Survival Art: Using Art Therapy to Heal

We are pleased to bring you this guest post from our new friend Elf Lady.  Her post originally appeared  here on her blog Elf Lady’s Chronicles, where she shares personal stories of surviving domestic violence, divorce and motherhood.  Elf Lady’s blog is wonderful narrative of her journey in healing, we think you’ll enjoy reading her work. 

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“Art opens the closets, airs out the cellars and attics. It brings healing.”
-Julia Cameron

As women we are artist of our own lives.  We exercise our creativity by providing healthy, hearty meals for our family, creating a cozy home, planning birthday parties and organizing holidays.  We are constantly creating.  In addition, women are the natural nurturers and healers in our society.  So what happens when we need to be healed? What happens when we need to be healed of the trauma and abuse we have experienced at the hands of an intimate partner?

As a survivor of domestic violence myself, my therapist, Michelle, recommended journaling as a means to deal with the emotions surrounding my abusive relationship and pending divorce.  I tried journaling, but it was too painful writing down my thoughts.  However, I knew from my sessions in Michelle’s office, her specialty was art therapy.

What is Art Therapy? According to the Art Therapy Alliance, art therapy is “the deliberate use of art-making to address psychological and emotional needs.  Art therapy uses art media and the creative process to help in areas such as, but not limited to: fostering self-expression, create coping skills, manage stress, and strengthen sense of self.  Art therapy has provided mental health treatment for clients who have experienced trauma, grief & loss, depression, chronic illness, substance abuse, and more.”

Michelle works with foster kids from abusive homes and other children dealing with various challenges.  She predominately uses art therapy for these children and teenagers as a means in dealing with their pain.  Her office is filled with pastels, paints, markers and sketchbooks.  The office walls are painted with colorful, bold pictures of flowers, vines, phrases, bricks and snowmen.  The paintings give me a sense of comfort and warmth regardless of not contributing to the collage of images myself.

I had been seeing Michelle for six months before I asked if I could try Art Therapy.  I considered myself a creative person.  As a child I sketched eyes and faces and wrote poetry, but that ended as I entered college to become an engineer. Today my creativity is expressed through every day activities such as cooking, decorating, gardening and at times photography.  I know  I don’t have the skills to be a true artist, and that’s okay.  Art therapy does not require skill.  It only requires you to try.

Gretchen Miller, MA, ATR-BC, CTC, writes, “Through art-making, survivors can make sense of and find their way out of chaos, frightful memories, and the raw emotion of their abuse to discover a sense of grounding, strength, safety, understanding, and hope.”

So I bought a pack of pastels and got out my sketch book.  One of the first pictures I drew in my sketchbook was of my husband.

My Husband

I wanted to draw a picture showing how I saw him that night and other nights when he was angry.  The dark blue is the coldness in his heart, my feeling of dread, and the darkness of my depression.  The fire represents how quickly my husband could explode transforming himself from a civil, normal man to a heartless, angry monster.

My next attempt expressed my feeling of being shattered and surrounded in a sea of chaos.  My marriage was shattered, my sense of self was shattered, my belief system was shattered.  Things I believed to be true were no longer true, so what was real and what was not?  Who or what could I believe anymore?

Shattered

After these short drawing sessions, I was always a little more at peace.  I felt a sense of relief getting these pictures and feelings out of my mind and soul and onto paper.

Although I could not afford it, in August I decided to rent a beach cottage for the week before my son returned to school.  He brought his beach toys, matchbox cars, and books.  I armed myself with my sketch book, pastels, and colored pencils in addition to my self-help books, camera, sunscreen, and beach chair.

The sound of the ocean and the warmth of the sun has its own healing properties. Sitting on the beach listening to the waves and watching my son play in the water, I could finally relax.  I began to capture this peace and solitude with my pastels and pencils.

The Beach

I first drew the view from the front porch of our little cottage.  I could sit on the porch in my rocking chair and watch the breeze blow the dune grass and lines of pelicans fly by.  Often I would see fishing trawlers and sailboats in the distance.

Colors of Seashells

Another favorite pastime that week was searching through the vast amounts of seashells deposited on the sand after high tide.  There were so many shells it looked like a dump truck had driven on the beach in the night and unloaded an entire load of beautiful, multi-colored seashells.

