A Memorial, and Art Gallery, on Wheels

Isaac Cooper, 16, leaves the Got Art? Bus, a mobile art gallery, at a fundraiser in Bethesda.
Isaac Cooper, 16, leaves the Got Art? Bus, a mobile art gallery, at a fundraiser in Bethesda. (Photos By Lois Raimondo -- The Washington Post)
By Lori Aratani
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 30, 2007

The bus is painted in shades of purple, orange and yellow. The colors are vibrant -- very much a reflection of the young artist who inspired it.

Sarah Malawista of Potomac graduated from Edmund Burke School in the District in June and planned to take a year off before enrolling in art school. But in August -- just 11 days after her 18th birthday -- she killed herself.

The dark-haired teenager with a flair for vintage fashion had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Those close to her said she seemed to be coping with her illness, and her death was a shock to family and friends, said her mother, Kerry Malawista. Rather than retreat, her family has focused since then on finding a way to keep her memory alive.

Sarah had often talked about ways to bring art to local schools that didn't have the resources to offer programs. She thought a school bus would be a novel way to capture students' attention. Her parents are fulfilling that dream with the multicolored Got Art? bus. The mobile art gallery, funded by family and friends, made its debut Saturday.

The family hopes to sell art donated by students and artists and exhibited on the bus to raise money for local art programs. The vehicle will also include information about bipolar disorder.

"After Sarah died, it seemed like the perfect thing to do in her memory," her mother said.

People diagnosed with bipolar disorder, also known as manic depressive illness, suffer from severe mood swings and can have difficulty coping with daily life. According to the Archives of General Psychiatry, about 5.7 million U.S. adults, 2.6 percent of people 18 and older, have bipolar disorder. It is a condition that typically develops in late adolescence or early adulthood.

It's still difficult for Kerry Malawista to talk about her daughter's death, which she declines to describe. Her voice wavers and her eyes tear up. Still, she is hopeful that the Got Art? bus can help other teenagers and families appreciate the arts and learn more about bipolar disorder.

Reminders of the young artist are everywhere in the family's Potomac home. On a table in the living room sits a picture of Sarah at age 2, done by the teenager a few years ago. Attached to the cardboard box she used as a canvas for the self-portrait is a piece of her "Mommy blanket" -- a much-loved and well-worn childhood keepsake. In another corner of the living room is a picture Sarah did of her younger sister, Anna, which their mother says perfectly captures the girl's wild brown curls.

Sarah, a vegan who refused to wear leather, took up painting when she was 14.

"She wasn't one to want lessons," her mother said. "She liked to do it her own way."

At a memorial service for the teenager in August, friends and family remembered how she would weave brightly colored yarn into her long brown hair. They spoke of her "uniqueness."

"If these things can be talked about, then they can become things people understand," Kerry Malawista said of bipolar disorder. "People are fearful when they don't understand something. We want it to be not so scary. People can get help."

For more information about the Got Art? program, go to The bus will stop at several area schools next month. On Wednesday, from 1 to 3 p.m., it will be at the Edmund Burke School in Washington. On Thursday and Friday, it will be at Winston Churchill High School in Potomac.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company