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Meet Sheena Rae Dowling of La Maestra Center for Youth Advancement

Today we’d like to introduce you to Sheena Rae Dowling.

Sheena Rae, let’s start with your story. We’d love to hear how you got started and how the journey has been so far.
I took up painting over 20 years ago, but my practice now involves multiple mediums including sculpture, installation, sewing, drawing, and video. Although paint is probably my secret lover. It’s so visceral, tactile, luscious, and seductive. Although it goes in and out of current art trends, I will never leave painting.

Now, it sounds like I’m in some sort of co-dependent relationship! Hahaha! Making art is such a labor of love for me. The process is so transformative. It can be slow and meditative or aggressive and energetic, but it always puts me right here. Present.

At the moment, it lets me come to it and spill all my guts out at it, and it holds a sacred space. I believe so deeply in the power of art, and once I realized its magical potential, I wanted to start sharing it. Like, “Hey man this stuff is amazing! Have you tried it?!”

I began working with youth over 15 years ago and its just naturally evolved over the years to include all types of organizations and projects, but the motive is the same. I want people to have access to this amazing tool and hopefully come at the process from a place of non-judgment in order to benefit from its healing properties.

But hey non-judgment is super hard, and there’s a whole academic institution called art criticism, well, I’ll leave that for another interview.

Has it been a smooth road?
I’ve definitely like most people, experienced some difficulty in my life. I started experiencing mental health challenges in my early teens. I sought external sources to treat these issues, more or less self-medicating, and then some of those external things became issues too.

At an early age, however, I discovered art and began using it to help me process my emotions and cope with what I jokingly refer to as the “Trifecta of Mental Disorders.” Its always been there for me. Art has never abandoned me. In all seriousness, it has saved my life multiple times.

It has seen me through the good times and bad. When I entered recovery, it stood by my side and became one of my most powerful allies in helping me communicate. It’s hard to talk about mental health in public.

It’s hard to open up about your struggles for fear of being labeled, and there are so much stigma and shame still attached to it. Yet how do we get help if no one’s talking about it?

We’d love to hear more about what you do.
Well, the La Maestra Foundation has been around for the last 30 years, but the program I work for is only about 5 years old. It is called La Maestra Center for Youth Advancement.

We work with students in City Heights offering them programs that they would otherwise not have access to, for example, art, music, theater, gardening, skateboarding, and yoga.

Many of the people who use our programs are from low-income backgrounds and are new to this country including refugee and immigrant families. Our population is so diverse with children from places like Afghanistan, Congo, Cuba, Ecuador, Mexico, and Somalia.

One of the coolest things I’ve seen was two boys who didn’t speak the same language, one spoke Farsi, and one spoke Spanish, somehow communicate and have these long conversations with each other, speaking two totally different languages and then grow to become close friends.

Man if I could have been a fly on the wall for some of those talks! It amazes me what these kids have gone through, the kinds of traumas they have suffered. Yet I see them grow and heal. We offer them tools through the arts to process their emotions and share their experience.

Sure a part of me sees some of this as trying to ingrain these healthier habits early on so when challenges come up later in life they have supports in place to act like safety nets, just like art did for me. Its how I show my gratitude for this gift that has shown up for me over and over again.

Where do you see your industry going over the next 5-10 years?  Any big shifts, changes, trends, etc.?
I am hoping that over the next 5-10 years, more research is done on depression, anxiety, addiction, and other mental disorders and their treatments. The more information we have, the better we can help people who suffer from these diseases.

There has been pretty substantial research done on how the arts positively impact people struggling and perhaps it even plays a part in preventative care for mental health disorders.

The more research and scientific evidence we have to base these claims the better funding we can get for them. Our medication doesn’t always need to come in the form of a pill.

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