The sifting and searching for my favorite shells became meditative and therapeutic for me.  I was fascinated by the palette of colors nature applied in creating the shells. So, one night while sitting at the kitchen table, I laid out an assortment of my shells and captured their colors on paper.  Using pastels, I was able to blend the colors into shades that matched my shells. I realize my drawing doesn’t look like much, but I was pleased with the result and looking at the colors has a calming affect for me.

Finding Peace and Solitude

My last drawing at the beach was a sketch in a struggle to find some peace and solitude one day. As I drew this scene of my beach chair and umbrella, I was in reality having an anxiety attack.

My mom had decided on her own to follow us to beach for four days during the time my son and I were there.  Upon arrival, she proceeded to take control of my son and whisk him away for putt putt golf or swimming at the pool of the condo where she was staying regardless of any plans I may have had.  While I was grateful for the time my son was able to spend with his grandmother and the hour or two for a long walk on the beach, I felt these decisions were made for me and my peaceful vacation had been hijacked by my mom.  Striving to set boundaries, we eventually had words resulting in her leaving in a huff.  But I was much relieved to have regained control of my vacation.

Coming full circle, I want to share a drawing of one of my injuries I received the last night my husband assaulted me. I did not draw this until the end of September, a full nine months after the assault.    Creating this drawing was triggered by registering for a 5K benefiting Interact of Wake County, the local non-profit supporting victims of domestic violence.  As a survivor, I felt a duty to run in this race.  In the days leading up to this race, I started to relive that night.  I felt the sense of betrayal and shame all over again.  Finally, I decided to capture what happened that night on paper, hopefully coming to terms with it in some fashion.

Me & Betrayal

My sketches have brought me peace during and after drawing.  At times, the drawing has brought clarity to how I felt about my abusive relationship.  At other times the benefits of drawing cannot be put into words, but I know a small tectonic shift has occurred leading me further along my path of recovery.

While we may never pay our bills with our endeavors of painting, drawing, or sculpting, we are all artists of our own life.  Every day we create a beautiful mosaic of our lives with connections to our loved ones, our friends, our hobbies and passions, and events in our life.

As women, we are accustomed to the art of creating and the art of healing. We create nutritious meals for our family, beautiful gardens, and cozy, inviting rooms for our homes.  We heal our children when sick, our partners and friends when they are down and out.  Why not combine these two worthy and natural skills to heal ourselves through art?

Writing and Healing: 3 Lessons I Have Learned

Writing and Healing: 3 Lessons I Have Learned

By Jennifer Lucas  – We are pleased to bring you this guest post from Jennifer Lucas. In addition to writing, Jenn does web design, practices Bikram Yoga, dabbles in various art forms and has an interest in non-profit management. Oh yea, she was also one of SpeakArtLoud’s first volunteers!  

Writing is My Art

Writing has been an important part of my healing process for as long as I can remember.  I’ve dabbled in painting, collage and other art forms, but I always come back to writing.  I write poetry, short stories and I have started a memoir a thousand times over.

For me, just taking a few minutes to write down my thoughts and feelings is a healing experience. Sometimes just the act of getting the words out of my head and onto paper makes room for what is even deeper and that is where I find I really heal.

I was in an abusive marriage for 15 years; I’ve been divorced for six years and have three children.  I was also raised in the LDS (Mormon) religion and was married in the Mormon temple.  I raised my children in the Mormon faith and did the best I could to live “in” that religion, though I could never really “be” in that religion. I struggled with my belief in the Mormon Church for most of my life.

After I got married I had to hide the physical abuse from almost everyone, leaving me feeling empty and alone. I made my way out of the Mormon Church while still married, causing my ex-husband to ramp up the emotional and financial abuse.

It was ultimately my writing that helped me get away, but it was also my writing that cost me dearly and I’ve learned some valuable lessons over the years about art and the healing process.

Lessons I Have Learned

(1) Turn Off Your Inner Art Critic

For years I was lucky enough to be able to write unfiltered.  I wrote poems and short stories and I blogged online.  But after my blog was discovered (more on that in a minute), everything I wrote was tainted by my inner critic who told me my writing was terrible, that people would make fun of what I wrote and that no one was interested in what I had to say.

After my blog was discovered I was unable to write for years. I would start writing and within minutes what I saw on the page was white-washed words that held no meaning to me.

It took some time, but after struggling with my inner critic I started writing about how much I disliked my critic and how much I hated what she was telling me.  In many of my writing sessions I had a pit in my stomach, I squirmed in my chair and my anger would spill out on to the page, but after I got all that out of my head my inner critic left me alone to write what was in my heart.

