On a sunny afternoon in Joyce Kilmer Park, 5-year-old Jose Gabriel Mejia-Carela ran over to a small group of people painting and drawing on paper and canvases using brushes, pencils, and markers, enjoying the art of creating.
“He just ran over to them and asked to paint,” said Jose’s mother Carolina Carela. She and her husband hurried over to stop him from disrupting the group, but a smiling woman assured them he was welcomed to join.
That woman was fellow South Bronx resident Leslie Mejia. She was not teaching a painting class, but instead encouraging people to pick their favorite colors and paint what they feel.
Mejia, a Bronx-born artist and educator, is devoted to bring communities together to express themselves in a creative and therapeutic way. Inspired by Paint N Sit, a community organization in Atlanta, she created Pop Out and Paint, a series of free events where community members are welcomed, and encouraged, to come together, grab art supplies and express themselves through painting.
Jose, who was diagnosed with autism and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder when he was 3 years old, has always loved all types of art. His parents quickly realized that creative activities helped him focus.
“Whenever he gets involved in drawing or painting, he becomes calm,” said Carela. “It’s very therapeutic for him. It’s like it helps him feel centered.”
The goal of spreading this therapeutic expression of art to all South Bronx residents is what inspires Mejia to throw her events.
A licensed social worker and student success advocate at Guttman Community College, Mejia is steeped in the many psychological studies that examine the benefits of art for therapeutic practices. However, it was through her own personal journey with mental health wellness that she discovered how important and effective art therapy is.
In the span of five years, Mejia suffered the losses of her younger brother, her close friend, and her partner. “Throughout that time, I couldn’t find words to help me process what I was feeling,” said Mejia. “That’s when I turned to my artistic expression.”
During her grief journey, Mejia discovered something called process painting, and soon began to favor using her fingers rather than brushes.
“Process painting helps you go through the process without worrying about the result,” said Mejia. “I just allowed my fingers to touch the paint and go across the canvas. It may not look like anything, but in those moments that feeling is what I needed.’’
During her Pop Out sessions, Mejia asks participants to first choose the colors they want to begin with. “The choice of color and the feelings associated with colors are all so important to the therapeutic process,” she said, because people intuitively choose the colors that help them heal. “We give ourselves what we need.”
Largely self-taught, Mejia didn’t take an art class until her last year of high school. “Being able to express myself in that way for the first time was major for me,” said Mejia. “But I think that’s the problem. I didn’t get to experience that class until I was 18 years old.”
Art classes are often the first to go when the city schools face budget cutbacks, as they do this year. According to New York City Comptroller Brad Lander, budget cuts in the Department of Education caused 77% of the city’s public schools to open in September with fewer art programs than the previous year. For underserved communities, artistic expression is vital.
Artistic expression was also critical to Mejia releasing her emotions safely while stuck at home during quarantine. “I can honestly say if it weren’t for my ability to express myself and let things out creatively, I would not be here right now,” she said. “Everyone deserves that opportunity.”
It is important to her that all South Bronx residents express themselves through art without financial worry. With the help of donations, and fundraising from her collaborations with The Bronx Brewery, all of her Pop Out and Paint events are “free and for the love.”
Equally important is that these events are easy for residents to get to. Mejia’s first two Pop Out and Paint events were held in Joyce Kilmer Park. She has since partnered with local South Bronx businesses to host her events and connect with more of the community.
It’s not easy to find art programs for kids [Jose’s] age around this neighborhood,’’ said Carela. “So, when we saw that he could participate in Leslie’s events, we were so excited.” After painting at Mejia’s event, Jose begged his parents to make an Instagram page that showcased his art, but also wanted the opportunity to display his paintings in person.
Last month, Mejia partnered with the Bronx Brewery to present The Bronx in Color, an expansion of her Pop Out and Paint series, where local creatives are invited to display and sell their work along the walls of the large outdoor space at the Brewery.
More than a dozen local painters, photographers, and business owners showcased their work while a crowd of residents mingled, painted, and danced together.
Mejia plans to continue her partnership with the brewery, as well as other local establishments, to host more free and creative events for the community throughout the year.
“It’s important for me to help provide people with the access to create art so we can bring out the beauty of the Bronx, the beauty of where we are from, said Mejia.
For more information on her future events follow Mejia on Instagram @Paintwithles