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The healing arts: more than just paint on canvas, the arts might have the power to breathe new life into communities where hope once seemed lost.

Diana Ohene, an art therapist through Catholic Charities in Trenton, New Jersey, finds that one of the hardest things about her job is convincing people that it is more than a pastime. "They warned us that would be the case in school," she says. Even her family didn't really get it until they saw an episode of Law and Order in which an art therapist helps traumatized children. For Ohene, her work is meaningful and effective. "It's a way to heal rather than to stay hurting," she says. "Self-expression is a powerful tool for recovery. But it's hard to convince people that it's important."

In fact, individuals and communities alike are finding that art can be a powerful tool for healing and transformation. Although it is by no means a miracle cure, artistic expression is being used to counter distress, cynicism, and even violence.

Psychologist and art therapist Dr. Cathy Malchiodi, author of The Art Therapy Sourcebook (McGraw-Hill) and other books on the healing power of art, writes that sensory experiences--hugs, movement, song, drawing, storytelling--in early childhood help us develop secure attachments to others. Art actually forms and adjusts our neural systems--the brain's wiring. "Art has the potential to transform lives, and often in profound ways," Malchiodi writes, adding that "art improves not only our quality of life, but also is effective in reducing pain, fatigue, and stress and increasing cognitive abilities and emotional well-being." For both young and old, art has been shown to heal, reduce stress, and even strengthen empathy and impulse control.

Art is also a language that allows us to communicate from our emotional and unstructured right brains what our wordy and linear left brains might not be able to say. In the words of the American Art Therapy Association, art therapy "helps people to resolve conflicts and problems, develop interpersonal skills, manage behavior, reduce stress, increase self-esteem and self-awareness, and achieve insight." Theologically speaking, it can open our hearts both to each other and to God.

Drawn together

As valuable as art has been to individual healing, perhaps even more impressive are the transformative effects it can have in a community. In Philadelphia, America's fifth-largest city with the country's 10th-highest murder rate, those effects are being put to the test. What began in 1984 as an antigraffiti effort has morphed into the Philadelphia Mural Arts Program, blessing the city with some 3,600 murals and making its streets the largest outdoor art museum in the world. "You can't go very far, especially in blighted or disadvantaged neighborhoods, without seeing one," says Maureen O'Connell, associate professor of Christian ethics and chair of the department of religion at LaSalle University in Philadelphia. She discusses the murals and their effect on the community in her book If These Walls Could Talk: Community Muralism and the Beauty of Justice (Liturgical Press).

Many of the murals illustrate hope-filled African American traditions of spirituality, showing how religion can be a powerful force for good. Their oases of beauty and positive messages are displayed in neighborhoods that are scraping their way back from the urban epidemics of the 20th century: racism, factories moving away, poverty, guns, and both the war on drugs and the mass incarceration resulting from it. Philadelphia is also a city racked by violence, averaging upwards of 200 homicides in the city per year.

The Philadelphia Mural Arts Program funds artists who work with mosques, churches, synagogues, and other local groups to create murals, which between the artist's commissioning fee and supplies can cost between $10,000 and $15,000 each. An artist helps each group come to a consensus about what the mural will look like, and then they all get to work on making their vision a reality. The artist takes the lead in sketching out the enormous image, much of which is then filled in through a kind of paint-by-numbers method on material that will be pieced together and affixed to a building. People can paint at the same time in different places on the same mural. "Families bringing young people into court can work on the mural while they're waiting," says O'Connell. "People [who are] incarcerated can work on them."

In addition to the aesthetic advantages, the murals also offer a path to restorative justice. The artists engage hundreds of inmates and juveniles in prisons and detention centers annually. Victims and perpetrators may work on the same mural, like the one titled Forgiveness by artist Eric Okdeh (above left). It includes the words (in the lower left corner): "I see now that I can make a difference to someone and no longer be forgotten. So I ask myself for forgiveness for thinking that I had no worth within myself or to anyone else." Including that text--a section from an inmate's poem--was, like everything about every mural, achieved through consensus.

