Artists as Healers

Remember that great old game, Sim Earth, where you created a planet, then populated it with evolving creatures of your choice?

The idea was that your well-intentioned Godhood would create a race of intelligent beings (we always made ours dinosaurs or dolphins) whose civilization eventually reached the stage where it left earth and headed for the stars.

One of the saddest things about the game was that the best way to prod your population into the future was by making it miserable. But, fascinatingly (and, we think, truly) the greatest misery was caused when you stopped your civilization from creating art.

The moral of Sim Earth (well, one of them anyway) was that art is what makes life bearable. And now, with absolutely no references to Sim Earth at all, this article is going to come at the situation from another angle and tell us how and why:

iStock_centerby Carly Ginsberg

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….

Read it all