Artists as Healers

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Synopsis

This piece addresses the tremendous importance of artists joining the tables off the professional stage.

While working at an Arts for All program in the South Bronx, a first grader tapped me on the shoulder. As I turned around to give her my attention, she looked at me and said, “I just want to tell you— I like the way you smile.” I was (understandably) very touched. I thanked her, and told her I like the way she smiles, too, and I wished that she did it more. I then looked down at her paper, and noticed that in the self-portrait she had been working on, she wasn’t smiling.  We had a conversation about it, and she told me how she doesn’t normally smile very much, but she’s learning.

She asked if I would take a picture of her smiling, so she could see what it looked like. I showed her the picture, but she didn’t believe it was real. I kept telling her it was really her, until she finally accepted it as the truth. She flipped over her paper and started a new self portrait, complete with purple hair, a giant sun shining in the corner, and a gorgeous, bright red smile. She didn’t keep smiling for the rest of the day, but she did offer help to the other girls at the table. I overheard her checking in with them, making sure they knew their self portraits could showcase them as the best, or most desired, versions of themselves.

The arts can give a life to the parts of ourselves that we often hide, or are scared to show in their most exploded forms. In a more traditional setting, like in a theater or a gallery, artistic work can give the audience a chance to escape from their own realities and give breath to the parts of themselves that feel touched or evoked by the piece. But, the story I shared above offers a less traditional example of the ability of the arts to give vitality to under-expressed identities. In my story, I used my tools as both an artist and a teacher to help someone in a less ephemeral way than I would have on a stage or in a gallery.

The student that I helped will carry around that self-portrait with pride. She will use it as a source of inspiration—as a reminder that she can express her happiness through her smile. And, as I witnessed, she will use this new knowledge to help her peers.  Many people don’t know about this cyclical, healing nature of the arts. I work with children from so many different backgrounds, with so many different abilities. But the one thing that I have seen work as a healer with all of them is art. When I tell them that it’s ok for their imaginations to take the lead for a bit, their entire demeanors shift. They use their anxiety, or happiness, or confusion, to create something.

Art, in all of its forms, offers an escape from reality. I’ve always seen this as a positive thing. The arts can transport us into new worlds and offer a nice little breather from the stress of everyday life. But, the more I’ve been thinking about this ability of the arts, the more it has grown to bother me. I’m just itching to figure out why so many of us want to leave where we are. What’s so terrible about everyday life that we crave to be somewhere else through so many different mediums?

Many artistic people do have a distaste for reality. And we become masters at satiating our hunger for an escape. But, maybe craving an escape from reality isn’t such a bad thing, and maybe there’s a lot more to it than just taking a vacation from the worlds we live in. It doesn’t mean that we hate the world and wish we weren’t a part of it. The most beautiful part about these escapes is that they are the ways in which we can learn the most about ourselves.

As much as the arts transport us—as much of an enormous life force that they possess—their sole purpose is not to take us somewhere else. The arts exist to introduce us to new parts of ourselves. A lot of this ‘transportation’ happens from within.

I was talking to a friend about the strange guilt I feel for being an artist, crying about how I wished I could do more for the world, feeling selfish. He was shocked. He looked at me with this genuine surprise, and told me how envious he is of artists. He reminded me that artists study people in their rawest forms, making us some of the most empathic people on this earth. He told me that the literature I read, the scripts I write, and theatre that I make, as fictitious as they are, teach me how to identify with people unlike myself, and expand my ability to think and behave empathically.

I’m not saying all of this to toot my own horn, or to justify my belief in the power of the arts. I’m saying this because I think it’s important to give a human voice to all of the research I’ve inundated my past blog posts with. I find it important to talk about how the arts have impacted me, and discuss the transformative experiences I’ve had on my own, and witnessed in others, because of the arts. I envision a world in which various art forms will be written as prescriptions, where an artist is required to be at the table in every discussion that involves healing.

A recent blog post that has been gaining incredible popularity, written by an incredibly inspiring teaching artist, Shawn Renee Lent, discusses this importance of an artist “joining the table off the professional stage.” Lent says:  “When it comes to diplomacy, an artist needs to be at the table. When it comes to the Board of Directors or a School Board, an artist needs to be at the table. When it comes to sustainability policy, an artist needs to be at the table. When it comes to facing death, an artist needs to be at the table.” I urge all of my fellow artists to fight for a seat at the table. The world needs access to the arts now more than ever. You can start by helping someone find their smile. 

Tags: art, empathy, healing nature of art, imagination, self-awareness, therapy

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