In the last year or so I’ve been able to put pen to paper and really get back in the groove of writing and really feeling that healing process that comes from my art.

(2) Your Artistic Process Is A Powerful Part Of Your Healing, Be Careful Who You Share It With

About nine months before I left my ex-husband I decided to start writing online.  I started writing online because I wanted desperately to connect with people and deep down I wanted validation that getting divorced and leaving the Mormon Church was not selfish.

I had reached out to Mormon leaders in the past, talking to them about the physical and verbal abuse, but many of the leaders (all men) told me to honor my husband, read my scriptures and pray and everything would be fine.  I was counseled that leaving my husband was a selfish act and would harm my children.

By the summer of 2004 I was struggling so much that I told my story to the world, publishing it all online. I used a fake name, showed only a baby picture of myself and never used anyone else’s real name, but as my blog became more popular it was only a matter of time before it was discovered by people I knew.

The fallout was epic.  I lost a lot of friends and my ex-husband and I, who had a tenuous co-parenting relationship at best, could not overcome the fallout.  We haven’t spoken in years, and while that may seem like a good thing, it makes life very difficult for our children who’ve grown almost to adulthood with parents who do not communicate.

There is a deep connection between art and healing. Make sure that the people you share your art with love you, care about your feelings and can be constructive (if need be), but are also understanding of the relationship between your art and your healing.

(3) Be Gentle With Yourself and Respect That Healing Is A Process

When I was 9 years old my dad left our family while we were on vacation; he left our family in a small town with nothing but our suitcases. I wrote a play soon after that scared me so badly I had to sleep with my mom for a week.

I’m 43 years old now and I am still writing stories that touch me deeply.  Some days I let it all out and feel replenished and vibrant. Other days, I’m writing about feelings and memories and places I’d completely forgotten and by the time I’m done I’m exhausted, my head aches from crying and I crawl in bed, pulling the covers over my head just like I did when I was 9 years old.

I was abused by a man and by a patriarchal belief system that upheld that man’s power for over 15 years. Before that I took care of my mother and my little sister after my dad left our family.  I’ve been away from my abusive ex-husband for six short years, while I’ve made leaps and bounds in my healing and have radically changed my life and how I chose to live it, I am still healing.

Sometimes I wonder why I’m not done yet and sometimes I get frustrated with the tears and the post-traumatic stress. But then I remember to be kind to myself, to give myself space and time to recover.  I must be gentle and respect my process.

I am always healing.

Kick Up Your Heels!

Kick Up Your Heels! 

November is Arts and Health Month. This month our blog will focus on the relationship between art and health.  For more information you may visit the Society for the Arts in Healthcare, the international non-profit organization that founded Arts and Health Month.

The pursuit of art on a regular basis may be the key to healing our minds and bodies. Kim Blair

When I think about the relationship between art and health I typically think about the connection between creativity and the brain, mental health or stress reduction.

I tend to not think about the connection between art and physical activity.  However, there is a relationship between art and physical activity and, as we all know, physical activity is important to good health.

You see, art is such a fundamental element in our life that we can easily overlook the presence of art.  We may not recognize how often art is a part of our activities or how often art influences or enhances our health and well-being.

 Dance – an art form. The body – an instrument. Learn to play the instrument and master the art form. Debbie Dee

Dance is an art form.  Maybe calling what I’m doing on Saturday night art is a stretch but listening to music (art) and dancing (art) is a perfect example of how art can be a part of our physical activity and help to keep us health.

Dance is a great exercise. Dancing can raise your heart rate, burn calories, and tone muscles. Dance also helps with:

  • better coordination
  • increased flexibility
  • improved balance
  • physical confidence

One of the best things about dance is that for many people dancing doesn’t feel like exercise. Instead, it is a fun and social activity.  Art, in this case dance and music, enhances our experience making our activity more joyful.

Whether you study ballet, practice tap-dancer, do hip-hop moves, belly-dance with friends or take weekend ballroom lessons you are getting a great work-out all while practicing a long standing art form.

And that is one of the most beautiful things about art, it connects us to traditions.  With dance, you are repeating rhythms and movements that have been part of human behavior for centuries.  You become part of something greater and continue to keep art alive.

Next time you turn up the music and dance take a moment to appreciate the art you are practicing.

10 Inspiring Quotes

Thoughts on Finding Strength and Courage 

(1) Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.   ~ Marianne Williamson

(2) Hope has two beautiful daughters. Their names are anger and courage; anger at the way things are, and courage to see that they do not remain the way they are. ~Augustine of Hippo

(3) The most common way people give up their power
is by thinking they don’t have any.
 ~ Alice Walker

Thoughts on Recognizing Your Worth   

(4) Never let the hand you hold, hold you down.  ~Author Unknown

(5) Where I was born and where and how I have lived is unimportant. It is what I have done with where I have been that should be of interest. ~ Georgia O’Keeffe

(6) There is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. ~ Martha Graham

Thoughts on Supporting Women 

(7) There is a special place in hell for women who do not help other women.  ~ Madeleine K. Albright

(8) Educating girls worldwide is the best way to advance the role of women. ~ Geena Davis

(9) Remember our heritage is our power; we can know ourselves and our capacities by seeing that other women have been strong. 
~ Judy Chicago

(10) When women thrive, all of society benefits, and succeeding generations are given a better start in life. ~ Kofi Annan

Women Are Heroes

Women Are Heroes

The 2011 TED prize  was recently awarded to French artist JR.  JR, who remains anonymous by never revealing his full face or sharing his name, mounts large photo displays in urban settings.

From the slums of Paris to the favelas of Brazil, JR uses art to call attention to the people and the places that make up the often overlooked urban scenes.

In JR’s TED talk (which is worth watching!) he shares images of his work.  The large-scale photo murals are stirring; it is hard not to be captivated by the images of faces posted across broken bridges, rooftops and walls.

However it is his recently completed documentary film “Women are Heroes” that has most captured our attention.

In “Women Are Heros” JR draws attention to women, splashing their pictures across the communities – mother and grandmothers, sisters and daughters. No longer can women be overlooked.

Through visual art women become a significant part of the fabric of the community. Women are seen. Women are present.

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Channeling Passion & Sharing History – Creation of Heritage Salon

Channeling Passion & Sharing History – Creation of Heritage Salon

This is a guest post from Jada Wright-Greene, founder of Heritage Salon.  After reading a piece where she raised the question of why there are not more African-Americans visiting museums I realized I had never considered this and wanted to find out more about her work.  Museums hold not only art but also serve to record our history and culture.  We are inspired by Jada’s passionate for sharing history and culture.

Passion and Drive

At the age of 17, soon after I arrived on the campus of Bethune Cookman College, I began working at the Mary McLeod Bethune Foundation (Home of Dr. Bethune).  It was here that I realized my love of historic house museums.  At a time when most college freshman are at parties or hanging out with new friends I spent hours working at this historic home museum without pay and I loved every moment.As years went by I was still in love with historic homes. I love historic house museums because when you enter an historic home it gives you a sense of connection with the person that once lived in that particular space, it’s an opportunity to see the personal side of history.

Soon I discovered museum studies.  I worked in several small museums, and though I was never able to get that “big museum job” I knew I had to do something with my passion and drive for the museum field.

Three things drove me to channel my passion, (1) not gaining a big museum job, (2) discovering my name in a publication about African-American historic homes seven years after college, and (3) learning I was the first African-American to graduate from the Museum Studies Department at Michigan State University.

I knew then that I was not ordinary and felt I could make a difference. I knew I had to make my voice heard and share my passion with others.  Out of this Heritage Salon was born.

Creating Heritage Salon

Heritage Salon was created from my vision of sharing African-American museums and historic homes with the world. I also wanted to answer the question of why there are not more African-Americans visiting museums. I noticed at an early age I would be one of the only African-Americans visiting museums and, eventually, one of the only African-Americans working in a museum.

I knew, that because of my love of this field and my persistence in making others aware of this love, no one could better share African-American museums and historic homes with the world than me!

My vision for Heritage Salon is for the site to become a resource for individuals interested in the field.  Others can read about my passion and learn about museums around the country. I hope one aspect is for teachers to use the site as a resource for teaching and as a way to introduce their students to African-American museums.

Heritage Salon has moved and inspired me to pursue a Ph.D in African-American Studies with a focus on Museum Studies. I hope others can be inspired by my love, my passion, and my drive to make museums a part of their lives.

More About Jada

Jada Wright-Greene is committed to her passion of museums and introduces everyone she meets to her love. She has earned a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science from Bethune Cookman College (2000), Masters in Urban and Regional Planning and a certificate in Museum Studies from Michigan State University (2004).  Originally from the south, she currently lives in the Midwest and devotes her free time to her husband and two children.