ELM Foundation: Art and Healing

In conversation with founder Melinda Riddle McCoy

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Melinda Riddle McCoy, inside Tomas Vu’s spherochromatic dome. Photo by Nathan West @nathanwestphoto

The mission of ELM Foundation is to promote the healing power of the arts. Our methods include advocating the benefits of arts therapy, providing multidisciplinary arts education, and building sustaining mentorships—all working together to cultivate a lifelong love of self-expression and awareness through a creative process. ELM Foundation was launched on February 20th, 2019 in honor of Emma Lauren McCoy whose intense childhood experience inspired the creation of this nonprofit organization which offers children who have experienced parental loss or family structure adjustments, paths for healing through art and art therapy. In addition to its multidisciplinary art education and therapy, ELM hosts at the adjacent boiler space exhibitions, currently featuring Tomas Vu’s solo project, The Man Who Fell to Earth 76/22. Melinda McCoy, the founder of ELM sheds some light on the foundation and how art plays a pivotal role in it.

What would you like to share about the genesis of this foundation?

ELM Foundation was created out of chaos and trauma. Through my personal family upheaval, I was enlightened on how the arts can be an amazing outlet for our youth to express themselves when faced with situations they have no control over. Due to unresolved circumstances, I could not safeguard my daughter in a timely manner, so now, my goal is to transcend the negativity of my family story and provide an outlet and healing to as many children as possible in honor of Emma.

When I established ELM foundation, my initial goal was only to provide arts therapy for kids experiencing any form of family restructuring, from basic divorce to losing a parent to death. I quickly realized that artistic expression is healing at any age and on a much larger scale than I imagined.

While keeping the arts therapy advocacy to ELM’s core conception, we quickly expanded into general arts education for all youth and created a safe and inviting atmosphere for community participation and growth. Fortunately, our home facilities included The Boiler, a world-known art space that added the opportunity to work with and support professional and emerging artists in many genres. By combining all these avenues, ELM Foundation’s goal overall is to promote the healing power of the arts.

Tell me about an art related project that may represent the scope of what you do in ELM.

One of our primary goals is to connect our youth directly to the professional arts community, facilitating and building long-lasting mentorships. We stress that the arts can be of lifelong benefit and if chosen, a viable career. We do this not only with words but with action. ELM is constantly adding to our roster of working artists who have a desire to give back. Our artists interact with the community and youth in various ways, from workshops, talks, performances, and more. These activities allow the kids to meet and work directly with recognized professionals in their field. These connections can benefit our youth as they continue their creative development, in turn, building lifelong respect and mentorships.

I will use our previous exhibition as an example of our programming to explain what we can accomplish by allowing our students the chance to work directly with well-known artists. This demonstrates ELM’s balance of supporting professional artists and youth, both learning and growing. In The Boiler we hosted a solo exhibition for COCO 144, Robert Gualtieri. The works covered the last seven years to a current 7 X 28 ft scroll painting that was created on-site in The Boiler. COCO is known and respected as one of the founders of the graffiti art movement in the late 60s and early 70s. Later taking his aerosol skills from the streets to canvas, his work has traveled and been shown worldwide. Both prior to and during his exhibit, COCO is a prime example of an artist giving back.

During COCO’s show, he and artist and educator Fernando Ruíz Lorenzo, hosted an immersive workshop inside the gallery on the history of street art, writing styles, and COCO’s work. The youth used classic lettering styles to explore their own personal design and assembled a small gallery show for the exhibit closing party.

Before his exhibition, COCO helped ELM launch our public art program by working with a group of Edward R Murrow high school students on our first outdoor mural. Allowing the students to create and lead the design, COCO along with assisting artists mentored the group instructing them on aerosol spray techniques and the use of commercial oil-based paints graciously donated by Colossal Media. Over the many weeks of the project, bonds were formed, leading to unforgettable experiences for both adult and youth artists. COCO’s mentorship also extended beyond painting the wall, including a referral letter to one of the young aspiring artist’s college applications.

As we presented the mural to the public in an opening ceremony, COCO expressed, with a tear in his eye, that this was one of the most rewarding projects he has ever done.

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COCO 144, Robert Gualtieri and the mural artist team Photo by Nathan West

What is your vision for ELM and how do you see the exhibition space at the Boiler in that context?

