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The Art of War

How The Art Therapy Project leads trauma patients from darkness into color

October 21, 2016

"I'm afraid of certain things," the woman began. She was tall, had vivacious curls, and stood in a black dress and heels before a large crowd in New York City's Helen Mills Event Space last night. Around her were artists, curators, donors, and volunteers all there to celebrate the 5th Anniversary of the newly renamed Art Therapy Project (the former Art Therapy Outreach Center) of which she is a client. She went on to tell us her story.

"I'm afraid to truly trust; I'm afraid of falling into the abyss. I'm afraid of being alone again with no one to catch me, and feeling stupid for trusting anyone in the first place. But I'm trying to improve that, and it is improving. Because I want to be here in the world and really enjoy it, and be alive and be present.

"The last time I had unfettered access to an art studio, I was thirteen. My school art teacher took me there under her wing, helped me cut my other classes and taught me about Degas, and Monet, and Velásquez, the color wheel, the absence of straight lines, the infinite ways to make brown, and how to look at a painting and try and see the color the artist stained the canvas before they painted it.

"That year I copied Degas's Bellelli family—inch by inch, an exact copy. The teacher made me notice the dog in the corner of the frame's print in the back, the emotion of the mother...It took me over a year.

"When I was leaving for high school she gave me the keys to the supply closet. 'Go ahead,' she said, 'help yourself.' I knew it would be the last time that I would have such an opportunity for who knows how long.

"I didn't know just how much my life was about to change. Adulthood would come early at fourteen when abuse started and I lost the luxury of the rest of my childhood. Later, I lost all my paintings in the fire—not an actual fire, but the way I left my house that night, with two babies that night, the house may as well have been on fire."

M.C., an artist and survivor of abuse, was being celebrated that night for her watercolor mandala featured at the client exhibition.

"Inner Shell" | M.C. | Watercolors | 11" x 15'"

In her artist's statement, she writes about how she dislikes watercolors for their "lack of control." But after completing a first, more controlled attempt in another medium, she finally decided to "surrender to the medium and let it be watercolor and work with the unpredictability of the bleed."

I could not help but connect the "unpredictable bleed" of the watercolors to the uncontrolled bleeding of emotions prompted by trauma. I felt the elements of M.C.'s past still present in the way her words stuck on her tongue. But she was there last night because she was trying to control the uncontrollable through art.

The confident woman I saw at the podium was just one of the 3,500 total clients of The Art Therapy Project over the last five years. Though the name has changed, its mission is the same: to bring art therapy to trauma survivors and at-risk communities all over the New York City area at no cost.

The 5th Anniversary fundraiser and silent auction was kicked off by an exhibition of client artwork sponsored by Affordable Art Fair NYC and curated by Lisa Cooper of Elisa Contemporary Art. Cooper told me that you could see the transformation of healing in their artwork, and that some of the artists haven't even had art experience before. The work hailed from the different trauma groups that the organization supports, including male and female war veterans, survivors of abuse like M.C., and those suffering chronic illnesses. Some of the pieces were striking in their technical beauty, others in their innovation, and others still in their poignancy.

One of the opening pieces of the exhibition was a sculpture in the Male Veterans group. A population that largely suffers from PTSD, veterans often contend with "depression and a fragmented sense of self" as a result. Art therapy can be used to tell stories and foster a sense of inner peace. Especially moving was "Brother Hood," seen below. Especially in our times, it made me think about how important it is to stay together, to be unselfish. Doing art is a collaborative practice, much like fighting with a band of brothers and sisters.

"Brother Hood" | J.C.M. | Plaster | 2" x 3"

The artist says, "First lesson we learn in the service is to always have our brothers/sister's back because he/she always has ours. We support our brother in arms so they can get help and get better and reciprocate. In the outreach center I learn that to accomplish wellness, I have to think more about my brother than myself. We are like the links in the dog tag; United We Stand Strong."