It's a hard road. The 2009 documentary Concrete, Steel & Paint (New Day Films) is about the creation of a mural titled Healing Walls by Cesar Viveros (above right). It was a project that brought together victims and offenders at Graterford Prison. Victoria Greene, whose son Emir was murdered in 1997, was featured in the documentary and contributed to Writings on the Healing Walls, an accompanying booklet (available online).

She wrote about what happened after she shared her story at Graterford through the project. "Many [inmates] expressed their sympathy; others wept. One man said he saw the face of his victim every night; another told of how much he worried for his victim's mother." The conversation turned to why, and one man said that when all you care about is money, you stop being human. "That's how you can kill another person," he said.

In O'Connell's book, Viveros describes the murals as an antidote to street violence. "Like coming to Mass or going to a block party, the more you connect with others, the less you are willing to hurt another person," she says.

Some of those who are incarcerated will never see the completed mural in person. For those who aren't serving life sentences, however, the process has been shown to decrease recidivism. In its budget testimony for the 2015 fiscal year, the mural arts program reported that the one-year recidivism rate for the Philadelphia Prison System's mural arts participants was 5 percent, compared with the state Department of Corrections' one-year rate of 35 percent. In addition to the healing prisoners may find with any art therapy program, the mural arts program connects them to the community and gives a sense of purpose as they tell their stories.

Even if the murals weren't socially and individually therapeutic, their beauty would make them worthwhile. They are striking reminders of love and goodness in the midst of Philadelphia's endless brick and asphalt urban corridors. O'Connell can quote generations of saints, theologians, popes, and philosophers who make the case that beauty increases our capacity to be human. "It helps us see beyond ourselves. It pulls us out of ourselves and into relationship with other people, to understand one another," she says.

A neighborhood reborn

The democratic process behind Philadelphia's murals would seem to ensure their community connection, but for artist Cliff Eubanks, the most important job of a piece of art is to keep people from walking on by. Eubanks' Philadelphia mural Born Again (page 12) has achieved that goal, since it makes most people stop and look. In it, a mother lovingly raises her baby, who reaches out to her. Silhouetted against a background of rose, lavender, and golden clouds, mother and child are framed by four-feet wide images of Jesus' life. Each of the dozen scenes looks like a stained glass window. The Virgin Mary looks down on the mother and child from the upper left-hand corner, and the crucifixion, larger than the other scenes, is in the upper right-hand corner.

Next door to trash bins at a convenience store, the mural appears dreamlike in the South Philadelphia neighborhood of Point Breeze, where struggling trees barely hang on amidst broken asphalt and overhead electrical wires. The neighborhood is on a slow road to gentrification now, but in 2000, when Eubanks was painting the mural, the neighborhood was just coming out of decades of drug epidemics--first heroin, then crack--as well as middle-class flight and related crime. As he painted, gunshots blasted nearby. Eubanks hit the scaffolding belly down. That gunfire killed a child. Years later, as Eubanks was touching up the mural, shots rang out again.

When O'Connell brought a group of undergraduate students to see Born Again, they all felt like suburban fish out of water. A couple of African American men sat on the wooden fence that stands in front of the mural and watched them. "We were visibly nervous outsiders as we approached the image and acknowledged these guys," O'Connell wrote in her book. "After a quick nod in their direction, I launched into telling the story of the mural as I had learned it from Eubanks, aware that they were listening, too."

"Do you think that sun is setting or rising?" one of the two men asked. It was an important and unexpected question, one that had never occurred to O'Connell. What followed was a discussion between O'Connell, the students, and the men about death, rebirth, and hope.

