Easing a Difficult Path
Mozelle Spencer’s murals bring comfort to child victims helped at Dawson Place
by Tammy Adamson-McMullen
It used to be difficult for children to walk from the waiting room at Dawson Place Child Advocacy Center in Everett, Wash., back to the medical and interview rooms. But not long ago, Dawson Place Executive Director Lori Vanderburg noticed to her amazement that a child was skipping down the hallway. “I’ve never seen that happen before,” she reported afterward.
The difference? Newly installed murals by Seattle-area faux artist Mozelle Spencer that fill the center’s rooms, hallways and public areas. The colorful, intricate and often playful murals have not only cheered children but also staff, who remember the institutional blah-beige walls that used to characterize the facility.
Mozelle’s Seattle-area business, Mozelle by Design, provides all sorts of faux-finishing services. However, murals remain Mozelle’s specialty, and she especially loves creating them for children. “This type of work makes my heart happy,” Mozelle says.
However, Mozelle recalls that as she started the project last summer, her heart grew heavy. “The topic is dark. It’s a tough topic to create a backdrop for,” Mozelle says, admitting that its effect on her was unexpected.
Dawson Place is a nonprofit dedicated to improving the lives of children who have been victims of sexual or physical abuse. The center houses a multi-agency team that provides law enforcement, prosecution, victim advocacy, medical assessments, mental health counseling and referrals, and more. (See sidebar.)
Mozelle found that the medical examination rooms were especially difficult for her to handle at first. The ceilings of these rooms are covered in gummy hands, which are given to children to toss up to the ceiling. Each gummy hand joins countless others as a dramatic symbol that the children are not alone, that other children have endured similar situations and are with them in support.
The gummy hands, the child-size exam table and the medical equipment contained in the rooms were unnerving for Mozelle—made worse yet when an occasional gummy hand would come loose from the ceiling and brush her head as she painted.
However, as Mozelle interacted day after day with the caring professionals at Dawson Place and saw the important work being performed there, the darkness began to lift for her. “A shift happened,” she says, “and then the painting flowed. I saw Dawson Place not as a place of darkness but as a place of light.”
Calming Scenes and Colors
Newly invigorated, Mozelle filled the first of the two medical rooms with calming pastoral scenes: furry rabbits sitting atop a hill, a lily pond filled with yellow ducks, a friendly owl peeking from a knothole, a frolicking black and white dog, and a tree filled with chirping birds (which look discreetly away from the exam table).
In the second medical room, used for teenagers and young adults, Mozelle created a peaceful grove of white birch trees along the walls, with barely visible flocks of birds taking flight. Early on, Mozelle began the grove as a stand of trunks; later, she went back and painted budding leaves on the trees.
One of Mozelle’s first tasks was to create a new color scheme for the center. The new colors—aquatic greens and blues, soft yellows and muted neutrals—have greatly impacted the interview rooms, where children’s statements about their abuse are gathered and recorded at the request of law enforcement.
None of these rooms, which lie in the middle of the building, have any windows or decoration. This is intentional, explains child forensic interviewer Heidi Scott, to ensure that children “don’t incorporate any type of fantasy into their disclosures.” Even so, the old beige walls were stifling. Mozelle’s colors visually opened the areas and made them less intimidating for children to enter.
Mozelle’s murals have had much the same effect. They include one nicknamed the “Tree of Life.” Depicting a fully budded tree with spreading branches, intricate butterflies and bright tree frogs, the Tree of Life is the first mural that children encounter upon leaving the waiting room for the medical rooms. The mural goes a long way in abating children’s fears, says Lori, who often sees them touching the wings on the butterflies.
Undoubtedly, though, the paintings that receive the most attention are those in the waiting room, also known as the "fish room.” Mozelle has painted the entire room from ceiling to floor in an underwater sea theme that makes occupants feel as though they are swimming with happy turtles, schools of swordfish, colorful anemone, bobbing jellyfish and other creations. “This is cool!” is a common reaction from children as they enter the room.
At one little boy’s request, Mozelle included a friendly shark in the fish room, which smiles down on children as they depart for the medical rooms. This has become one of the children’s very favorite images and, according to Mozelle, speaks to the value of collaboration in a project of this nature.
With a few exceptions, Mozelle’s work is nearly finished at Dawson Place. However, she has committed to painting an enormous mural in a second entrance of the building. She also is in process of painting farm animals on the “hilly path” leading to the interview rooms.
As Mozelle wraps up the project, Lori couldn’t be more pleased. Each additional mural adds to the atmosphere that Lori always envisioned for Dawson Place. “With each step,” she says, “it’s become more and more welcoming.”