In 2011, Robert Latchman miraculously survived being hit by two cars -- one struck him while walking across a New York City street, and then, in rapid succession, another vehicle delivered a second blow. Doctors were able to fix the physical injuries, a broken arm and leg, but the psychological recovery was more challenging.
Latchman, now 37, is an artist with learning disabilities and schizophrenia. Since the age of 19, he has been in an art therapy program, the Brooklyn-based League Education & Treatment Center, a nonprofit day program for adult artists with neurological disabilities.
In 2005, he was one of the first artists at its gallery and studio, League Art Natural Design or LAND, also in Brooklyn. But after his accident, Latchman took two years to heal, and his family and mentors at LAND feared he would never return to the art he loved.
Latchman had screws surgically implanted in his leg and physical therapy for his arm, which still gives him pain and is still not fully functional.
But with the help of his mentors at the center, who visited him every day during his rehabilitation, providing supplies and support, he has now returned to the gallery and is painting again. His is a success story for not only those who champion the disabled, but for the power of the arts to inspire and heal.
LAND uses art as a vehicle to teach life skills, while incorporating other modes of therapy and learning. Not only did the program cultivate Latchman's passion for art, but it showcased his work -- acrylics, watercolors, stencils and charcoal drawings and made them available to the public.
In 2010, he sold a six-piece collection of boat and bridge paintings for $4,500 to JCrew, which is still on display in their Manhattan offices.
"Robert started thinking art, and living art. Everything was art, art, art," said his mother, Mary Latchman, 58, a former factory worker. "When he got into that art studio, something happened. It changed his whole life. His behavior changed - everything changed. Now, every day he thinks about art."
From the age of about 9, Robert was drawing, according to his mother, who came to the United States from Trinidad in 1978 when her son was just a toddler.
"He was the oldest of three children and I thought if I get him a puppy or something, he can say, 'It's mine.' We got a parrot called Sugar … and he started drawing the bird."
In high school, encouraged by his teachers, he began to do wood carvings, but eventually moved on to pastels, painting landscapes and flowers. After graduation, Robert worked for a time as a dishwasher at restaurants, but he was teased because he didn't move quickly and "people took advantage of him," according to his mother.
"He used to come home and get papers and draw, draw, draw," she said. So one day a counselor at the development center where Robert, then 19, was getting treatment, suggested he look into an art therapy program.
New York City's League Center provides comprehensive education and treatment services to children and adults with developmental and psychiatric disabilities at no cost to the families.
Its art program was not fully formed when Latchman enrolled, but it grew up around him. Its mission is to help the neurologically disabled discover their "strengths and gifts" in the arts, according to CEO Hannah Achtenberg Kinn.
"The arts are therefore, a hallmark of all our programs," said Kinn. "From age two, to age 70, art of any kind provides a unique source of dignity, self-expression and identity that we hope to enable each person in our programs to achieve."
"We want to help each person practice their art and in doing so, develop their own personal identity," she said. "We want them to have what Freud said was essential in life: purpose and community. That's what we're working to provide. The League Education and Treatment Center is a community of artists."
Latchman continued to thrive in the program, "working his way up," said Mary Latchman, who had a double mastectomy for breast cancer as she was trying to find a place in the world for her son. Eventually, one of his teachers said, "This guy's got talent."
But after the accident, which affected his painting arm, his family and teachers feared the trauma would derail his art.
"He believed what had happened was his fault – that's how he thinks," said his mother. "He had nightmares and signs of post-traumatic stress. … We worried he would go into a deep depression and not get over it."
The League Center's art program made sure that Robert didn't lose his place while he was recovering and brought supplies and instruction to the house so he could continue to draw.
Home visits are a vital service provided by their service coordinators with one-on-one check-ins with parents to help them manage behaviors and progress. For Latchman, that meant helping him dive head first into his art, and giving him the tools, support and instruction to do so.
"No matter what happened, they were supporting," said Mary Latchman. "No matter what happened, even if he was in bed, he had an easel and was drawing portraits. It was keeping him sane."
Eventually, he was able to maneuver in a wheelchair and a walker and returned to LAND where he is again getting accolades for his work.
In June, he sold three more paintings as one of a select group of artists at Newel, a premier art and antiques gallery in New York City. As with the sale to J Crew, he can keep half of the earnings; the other half supports the art program.
Robert's teachers say he is a star pupil.
"Robert is a very ambitious artist," said LAND curator and co-founder Matthew Murphy. "He is one of the most optimistic guys I have ever met. He has an unshakeable optimism about him. Every day, he comes in with an incredible enthusiasm about making art."
Mary Latchman said she is grateful for the support the program has provided and has faith in her son, because he has such confidence in himself.
He now tells his mother when she worries about him: "Ma, don't worry – everything will be fine. You are going to be very surprised. I am going to become of the greatest artists. You will live to see this."
"Every time you see him he has a piece of paper in his hand," Mary Latchman said. "It has really transformed his life, and the lives of many others."