Creating opportunity for kids from all backgrounds and upbringings is critical. I explored this idea by experimenting with using found objects and natural materials as art tools. I took this experiment to a group of kids I know well who live in an under-resourced community in East Austin to see how they would respond.
The process looked like this:
I headed over to Santa Rita Courts and told the kids we are finding and collecting things from outside to use to draw with. They took off together as a group, inviting more of their friends over to join them in this activity. It became less of an individual process and more of a community joining together on a journey of discovery. As they picked up leaves, flowers, rocks, sticks, snail shells, and even a toothbrush from outside in their environment, they would consult with one another on their findings and run up to show me the treasure they had found with a beaming smile on their face as though they were proud of what they had discovered.
Once they finished collecting the items, they gathered together and placed what they found into a box, sorting it by color, plant/ object type, and even size. I found that having some kind of container to hold the tools in like a box was very helpful for the kids to see what was available for when they started art.
Then we moved to the basketball courts where I had placed large pieces of paper for them to play around with the materials on. During their first marks on the paper, they became amazed at the fact that they could use these objects found outside to draw with. Together, they filled the sheets with random marks that were more of an experimentation than actually creating an intentional work of art. I brought them coloring sheets to possibly use, but they were more excited about the blank sheet of paper.
My vision for OUTLET is to be useful and accessible to all, not just those with resources. Incorporating exercises such as this, where natural and found objects were the only tools used, will allow kids in even the most remote or under-resourced areas an opportunity to find expression and healing through art.
I am not a professional therapist, nor do I pretend to be, so by incorporating art making as a form of healing into OUTLET, I had to speak with qualified, professional art therapists and do my fair share of research on art therapy forms as well as trauma.
here are a few things I learned:
Expressive Therapy is a term for using creativity for therapy. It was originally given the term emotional release counseling. The emotional release comes out of the expressive attributions of these activities, but expressive therapy does more than just provide an emotional release, it incorporates somatic processes. Expressive therapy guides participants through self-awareness, reflection, externalization. This therapy combines neuroscientific research with personal expressive experience.
When it comes to providing expressive therapy to clients, the therapist must determine which form of activity/activities are most helpful and appropriate for an individual. There is a great focus on the body and movements it makes. A few core techniques used in expressive therapy are emotional mapping, body focus, expressive artwork, expressive writing, use of journals, self discovery worksheets, use of music, exercise, process drawing, as well as meditation and relaxation.
There are many biological and psychological effects on children and adults when they experience trauma. Organs and biological systems are harmed by trauma, which disrupts homeostasis. This also affects the child or adult’s behavior, feelings, thoughts, and biological regulations. A child’s brain is still quite malleable as it develops neurologically, which causes a change in their neurobiology when early trauma is introduced in their life.
Early trauma leads to reactivation of adaptive responses from the time the trauma occurred which leads to sensitization, exaggerated reactions (explosive attitude, depression), perceptual distortions and more. What happens neurobiologically in the child is an alteration in the function of the brain stem catecholaminergic systems, causing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in the child from an early age. The stress response system is crucial to everyone, and if brain has experienced severe stress early on, a human’s ability to adapt and respond to danger and threat is then disturbed in detrimental ways.
Art therapy is closely associated to social activism. There is an awareness and connection between the individual and collective, the individual’s suffering and social imbalance. Art therapy provides advocacy for social transformation towards a society that is defenseless and vulnerable. An art therapist who chooses social activism puts priority on areas of oppression/ injustice in society or humanity as a whole, which gives the voiceless the opportunity for expression.
OUTLET was thoroughly developed through extensive research and infused with teachings, processes and methods from art therapy to ensure positive progress for each child participating in their journey towards healing.
In June 2019, I visited Gulu, Uganda to teach art to children in schools. I learned a great deal about working with people who have experienced extreme trauma as well as how to teach art to kids who have never painted before.
This is what it looked like:
Our first stop in Uganda was Bobbi Village, the youngest kids I worked with. Most of them couldn't speak english so I was given a Ugandan translator to help communicate each step of the project. With a blank page, a few colors of paint, and their small finger, they created beauty. Many of these kids have never touched paint before so they were fascinated, especially with using their fingers.
The children were given an outlet for creativity and a chance to discover a hidden skill or passion. A chance to be free and make something from start to finish that they could keep and cherish and be proud of. And they had fun while doing it!
For each class, I stood at the front and showed everyone how to do each step. I wanted to make it very clear that their paintings will not look just like mine or just like the person sitting next to them's, but to embrace the beauty of their uniqueness and individuality. They had so many questions about the techniques of art and were afraid of “doing it wrong”, however I wanted to assure them that there is no right or wrong when making art. It is about awakening the sensory channels of the brain through the process of creating, making marks, and using colors.
I observed the intense focus they had on the work they were doing. They took every mark, every movement seriously, however, were able to sit back and smile at the art they created. There was a sense of pride and satisfaction at the end result, and even in the piece before it was finished.
From my personal experience working with children in poverty-stricken regions, Lusaka, Zambia and Gulu, Uganda, I have gained a special kind of insight on the realities that these people live with through my conversations with them. I had 6 years of visiting the same group of 10 kids from the compounds in Zambia, Africa, and as they grew, they shared heart aches, trauma, as well as victories and achievements. My knowledge of people born and raised in poverty would be so watered down, even if I read all the books and research out there on poverty, if I hadn’t had these conversations and face to face interactions with the people myself. I cannot assume I have a full grasp on their realities, because I never will, but I can collect what I have seen, learned, heard, felt, and witnessed first-hand, such as stories of extreme neglect or abuse, visions of children laughing and crying in pain, either physical, emotional, or both, children shutting down in a matter of seconds due to trauma resurfacing through a trigger, and moments of victory where the child sees hope and a future that doesn’t involve living in the cycle of poverty, but a future of education, a career, and a life they dream of.
My hope is to reach children in even the most remote regions who have experienced intense trauma, so that OUTLET can become a tool as their first step towards mending deep wounds.