Healing Through Art

October 28th, 2012
This article is featured in the Outreach 2013 (Nov/Dec/Jan 2012-13) issue of Circuit Rider

It has been said that most of us cease being actively engaged in any type of creative expression on a regular basis once we leave elementary school. What an incredible loss to our churches, our communities, and our world. My own life is perhaps unusual in that I have often found that the practice of "art making" has often provided incredible experiences of healing, self-awareness, mental clarity, and faith—yes, faith.

In 2009, after experiencing what I thought was "mere indigestion," I listened attentively as my doctor directed me to have an ultrasound performed. In 24 hours I went from having indigestion that had lasted two weeks to being a cancer patient. I was in shock. Within a week I was sitting in the waiting room of the nation's leading cancer center, M.D. Anderson, dazed and expecting to hear that this was not really cancer. No such luck. The mass was 8 cm. My surgeon made plans for its removal and, with it, my right kidney.

As pastors in an urban church in downtown Houston, my husband and I have experienced walking with people through everything from abortions, crack addiction, murder charges, HIV diagnoses, and AIDS deaths. You name it, we have probably experienced it. But there is something hauntingly debilitating about the phrase "You have CANCER." My co-pastor/husband, Rudy, was along for the ride and we were somewhere between devastated and living with full blown denial.

My Own Healing Through Art

I escaped to the Cenacle, a retreat facility in Houston that is nestled in the woods, and there I tried to hear from God. Being there was comforting, it has always been my sacred space with all its nooks, gardens, and prayer-soaked surroundings and the gracious hospitality that The Cenacle sisters gently provide.

I felt especially drawn to what was now being called the Art Cove. The space was simple, as are most things at the Cenacle. A large table with a variety of supplies: watercolor pencils, charcoals, pastels, craft and sketch paper, magazines, glue, scissors—a variety of items along with a simple suggested idea just in case you needed one. I did.

That day I engaged in Magazine Meditation. I simply took a deep breath grabbed a few magazines and followed the instructions that basically gave me permission not to follow the instructions. I allowed a picture from the magazine to “choose" me. It was an unusual picture that I clipped from some magazine; I don't even recall which one. It was a black and white oil painting of a little black boy standing in front of a black woman, both dressed in slavery-era clothing. I sat with it as the instructions had encouraged and allowed it to speak to me.

The handout encouraged me to have the art “reveal itself” to me. The picture asked to be called “Putting Away Childish Things." As I sat with the piece, it kept unfolding insight for me. God was allowing this anonymous piece of random art from a magazine to speak into my soul. The little boy was me. The picture was God's invitation for me to begin to reconcile my childhood ideas of "who I was" to live into who I was called by God to be authentically.

Sharing the Gift

While recovering from my surgery, I had tons of free time and I ended up watching a TED talk about Bill Strickland, a man in Pittsburgh who was using the arts to transform the lives of people who were economically depressed. I was fascinated by his innovative approach to rebuilding lives and community by offering people the opportunity to gain hope through art making.

During this time, I also read through a Houston magazine’s annual "arts issue." I read the magazine from cover to cover, learning about the philanthropy behind the Houston art scene, local artists, and exhibits. Something was afoot, as they say, and I sensed that God was crafting something—but what? Reading through the magazine, I also learned about the "Florida Highwaymen,” a group of African American men and one woman who, during the 1950s and early ’60s, taught themselves to paint to provide a living as an alternative to sharecropping. As a community of artists, they encouraged one another and helped build lives for themselves painting the Florida landscape and selling their work up and down the highway.

The Art Party

As I read stories of people using art to build a better life for themselves, I heard God say "Take art to the homeless community," and in that moment The Art Project Houston (TAPH) was born. I asked God how I should begin, and God said "Start with the fun thing first."

I decided to ask our staff at Bread of Life, our church’s agency that serves the homeless at St. John's Downtown, if they would help me identify some possible candidates to attend an "art party." The staff began to talk it up among our several hundred daily guests, who come for showers, laundry, meals, and hope. I contacted a local art studio and got them to bring a party to our campus.

That Sunday, I stood before our congregation and asked if they would join me for a paint party "where you'll leave with your own masterpiece!" They invested $100 per person, allowing two homeless guests to join us for every ticket sold. It was an overwhelming success. All of us sat together behind canvases, paint, and brushes. It became a community.

That day we kept hearing comments like “I haven't had this much fun since I was a kid," "I stopped painting in middle school because my teacher criticized me," “I always wanted to be an artist,” and the like. There was no real way of knowing who was homeless and who wasn't. It was a sacred space and art allowed us to tap into the creative that is in all of us. We also tapped into the Creator and we all knew it.

Creative Empowerment

It is the intention of TAPH to help empower people in poverty to heal and be transitioned into self-sustaining artisans who will craft their own livelihood and create lives filled with new possibilities.

Our program is structured around four E’s.

Encounters: We offer opportunities for the clients of the Bread of Life to encounter art through simple art activities, concerts, field trips, film, and exhibitions of art created by their peers.

Experience: Our experiences are structured and guided exercises using a curriculum based on recovering the authentic self. Utilizing therapeutic art classes and skill-developing studios, we seek to promote inner healing and fine tune the art of self- expression in various mediums.

Exhibitions:  We create opportunities for our student artists to display, merchandise, and sell their original pieces of art. We participate in various community art fairs and shows with a goal of empowering students to begin to teach the skills themselves. We offer “Paint Parties” to the general public. In this way we are able to generate revenue to pay our students and assist in offsetting the cost of operation.

Empowerment: Our ultimate goal is empowering our student artists, like the Highwaymen, to become what we term “art-trepreneurs.” We offer classes in money management, life skills, and goal-setting, with the aim of assisting the students in transitioning to self-sufficiency. We have been amazed at the community response, and the individuals who bring their expertise to support TAPH’s vision of empowerment.

We have been providing services to the less fortunate for 20 years in downtown Houston yet we have seen incredible community support for TAPH program. Community artisans, non-profits specializing in cultural enrichment, and even a major university have offered valuable partnerships that are empowering us to transition our students from poverty. We realize that people want to assist the less fortunate but are interested in helping in ways that are unique. People are looking for (literally!) creative ways to make a difference. Art has the power to unite.

Therapists and physicians often think in terms of the “presenting problem,” and when you are working with the poor and disenfranchised there are no simple solutions. The reality is that the problem is almost always a spiritual problem. If poverty is to be affected, it has to start with the hearts and minds of those affected by poverty.

Bill Strickland, who has been doing similar work for 30 years, says, “You only need to change your thinking to remake your world.” I believe that “thinking” is the raw material that we are actually shaping and crafting through TAPH and that is how art can play apart in transitioning people out of poverty.

TAPH has as one of its goals to serve as a model and a resource to other churches and community based organizations. We invite those who are interested to join one of our tours and participate in an art experience. Contact us for details on bringing a “paint party” to your community. It’s an exciting way to generate interest in the possibilities of how your church might use art to change lives. www.theartprojecthouston.org.

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