The organization stands strong through the help of a generous list of sponsors, including the School of Visual Arts (which houses some of its studios), Morgan Stanley, and Elisa Contemporary Art. Their program partners include Bellevue/NYU Program for Survivors of Torture, Mount Sinai Israel Chemical Dependency Program, New York Presbyterian Hospital, and twenty-two others.

Then, in the following section of female veteran artwork, I was taken by a simple yet powerful piece: a jar full of small paper cranes. The paper was of all colors and patterns. The symbol of trapped innocence, of a yearning for freedom, of a burial, echoed throughout the air surrounding this piece.

"Fly Away" | O.H.M. | Jar | 12" x 6"

The cranes are stuck, yet the title is an impossible command: "fly away." Though they are confined, they must find a way to escape. That's another facet of art—this figurative escape. It's the escape from memories, fears, and life's daily struggles. It's that moment to create, to control, and to get lost.

Another particularly affecting piece was "The Courage of a Baby."It told the true story of an elephant named Zongoloni. When his mother was shot by a poacher, Zongoloni stayed by her side throughout her suffering. Though emaciated, the calf drank her mother's urine to stay alive. When the pain was too much for her to endure, her mother was eventually euthanized by veterinarians, and Zongoloni was taken to an elephant orphanage. "She has our prayers that when this day arrives she won't fall victim to poachers like her mother," the artist says in his statement.

"The Courage of a Baby" | M.W. | Graphite on Paper | 14" x 19"

Courage and willpower are two qualities that trauma survivors must have in order to move back into the world with confidence. A baby is a weakened form of an adult, and in a way trauma may seem to weaken one as well. But healing through art and expression strengthens these weaknesses, and gives these survivors the endurance to thrive independently.

The unveiling of the Art Therapy Outreach Center's new name, The Art Therapy Project.

While art has been around since early humans started painting charcoal and spit on cave walls, art for the use of therapy was not formalized until the 1940s. The term was first coined by artist, Adrian Hill, who while undergoing treatment for tuberculosis, taught his first art classes to fellow patients. The guy knew what he was doing—he worked as an art therapist and wrote a book called Art Versus Illness (1945).

Fast forward a couple of decades and now art therapy is offered at universities, hospitals, mental health facilities, shelters, prisons, and nursing homes. One of the reasons it's a particularly effective therapy for trauma patients has to do with the brain. Memories of trauma are stored in the brain's right hemisphere, and often, verbal therapies targeting the brain's left hemisphere cannot access these memories. Art and expression utilizes the brain's right hemisphere, and is therefore better able to access that pain, to turn it into something good.

The Art Therapy Project was founded by David Wasserman and is now headed by Executive Director Martha Dorn. She's been involved in nonprofits for 25 years including Lenox Hill Neighborhood House, Interfaith Neighbors, and the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. Dorn and her team at The Art Therapy Project leverage board certified and licensed clinical art therapists and collaborations with well-established nonprofit organizations to bring the power of art to their community.

Each small group has a shared common experience and meets weekly for 90-minute sessions for eight to twelve weeks. In these classes, clients can create drawings, sculptures, collages, or paintings on their own or with the group, during which they converse freely with each other and the therapist. Clients are able to work in a safe, supportive and positive environment to focus on channeling their past fears, insecurities, and hopelessness into something beautiful for all.

M.C. went on to tell us how The Art Therapy Project brought the security of a studio back into her life. And despite her earlier words about being afraid, this woman looked anything but.

"Then life happened and my boys are nearly grown. It's been hard and it's been busy. And so once a week, I sit with these other women and we hold space for each other and I am back in an art studio, unfettered, like child me, like thirteen-year-old me, like forty-year-old me. And I can have anything I want: sparkles, paint, raffia, canvas, and it's such a sweet luxury, such a sweet space."

As The Art Therapy Project continues to grow, they are always in need of more hands. Check out more on this inspiring nonprofit on their website. They will teach you that you don't have to be an artist to make something, you just have to have a soul. The Art Therapy Project is the most ambitious and unique piece of artwork of all—using people, New York City, and love as its medium.

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