My vision for ELM is very straightforward, to provide avenues for breaking the generational bonds of trauma in our youth through artistic expression and, on a larger scale, confirming the healing power of the arts for all. When I say all, I am suggesting that everyone needs some sort of healing and an outlet for therapeutic expression, even as adults. Engaging in the arts is the ideal conduit for this to transpire. 

The Boiler space is beyond magical, the vibe, the feel, and the comfort surrounding you as you walk in the door. Contrary to what you would expect with the vastness of the space and the industrial feel of the giant 20-foot Boiler itself, built-in 1937, you would expect a more eerie and damping sensation; instead, I see the opposite of most that walk in. I see curiosity in the newcomers and a comforting feeling in those returning to a space they know well. The history of The Boiler is known to those in our community and the art world as an imaginative exhibition space with no bounds. A dream child of Joe Amrhein of Pierogi Gallery, who launched the initiative in the early 2000’s. The vision of the space was to break the mold of what a white box gallery could be. The Boiler quickly became known as a space for artists who wanted to push the boundaries of fine art.

While not affiliated with Pierogi Gallery, ELM Foundation continues to preserve the legacy with our nonprofit initiatives and protect the dream of what the space deserves to be. We believe in providing equitable access to exhibit space, creative resources, and mentorship for the ELM kids. Our aim includes promoting diversity within contemporary art and community arts programming. All activities held in The Boiler, go to fund programming for the kids of ELM Foundation. The Boiler space, when activated by creative communities, gathers a special kind of steam, empowerment.

What can you tell me about the current show at ELM?

Our current exhibition in The Boiler is another excellent example of the potential of our unique space and how it ties into our programming at ELM. Artist Tomas Vu had the vision to build an interactive experience within his exhibit, beyond artwork on walls. The centerpiece is a giant geodesic dome 15 feet high with a diameter of 25 feet, composed of translucent colored and mirrored plexiglass. Vu states, “It could look like a gigantic disco ball or something out of a colorful, psychedelic trip. I am interested in making a hub, an experiential space. It can be whatever the viewer wants it to be.”

One of the distinctive qualities of The Boiler is the size of the space, giving artists room to dream big. With 35-foot ceilings, it provides the opportunity to create projects that could never be executed in a typical size gallery. Again, our goal is to honor what The Boiler is known for, an alternative to the norm, a space to push the boundaries of creativity with ample room for any artist’s wildest fantasy. Tomas did just that with this exhibit, from the 8-foot-tall mirrored astronauts hanging above you, accompanying smaller works below, laced with the political commentary for which he is known. Vu didn’t stop there; you can also follow a musical journey within the works, from iconic references to Pink Floyd, Jimmy Hendrix, and of course, David Bowie. Hence, the exhibition title from the film featuring David Bowie, The Man Who Fell To Earth. As we move inside the spherochromatic dome, Vu added a turntable with multiple choices of albums for visitors to play and enjoy the same sounds that influenced him.

At the heart of ELM’s nonprofit initiatives, our objective is to create a balance of supporting artists, the community, and our youth programming. With this harmony, what we can accomplish is beyond the stars of Vu’s space-inspired theme. The dome gave us the perfect environment to host multiple opportunities for visitors to experience live music events, also leading to exposure for musical artists. Additionally, our community day workshops include screen printing t-shirts of Vu’s designs and a micro-residence of readings and writings with guest artists Yasi Alipour and Suzanne Herrera Li Puma. Squeezing in more events with a night of poetry readings from Anselm Berrigan, Ama Birch, Phong H. Bui, and Benjamin Keating.

Tomas, being a master printer and educator, also contributed to our long-term arts education curriculum by helping to launch our first 8-week course in screenprinting. The ELM kids will now have opportunities to explore their own creations from concepts to screen, hopefully, in the end, catching the bug of this age-old process, leading to the next generation of master printers. Overall, we are very proud to host Tomas Vu through this musical psychedelic space trip. It’s another success story of ELM Foundation and The Boiler supporting the arts community, giving rise to empowering community arts.

A group of people at an art show

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Photo by – Gabriel de Moura

With a background in psychology, then transitioning into the art world through photography, Melinda Riddle McCoy has always been passionately curious about the interaction of humans and expression. Through her personal family trauma, she realized the benefit of the arts for our youth as a healing tool, but on a grander scale, an outlet to give them a voice. Melinda (Mel) has advocated for children’s rights and mental health development, focusing on a healthy family structure since 2016. After the formation of ELM Foundation in 2019, she continues to do so on a larger platform by including the arts community to help validate the healing power of the arts.