Joakim Noah’s mom offers art therapy to mothers who lost child

Tangela Jones sketched a sun with many rays, an image to lift her spirits in the morning. Lori Tucker brushed black and red on a canvas, debating whether to paint a mountain. Maria Pike painted a shape transitioning from darkness to light.

On a recent Sunday at Pilsen’s Vault Gallerie, Cecilia Rodhe — a sculptor and certified expressive art therapist, as well as the mom of former Chicago Bulls center Joakim Noah — encouraged mothers who have lost children to violence to create something that expresses their feelings

“What we’re trying to do here is have the moms be seen and heard,” Rodhe said. “These moms have lived the ultimate sacrifice. It’s not a club that anybody wants to be in because this is a very, very painful situation. … It’s a difficult topic. But I’m just so proud of them coming here and wanting to express themselves.”

For several years, Rodhe, a resident of Hawaii, has been traveling to places around the world, including Chicago, to conduct such events. The sessions bring mothers together to support one another and grieve. The mothers make a piece of art and then share their reason for creating the image and the feelings behind it.

Ladies of the Arc is part of her son’s foundation, Noah’s Arc, a Chicago-based endeavor that centers on nonviolence initiatives. Noah and Rodhe created the nonprofit foundation in 2010. It has been providing sports and arts programming for youths and their families in underserved areas on the city’s South and West sides.

This year, Noah launched the One City Basketball League with other violence prevention groups in Chicagoland, equipping it with coaches and coordinators who are trauma-informed experts in conflict resolution.

Rodhe said the goal for the ladies’ component is to offer what she considers “one of the biggest violence preventers” — moms. Rodhe is creating a curriculum of “expression from the inside,” where mothers can share the pain of their loss with youths in the league to stop the violence before it begins.

“The Ladies of the Arc are our biggest ambassadors in the fights against violence,” Rodhe said. “The kids or young men, when they hear the stories spoken through the art, it’s really then that they realize that they do not want this to happen to their mother. One of the moms said: What about us? Some of the moms are very, very talented and they are natural instructors. My dream moving forward is to do a teachers training weekend and make a master class to teach them ‘expression from the inside,’ so some of the moms can become instructors.”

Rodhe said she’s developing the programming and when she’s back in Chicago in October, she will put it in motion. Rodhe said that after a recent sharing session on the South Side with mothers, a teen came into the room where the mothers were creating their art and he listened to their stories.

“They spoke directly to him: ‘Be careful, we pray for you guys, and don’t let this happen to your mom,’” Rodhe said. “Directly afterward, I asked him, ‘Is this too much? Tell me the truth.’ He said, ‘It’s a lot, but we need to hear this.’ This curriculum is being born out of this unfortunate need.”

Tucker is new to the group. The South Shore resident lost her 20-year-old son, Jatonne Sterling, a former Morgan Park High School baseball player, in a shooting death at Clark Atlanta University. Atlanta police said they found Sterling fatally shot in a car near campus, where he was a sophomore on a baseball scholarship, on Feb. 28.

Participants begin their paintings on July 16, 2023, at Vault Gallerie in Pilsen during a Ladies of the Arc event for mothers who have lost children to gun violence.
Chrissy Morgan, from left, Maria Pike and Lori Tucker work on their paintings on July 16, 2023, at Vault Gallerie in Pilsen during a Ladies of the Arc event for mothers who have lost children to gun violence.

“He was killed outside his dorm,” Tucker said. “All I’m trying to figure out is how can I get to the next moment of being OK. I just want to feel better. What does feeling better look like if you don’t have one of the most important people in our lives?”

An arrest has been made in the death of her eldest son, and Tucker said she is coping as best she can. When her godsister informed her about the Ladies of the Arc program, she felt like the group was speaking to what she needs.

“I was seeking out help, and just trying to find people who understand what I’m going through because my friends don’t know what to say,” Tucker said. “We could be having a great conversation on the phone and I just start crying for a moment and then it’s over, but it’s harder for (my friend) to hear because she doesn’t know how to respond and I have to coach her and tell her, ‘You don’t have to do anything. Just let me get through this.’ But with (the Ladies of the Arc), when I cry, we talk, and it’s OK for our kids to be alive at this table.”

Over lunch, the mothers shared stories of their loved ones making their presence known after they’ve gone. They also talked about going to the cemetery, bringing a chair and talking to their child. Dorothy Riles does that for her son, Lamar Drakes, who was killed in June 2021 at age 28. Rewards were posted for leads, but the case remains unsolved.

Riles, a Cook County sheriff’s deputy at the Markham Courthouse for 25 years, says it’s hard to go into the city knowing that her child was taken from her while he worked on his car in front of his grandparents’ home at 104th Street and Eggleston Avenue in the Roseland neighborhood.

“Even to come here … just to see a paramedic go by, it’s hard,” Riles said. “People who haven’t lost kids, there’s nothing they can tell me. They can help you grieve, but they can’t help your trauma.”

Cecilia Rodhe, right, a sculptor and certified expressive art therapist, hugs Dorothy Riles as she shares her painting on July 16, 2023.

Tucker agreed. “When we have children, we make our plans around our children, growing up, getting older, burying us. That plan has changed,” she said. “What do you do? You need help just beyond coping with the loss, coping with the rest of your life. People here know already without words. They know I’m not OK. What does mending my heart look like, if it’s ever going to be mended?’”

The participants are each other’s best support system, Rodhe said.

“We’re providing a platform where it’s a safe place to express your feelings,” she said. “We will have a support group born out of this where we will have a once-a-week call checking in on each other — to have the ladies feeling that they have a group where they belong … that’s the whole idea of this.”

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