continue,” she said through a translator at the board meeting. “It’s nice to see the kids happy.”

She and her three children - Angela, Estela and Natalio Dominguez - have been participating in the classes since they started three weeks ago. Her children did not know Lopez, but she said the classes have served as a creative outlet for them. They can’t wait to get up each morning to go to class, she said.

“That’s rare,” she said, “because they usually like to sleep in.”

County Supervisor Shirlee Zane said she will earmark at least $500 from her district, while Supervisor Mike McGuire planned to allocate $1,000 from his. Supervisor Susan Gorin said she was looking into the possibility of a donation. Chairman David Rabbitt was out of town and could not be reached.

Zane, a former therapist with a master’s degree in family counseling, said she understands the power of art when it comes to healing. She started oil painting when she was 7 but quit after the suicide of her husband, Peter Kingston. More than three years later, she’s starting to pick up the paint brush, again.

“Art is one of the best therapies,” said Zane, who vowed to help De los Angeles with fundraising efforts.

“She’s not only giving them the confidence to conquer other things in life, like academics, she’s helping them cope with this grief,” she added. “I’m just so touched by what she’s doing.”

She’s an inspiration to students, the 10-year-old Estela Dominguez said after the meeting.

De los Angeles was 11 when she and her parents left Mexico and settled in Roseland. She went to Elsie Allen and Santa Rosa high schools and studied art at Santa Rosa Junior College before getting accepted with a partial scholarship to Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute, where she received a bachelor of fine arts degree. She expects to graduate from Yale next year.

“She wants us to do our best and never fail, just keep on trying,” said Dominguez, who this fall will be a sixth-grader at Lawrence E. Jones Middle School in Rohnert Park.

You can reach Staff Writer Eloísa Ruano González at 521-5458 or

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