St. Elmo Village and the Importance of Art-making in Childhood Development

by Kimberly Lieu

Before there was such a thing as ‘Art Therapy,’ there was St. Elmo Village. Rozzell and Roderick Sykes, both painters and uncle and nephew, respectively, wanted to create something positive, impacting, and permanent in their Mid-City neighborhood in Los Angeles. Art was the starting point.

Being a black artist in LA wasn’t easy in the 1960s. Rife with classism, racism, and all kinds of other ‘-isms,’ Roderick found himself being turned away at traditional galleries that weren’t interested in showing his work.

“That’s when I discovered that the ‘Wine-and-Cheese’ route wasn’t for me,” Roderick explains.

Their community faced poverty, drug addiction, and mass incarceration during the ‘70s and ‘80s, and the Village became a safe-haven for children who didn’t have anywhere to go. He and his uncle imagined a space that would allow artists to show their work, no matter what their background. They had already been teaching the neighborhood kids how to create art and to work with what they had—be it rocks, junk or whatever—and transformed every day things into works of art. They dreamed of a studio, gallery space, and a workshop to do all this and by 1970, St. Elmo Village was founded.

“Creativity teaches. The best way to learn is to mess up. That’s why we use creativity as the basis,” Roderick says. “There is no messing up, there’s only learning.”

He and Rozzell wanted to make a difference in their community and to show everyone that there was a different way of life, one centered on art and community. They called it The Art of Creative Survival.

Children's Art Workshop

Art, in essence, is a means of survival. Creating is extremely valuable in itself, while Art Therapy is a tool in which a therapist leads in art-making toward a healing result. Traditional talk therapy requires verbal communication to express feelings, while art therapy allows more abstract forms of communication. Drawing and coloring feelings can help children learn to cope with grief, for example, when they have lost a loved one. Through the arts, children learn to imagine and go through a creative process in which they are able to confront emotional challenges they may not be conscious of or are able to communicate. Therapeutic benefits include:

– Improving self-esteem

– Reducing stress

– Helping to process and heal from trauma

Through the practice of creating (art therapy before it was ‘Art Therapy’), many were able to focus on the positive and to cope with some of the emotional challenges they faced.

Lifelong member Kimble Deener was very young when he discovered the organization.

“I was about seven years old when my family and I moved across the street from The Village. I started venturing over and participating in the painting workshops and different activities they had going on at the time: Kung Fu and two piano lessons,” he explained, fondly reflecting on his time there.

“It had a really positive impact on me. When we were building the pond [a peaceful space on the grounds], it proved to me that if you have an idea or vision that you set your mind to, along with a 100-percent commitment, you can do it. I experienced such great pride in completing it.”

Disastrously, art is being cut from an increasing number of school programs, even though studies show that we value art in the classroom. According to the Youth ARTS Development Project, benefits of Arts Education include:

– Increased awareness of self (mind, body, and voice) and others (collaboration and empathy)

– Deeper understanding of human behavior, motivation, diversity, culture, and history

– Improved clarity and creativity in communication of verbal and nonverbal ideas


Art-making is also fundamental in a child’s development:

– Fostering imagination and self-expression

– Cultural awareness that helps a child understand representation of a given reality

– Strengthening academic performance by helping a child understand concepts more easily

– Life-skills such as problem-solving, fine motor skills and social skills

The life-skills that children such as Kimble have acquired often stay with them throughout their lives.

“It’s easy for me to take the things that I learned and experienced as a child,” he asserts, “and apply those loving experiences to my life to help me get through challenging situations.”

St. Elmo Village is a different kind of classroom. Not only do they teach artistic values, but, more than that, children indirectly learn the practice of being mindful and present. Residents and teen volunteers can be seen sweeping the grounds every Saturday morning together. Much like the practice of Wax On, Wax Off, popularized in such films as The Karate Kid, sweeping teaches you to slow down, take the time to be here and now, and take care of your environment, body, and spirit. Their succulent gardens, peaceful pond, and impressive art galleries invite you to slow down and interact with your environment, and more importantly, with yourself.

The safe, welcoming atmosphere sets them apart from any other organization in existence, welcoming everyone no matter what race, class, gender, sexual identity, or any other identifiers the rest of the world may use to categorize someone. St. Elmo’s fundamental philosophy is that we are all human. They serve underrepresented communities, but they are open to anyone who wants to explore their own creativity.

“Since the village has been around, it’s been uniting. Art is the universal language and brings everyone together,” Roderick says with a smile.

Kimble adds, “Roderick Sykes has been like a mentor and father to me from the age of seven to my current age of fifty. He has shown me the importance of working from your heart, and doing what you love, and loving what you do. My life was filled with love, and I was surrounded by love and creativity every day of my life.”

Everyone is welcome to visit. All St. Elmo Village asks for is for everyone to be their best selves.


Donate to keep the arts thriving! St. Elmo Village is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization where creativity, education, life skills, community involvement, self-worth, and environment are nurtured and encouraged through the Art of Living. They provide FREE Children’s Art Workshops Saturdays from 11am-12:30pm and FREE Adult Art Workshops Tuesdays at noon.

Founded in 1969, St. Elmo Village has served the greater Los Angeles community for more than 45 years. Open daily, just call ahead to take a tour of the art galleries.

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St. Elmo Village in Los Angeles
St. Elmo Village in Los Angeles