A handful of young artists sporting coats and winter boots gathered at a Hennepin Avenue bus stop Tuesday to raise awareness of child abuse -- one splash of paint at a time.

Children, parents and volunteers surrounded two large canvasses and loaded their brushes with paint. Four-year-old twins Madeline and Meredith painted purple flowers and swirls next to Minneapolis Mayor R.T Rybak.

"[I painted] all those things that are kind of messed-up," Madeline said.

"There are no mistakes in art," a volunteer corrected.

Though the mood was lighthearted, the event highlighted a problem that affects 7,000 Minnesota children a year.

Tuesday's artworks are among 20 paintings created by children who have personally experienced abuse and neglect. They will be on display at five bus stops along Hennepin Avenue until May 1 to commemorate national Child Abuse Prevention Month.

The project is the work of Free Arts Minnesota, a local nonprofit that uses art to help children process and heal from violent experiences like abuse. Most of the young artists in the program live in transitional homes such as homeless shelters and halfway houses, volunteer artist Jill Eckhoff-King said. "They all have had some rough things happen," she said.

Though many of the paintings feature cheerful spring designs, there are several that clearly hold a much different meaning.

Scrawled at the top of one painting are the words "Stop domestic violence." Below that is an angry man, with slashes for eyebrows, watching behind prison bars. To his left is a grave inscribed "RIP Mom" with an angel flying above a grieving child.

Statewide, there are almost 7,000 confirmed cases of child abuse each year, Free Arts Minnesota executive director Michele Silverman said. Silverman said Free Arts Minnesota serves 300 children a week. Last year the program served 2,000 children -- and it has a waiting list 5,000 names long.

Children weren't the only artists getting their hands dirty.

Rybak also helped paint one of the two art pieces Tuesday morning.

Holding a fat paintbrush, Rybak formed a sizable multicolored blob on a white space of canvas.

He said it was a tree with purple leaves.

"I don't know how you couldn't have seen that," he joked.

Kathryn Nelson is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune.