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.

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

Domestic Violence and Poetry

Domestic Violence and Poetry: Why Aren’t We Talking About This?

“One in three women may suffer from abuse and violence in her lifetime. This is an appalling human rights violation, yet it remains one of the invisible and under-recognized pandemics of our time.Violence against women is an appalling human rights violation. But it is not inevitable. We can put a stop to this.”
– Nicole Kidman, Actress and Goodwill Ambassador for UNIFEM

October is national Domestic Violence Awareness Month.  In recognition of this we are talking about the role of art has in raising awareness of violence against women and in helping women who have experienced violence to heal.

Gretchen Miller, Certified Art Therapist, shared a wonderful piece on her experience in using art therapy with survivors of domestic violence here and I shared a bit about my early work in a domestic violence shelter here.

Poetry

Poetry and is an art form that can be used to raise awareness about domestic violence, as well as a medium to help those who have experienced violence express their feelings.  (Please note, poems will not be shared in this post as we do not want to be a trigger,  links will be provided.)

The work of poet Eavan Boland  addresses issues such anorexia, domestic violence and the impact of violence against women on family and community. Her poem Domestic Violence intertwines images from domestic life and personal history with the history of her country, Ireland.

Other poets such as Lucille Clifton,  Toi Derricotte, and Gwendolyn Brooks have written poetry that references the all too common experience of physical, emotional and verbal abuse in women’s lives.

Spoken Word

In addition to written work, spoken word poetry can be a powerful form of expression.

I recently discovered the work of Renee Mitchell, a former journalist with The Oregonian newspaper, now a poet and performer who speaks about domestic violence, specifically the impact of verbal and emotional abuse.  In this interview Renee Mitchell speaks about realizing she was in an abusive relationship and she shares her powerful poetry and music.

Change the Conversation

I would like to leave you with this beautiful spoken word performance piece, “If I Should Have A Daughter” by Sarah Kay.

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
–Margaret Mead

Using Art Therapy with Survivors of Domestic Violence

Using Art Therapy with Survivors of Domestic Violence

We are please to bring you this guest post from Gretchen Miller, MA, ATR-BC, CTC Registered Board Certified Art Therapist, Certified Trauma Consultant

In recognition of October’s National Domestic Violence Awareness Month and SpeakArtLoud’s vision and voice for women, I am honored to have the opportunity to contribute this guest post about the benefits of art therapy to help empower women exposed to domestic violence.

Domestic Violence

Domestic violence is defined as “a pattern of abusive behaviors — including physical, sexual, and psychological attacks as well as economic coercion — used by one intimate partner against another (adult or adolescent) to gain, maintain, or regain power and control in the relationship” (National Online Resource Center on Violence Against Women).

Abusers use a variety of controlling and battering tactics to frighten, terrorize, manipulate, hurt, humiliate, blame, often injure, and sometimes kill a current or former intimate partner.

For a victim of domestic violence, often the impact the abuse is too difficult to verbalize through words alone and impacted by strong feelings of shame, humiliation, guilt, and fear around speaking about the abuse (Malchiodi & Miller, 2011).

Art Therapy

Art therapy is a way to assist survivors to safely express and contain these difficult and terrorizing feelings, cope with traumatic memories and triggers, as well as support emotional stabilization and strengthen a sense of safety.

Art therapy is the deliberate use of art-making to address psychological and emotional needs through art media and the creative process to help in areas such as, but not limited to: fostering self-expression, creating coping skills, managing stress, and strengthening sense of self (The Art Therapy Alliance). You can also find more information about how art therapy is used with domestic violence from the International Art Therapy Organization.

Working in a Domestic Violence Shelter

As an art therapist working in a domestic violence shelter with women and children exposed to and traumatized by family violence, I have witnessed the benefits, value, and power of art therapy to help provide a voice to survivors and begin on a path towards healing and recovery free of abuse, violence, and control.

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.

Art therapy helps provide an empowering outlet for this process, where the telling of a battered women’s experience does not have to be spoken aloud, but can be communicated through the language and reflection of art expression.

This short video was created with art expressions by survivors and advocates to raise awareness and share their stories about domestic violence:

References:
Malchiodi, C. & Miller G. (2011). Domestic Violence and Art Therapy. In C. Malchiodi (Ed), Handbook of Art Therapy (2nd Edition), New York: Guilford Press.

Gretchen Miller, MA, ATR-BC, CTC is a Registered Board Certified Art Therapist and Certified Trauma Consultant who practices in the Greater Cleveland, Ohio area. Her work specializes in children, adolescents, women, and families impacted by trauma, domestic violence, and grief & loss. Her website www.gretchen-miller.com highlights her work, interests, and passions related to art therapy and her creative practice.

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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The Harlem Renaissance – America’s Art and History

The Harlem Renaissance – America’s Art and History

One of the things I appreciate about art is how it brings history to life.  Art helps me to understand the past in a way that no history book ever has.  Art is personal, nuanced, and rich with emotion, connecting us to personal stories and experiences from the past, providing greater depth and meaning to history.

The Harlem Renaissance

I remember first hearing of the Harlem Renaissance in a college art history class, until that point I had never been aware of this creative period in American history.

The Harlem Renaissance refers to a period in America’s history when there was a wealth of art, literature, music and dance created by African Americans.  It was during this period, after the end of World War I to just before the Great Depression, that The Great Migration occurred, when a larger percentage of black Americans moved from  the south to industrial cities in the northeast and mid-west.

This was a period when significant social and geographic changes were taking place in the nation, and the art from this period both reflected theses changes and helped to drive further social change.

Women Artists of the Harlem Renaissance

This period in American history was also an historic time for women, after decades of struggle women gained the right to vote in 1920.  The art and writing of many of the African- American women during this period addressed not only race issues but gender issues as well.

Here are three women artists working during the Harlem Renaissance who’s work both reflected and helped to further social change.

(1) Zora Neale Hurston

Writer Zora Neale Hurston published poetry, short stories, novels and an autobiography, but it was her 1937 novel “Their Eyes Were Watching God” for which she is most famous.  After publication the novel, a coming of age story of an independent black woman met initially met with mixed critical success.

However, Alice Walker’s 1972 essay in Ms Magazine “In Search of Zora Neale Hurston” resulted in the book being reprinted and it is now a highly acclaimed novel.

Sometimes, I feel discriminated against, but it does not make me angry. It merely astonishes me. How can any deny themselves the pleasure of my company? It’s beyond me. – Zora Neale Hurston

(2) Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller

Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller a visual artist, started her art career by winning a scholarship to attend Philadelphia Museum School for the Arts and after earning her degree continued her art education in Paris, where she studied under Auguste Rodin.

Fuller’s sculpture Ethiopia Awakening depicts an African woman in a regal headdress, the lower portion of the body wrapped like a mummy, and is is described as symbolic of the emerging voice of black America.

(3) Bessie Smith

Blues singer Bessie Smith, considered one of the greatest singers of her era, performed on the vaudeville touring circuit, recorded for Columbia Records and made an appearance in a film and on Broadway.

She collaborated with numerous jazz and blues musicians, including Louis Armstrong.  Smith was bold and independent, and this was reflected in her music.