Arts and Healing

This will be part of a series of posts called ‘Art & Soul.’

From the time I was two and taught myself to read with a Dr. Seuss Alphabet Book with accompanying cassette, the arts have saved my life in the face of overwhelming trauma and isolation. They have also offered me healing I couldn’t get by normal means like drugs and therapy (40 failed therapists and a few dozen ineffective drugs, but that’s another story to be told at another time).

I struggle to find opportunities for someone in my position of disability and poverty to participate in programs but there’s not much available for someone like me. I long for ways to take the worst things that have happened to me and transmute them into meaningful artistic expression alongside others doing the same. I learn best by doing alongside others who are doing what I want to do.

I’d like to share some inspiration I have come across in my studies and explorations, looking at other art projects survivors have done and what I think of as their strengths.

1. One program was described to me by Lynden Harris, Creative Director of Hidden Voices. A group of domestic abuse survivors in one of their programs took cigar boxes and the prompt to decorate the outside with what they felt the outside of them was, and the inside to resemble their insides, whatever that meant for them. Some boxes were chaotic inside but housed beautiful hidden worlds inside, while others had pristine perfect outsides with pain and despair characterized within.

What I immediately noticed about this was that unlike traditional hangs-on-the-wall art, this art invited people attending the show to open the boxes, to physically engage with the art. Mysteries left unsolved and boxes left unopened are magnetic to us humans. I know when people have to physically engage with the art it’s far more visceral, emotionally impactful, and more personal, than just observing at a piece.

2. A lot about things that are broken and abandoned or thrown out speaks to me, from abandoned buildings to found object sculpture. One TED Talk I saw mentioned ‘wabi-sabi,’ loosely translated as ‘the beauty of imperfection.’ Another powerful one detailed the Japanese art of Kinsugi, which takes the shattered fragments of broken pottery and reassembles them using gold to fix the pieces together. Something about the image—making the pot more beautiful and unique and valuable than it was before it broke—still moves me.


TRIGGER WARNING: sexual assault


3. There’s an entire chapter in Bessel van der Kolk’s ‘The Body Keeps the Score’ that explores his experiences seeing projects from inner-city schools to armed forces regiments to Haig Tribunal attendants using various arts to express, heal, and cope with trauma.

4. I also found inspiration in Lewis Mehl-Madrona’s work, particularly ‘Healing the Mind Through the Power of Story.’ Born and raised Lakota and then trained as a psychiatrist, Mehl-Madrona found a need to return to his roots and healing when he felt something lacking in modern psychiatry, as many do. Thomas Moore’s ‘Care of the Soul,’ which I mentioned often on this blog as I was reading it through for the first time, also offers a lot of insight and ideas for artistic approaches healing.

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