Healing Personal Trauma Through Art
My life’s work is supporting girls’ artistic expression by encouraging them to express who they are and who they dream of becoming. Like many others, I came to social justice work with my own personal challenges. When I was an adolescent a traumatic, deeply terrifying and disorienting event fundamentally changed me. I was lucky. I was raised in a highly creative environment and able to turn to painting because I didn’t feel safe confiding in anyone around me, and didn’t have the words to identify, let alone express what I felt even to myself. The only way I felt connected, able to integrate what I experienced was when I was painting alone in my room or in an art class.
I felt free when I was creating. I could create the world on my own terms, as no one was watching or judging me- and if they were I could dismiss them. Only I knew what I wanted to create and could create and then did create. This knowledge gave me a sense of power and agency at a time when my life was sidelined by events outside my control. One of the things about art I loved was that I didn’t have to be “girly, cute, restrained, or an object to desire” – the things the teenage girl culture was telling me I should be. Instead, I saw that the successful artists – either male or female – could be bravely expressive and confident in expressing their visions.
These examples encouraged me to always be myself and be less self-conscious. I learned to be confident that I was special and creating something special.
When I spent time being creative, I was confronted with my feelings and emotions, which also helped me process things. Sometimes after emerging from a few hours of creating art, I did feel more balanced, like I had moved successfully through some of my inner turbulence. It helped me to engage with the daily demands of living life – getting homework done and interacting with family and school in an easier way. Art was so many things for me in these years, an emotional anchor, something I grew and learned from, and a remarkable way to be in the world that made absolute sense to me.
Fast forward to 2011 and a friend, the co-founder of Colors of Connection, Laurie Reyman, invited me to work in Liberia on a mural painting project. At the time Liberia was transitioning out of a 14-year civil war and was tasked with the enormous jobs of both reconstruction and development. We painted buildings that had been looted and burned over the course of the war. In just a few months’ time, 56 youth from 8 schools in a small town worked with community leaders to create the large-scale murals.
Our public collaborative art not only transformed buildings that bore the scars of conflict, but also opened a door to new and exciting possibilities for the youth and community to become involved in together. The burdens of poverty and the reminders of the war were lifted, creating new space to imagine and express a different reality, build positive relationships and for the adolescents involved also experience self-actualization.
I personally know the creative experience to be deeply fulfilling, nurturing, and validating. When I think back to my own teenage years, I can’t imagine what I would have done without a creative outlet. I wonder if I had not had it, I would have been able to emerge from my trauma, know who I was and what I wanted, and connect and engage with the world positively. It was a fundamental pathway for me that now gives me full conviction that art is extremely valuable for youth to experience during adverse circumstances.
It’s my goal to find a way forward for art to be accessible in places where resources are few and the frequency of traumatic events are great. While this gap exists where I come from in the US, it is largest in conflict-affected and low-and middle-income countries – which is why I have chosen to focus on these settings. I know that to reach this goal will mean finding scalable solutions, partnering with local structures, and building on already indigenous practices, so that the arts (painting, music, photography, dance, sculpture and theater) can fully support the mental health of all youth.