Art as healing
by Susan Schneider
When my friend Robin was getting divorced she found herself drawn (pun intended) to sketching a Depression-era photograph of a man with a plow. She said there was something about working with that photo by Dorthea Lange that comforted her—something about the farmer’s strength in pushing forward into the future despite bleak and challenging circumstances. Gazing at that determined farmer (and replicating his courage with her own pencil) reassured Robin that barren land could once again produce a harvest, and that her own dire circumstances would once again yield life.
Completed works and the act of making art both can be avenues toward healing. Though all art forms—theater, music, dance—can evoke tears of recognition and insight, it was visual art for my friend Robin. There is something about the power of texture, color, line and shape that leads some people to feel more authentically alive.
Art calls us forth
Art provokes us. To provoke comes from the Latin provocare, which is a combination of pro- (forth) and vocare (to call): to call forth. Art calls forth a reaction, even if it is not overt protest art like the The Green Table. The Green Table is a ballet by the German choreographer Kurt Jooss, that employs dance to depict the horrors of war—particularly the tragedy of the failed 1930 European peace talks.
Sometimes we are provoked into new ways of understanding the world and our role in it by a jarring photograph or a ballet that invite us into a deeper grasp of our common human condition. And though there is power in a majestic stained glass window or an exquisite pearl brooch, art isn’t always beautiful. It might be a work we don’t completely understand, but it can still move us toward action or healing.
Art as healer
The concept that art can provoke healing is what led to the creation of The Backyard Mosaic Women’s Project in 2004 in Madison, Wisc. The Backyard Mosaic Women’s Project, founded by ELCA Pastors Mary Pharmer and Julia Weaver, whose call includes both jail chaplaincy and arts programming, is an art program for women who are being released from jail and want put their lives back together in a sober, spiritual way.
The choice of mosaic as the group’s medium is not accidental. A mosaic is a surface decoration made by inlaying small pieces of various materials, usually glass, often broken. These varied pieces are put together to form pictures or patterns of beauty. As Chaplain Weaver notes, “So too, our lives are often broken. Our life work is putting the broken pieces back together in an image of beauty.” That’s what art is. That’s what art does.
As it passes into its second decade, the ministry has moved from its first small location at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church to a larger space, St. John’s Lutheran Church, both in Madison. The program has gifted both congregations with mosaic images that help describe their missions. At St. Mark’s, the tree of life decorates an exterior wall. At St. John’s the power of the Holy Spirit is revealed in water and fire and spreads like a vine throughout the narthex.
Recently, Weaver has introduced a new form of art as healing. Because of her passion for weaving, the ministry is expanding to include some weaving and textile classes. This program’s image of disparate threads coming together to create one pattern is another metaphor that resonates for people in search of harmony and connection in their lives.
The Rev. John Mix, a jail chaplain, is also familiar with the power of creativity-provoking healing, both among the inmates he serves and in his life. He enjoyed drawing as a child, but he was 35 before he began taking art classes. He describes the experience as “coming home to a part of myself that I had overlooked for decades.” According to Mix, figuring out what you love is the beginning of healing.
To illustrate, Mix tells of a mentally ill inmate named Larry whose uncontrolled rages tended to land him in jail repeatedly. Yet when Mix visited Larry in his solitary cell once, he saw that Larry had crafted a miniature 1957 Chevy car out of white toilet paper. Larry intended to dye his creation using powdered raspberry Kool-Aid mixed with water and then give it to a deputy. His pride was obvious, and he posed for a photo with his creation before he gave it away to preserve the memory.
How can we embrace creativity as an avenue toward recovery with the same conviction as taking our prescription medicine or engaging in physical therapy?
What if we began visiting art museums and concerts when we feel bad instead of resorting to less healthy coping mechanisms like overspending, overeating or binge drinking? Why don’t we try taking out our pencils and crayons, yarn and whittling knives, paints and beads, and spend a day or two making something? Would channeling our energy in that way change us, our relationships, our world?
Perhaps, like my friend Robin, we’ll see hope emerging from paper. Maybe, like the women in the Backyard Mosaic Women’s Project, we’ll feel new possibilities taking shape as we reconfigure broken glass or weave together different fibers. Maybe, like Larry and his toilet paper Chevy, or Mix and his pastels, we’d find healing, cloaked in creativity, surprising us.
1. Has a piece of art ever provoked a strong reaction in you (tears, anger, joy)? Why?
2. Have you ever experienced what Chaplain Mix describes as a sense of “coming home to yourself” when doing something you really love? How can you make time for such activities on a regular basis?
3. Have you ever experienced personal healing when you were involved with a group project like the Backyard Mosaic Program? How can art build up community where you live?
Healing God, your Spirit reaches out to us through the act of creating and through finished creations that spark reactions in us. Bless artists who open our eyes to new ways of seeing and knowing. May we be continually attuned to creation revealing the truth of who you are and who we are. We pray in Jesus name. Amen.
The Rev. Susan Schneider is the pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church in Madison, Wisc. She is an appreciator and sometimes creator of art and believes absolutely that God has healed her through art more than once.