O'Connell's book is as much about social justice and theology as it is about art; when she talks about the murals, her joy and enthusiasm naturally spill over to her students and any others in her presence. It suddenly seems strange that more theology professors don't write about art, considering its time-honored connection to faith. "Every genuine art form in its own way is a path to the inmost reality of man and of the world," wrote St. John Paul II in 1999. "It is therefore a wholly valid approach to the realm of faith, which gives human experience its ultimate meaning."

Inner transformation

Art can also be a powerful protector in a dysfunctional society. "I grew up in Newark [New Jersey], and I had a lot to deal with," says art therapist Ohene. Teen pregnancy, substance abuse, and violence were all around her. "I always had to watch my back. I turned to art."

From her earliest years in school, when she was bullied or stressed, Ohene put pencil to paper to draw. That opened doors. "I got teased then, but when I go back to my old neighborhood now, I hear, 'It's the lady who can draw--it's the artist,' " she says. People ask her to help them with their own art projects.

After earning an undergraduate degree in art, Ohene decided to pursue a master's in art therapy so she could introduce art to others, hoping it would help them, too. She graduated in 2012 and went to work for Catholic Charities. Many of Ohene's clients have substance abuse issues. Others struggle with posttraumatic stress or anxiety disorders. "Anything they can do with their hands, it helps," she says.

Even a brief taste of connection and creativity can be powerful. Rebecca Burrell of Springfield, Missouri has for 14 years led Drury University's Building Community Through the Arts program. It's a two-week summer course; for five of those days students work one-on-one with participants experiencing homelessness who are residents at the Missouri Hotel, a shelter founded by Franciscan Sister Lorraine Biebel. Even that brief time culminates with students and people who are homeless alike feeling connected and empowered. Andrea Soriano, a Drury undergraduate who hopes to eventually get a graduate degree in guidance and counseling, has volunteered with people experiencing homelessness before, but had never connected in the way she did through Burrell's class. "It opened my mind and made me realize that the stereotypes aren't true," says Soriano.

Burrell, an adjunct professor of education at Drury, begins the class with her students forming a circle around a candle. They then hear the prayer of St. Francis which begins, "Lord, make me an instrument of your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love. Where there is injury, pardon." Burrell asks students to imagine themselves stripped of everything but their gifts, and then to describe those gifts, which are what they will take to those who have signed up for the art course. The course ends with a reception and art show displaying the participants' work.

Burrell, an artist and parishioner at St. Agnes Cathedral Parish in Springfield, challenges her graduate students and others she works with in a similar way. "Your life is a masterpiece," she tells them. "What are you creating?" At the end of each class, Drury students and the Missouri Hotel residents sit in a circle and share what they learned that day. "By the end it was very emotional," says Soriano.

Burrell reminds anyone who will listen that they are both the painter and the creation. She compares people's lives to one of her own paintings, Sing to the Sun, which began as an unhappy effort that she'd stuck in her garage, unsure of what to do with it. "I didn't want to just pitch it, so I painted over it," she says. "I allowed the underpainting to show through, and it became part of the design, adding texture and richness."

Pathway to peace

Ana Hurm, a parishioner at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Parish on Chicago's North Side, sees art as a way to strengthen and repair our relationships with God and other people. Hurm leads a group of parishioners in a weekly art workshop, Oro et Creo ("I pray, and I create"). For her, the time in the workshop is as much prayerful meditation as it is art. "It lets God speak to us in ways we can't always hear because our lives get us all riled up and excited," she says.

Hurm begins each session with prayer and a gospel reading. She asks the participants to imagine the scene in the reading, experiencing it from different points of view, and asks what they feel--for instance when the Holy Spirit fills the room, or when Jesus speaks to his disciples. "Everyone goes to their own crossroad, where they're meeting with God." The group's artwork is usually drawing; sometimes it's the gospel scene. Learning calligraphy is on the agenda for future sessions. Hurm believes most parishes have members who would enjoy an Oro et Creo workshop of their own.

Eleven miles south of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, at Chicago's Little Black Pearl Art and Design Center, founder Monica Haslip agrees that art serves people and communities as a tool for healing, but her emphasis is on art's economic potential for at-risk youth. The school teaches how to create something from nothing, that is, from a raw material. "If you learn to market that art, you can make a living," Haslip says.

While not every Little Black Pearl student will settle on a career in art, Haslip says that the discipline they develop as artists will help them in any field. "People underestimate how disciplined you have to be as a creative person, as an artist," she says.

Haslip began teaching neighborhood kids more than 20 years ago. Art enriched her young life as she grew up in Birmingham, Alabama, and she wanted that same experience for other kids. For 11 years her South Side basement was the classroom where she taught art workshops, building a foundation for the school and a relationship with the community. Today Little Black Pearl is housed in a 40,000-square-foot facility. "Art can help any child," Haslip says. "It can become an opportunity and refuge for children who have complicated lives. We try to give them access to tools that they can use for their artistic, social, and emotional development."

Little Black Pearl weds basic business principles with art. With help from Best Buy, its offerings go beyond traditional performing and visual arts. Students can study computing, digital photography, videography, audio production, robotics, game development, and programming, including app development.

Haslip estimates that 90 percent of her students have had a personal experience with gun violence. Some have been shot, others have lost a family member. When the Glass Art Society met in Chicago in the spring of 2014, students at Little Black Pearl's glass-blowing studio offered a glass performance art production, titled Unbreakable, for attendees. The students created glass guns, then hooked them on a wall. The glass guns shattered at intervals. "When the glass exploded, that was the message," says Haslip. "To see them crumble to the ground--it was a profound experience."

Today Little Black Pearl teaches entrepreneurship and culture in addition to the more traditional art workshops. Students also helped create murals in their neighborhood and designed some of the medallions that were installed along the retaining walls of Chicago's Dan Ryan Expressway. "That's led people to place a greater value on the children," says Haslip, "who were making the community more beautiful."

Breaking barriers through performance

In the Phamaly production of Man of La Mancha at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, it's at first disconcerting to see Aldonza Lorenzo, Don Quixote's imagined Lady Dulcinea, in a wheelchair. It's just as surprising when 15 minutes later you realize that her wheelchair has become practically invisible: She is simply the self-loathing Aldonza. She will be transformed by the end of the production, as are audiences.

Phamaly, perhaps Denver's best known and most loved theater troupe, consists entirely of people with disabilities. It's hard to imagine the song "The Impossible Dream" being more meaningful than when this cast sings it--with actors who are blind, deaf, paralyzed, or afflicted with Parkinson's, cerebral palsy, autism, and a host of other challenges.

Aldonza's song telling Don Quixote that she's not his Dulcinea but rather a "kitchen slut reeking with sweat" is always uncomfortable. In Phamaly's production it feels a bit like someone wrenched your heart out. Aldonza has been pulled from her wheelchair and raped. Afterwards, she drags herself across the stage on her way to confront Don Quixote. Edith Weiss, the director for Phamaly's Man of La Mancha production, wrote for a theater newsletter: "It was the most powerful moment I've ever seen in the theater. It was so quiet that we heard her labored breathing. Looking around, I saw that every person in that audience was also deeply moved."

"You can break all kinds of barriers with art," says Teri Westerman, one of Phamaly's founders. She is a wheelchair-bound actor and dancer who also dances with Spoke N Motion, an integrated dance troupe (disabled and not). She founded the troupe in part because, as Miss Wheelchair Colorado in the year 2000, she was often called upon to go to schools to talk with students about disabilities. She realized she could communicate better if she danced for the kids. "Fifteen years later, I still have people come up to me and say, 'Hey, you're the lady who came to my second grade class to dance,'" she says. "If you can't tell a story through art, it can't be told."

--Kristen Hannum

Kristen Hannum is a freelance journalist based in Denver.
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Author:Hannum, Kristen
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Geographic Code:1U2PA
Date:Nov 1, 2014
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