Village Shalom, hate crimes and art therapy

UnknownThis art therapy blog is based in Overland Park, Kansas. Along with writing this blog, I have spent the past eleven years conducting art therapy groups at Village Shalom Retirement Center. Village Shalom, as many know, is one of the locations of this week’s horrific hate crime which took the lives of three innocent people. Much of the media attention has focused on what took place outside of the building, but I would like to give readers of this blog some insight into what takes place inside of the building. Village Shalom is one of those remarkable places that is truly filled with love. Trite as that might sound, it is the only way to describe the facility. Dedicated employees spend their days, nights and weekends caring for a generation of people who witnessed unspeakable crimes against humanity. Many of these residents fled their countries of origin in search of a better world in the United States, and then devoted their lives to giving back to the country that took them in when other nations closed the doors to their plight. The irony of a hate crime at this particular location, with the victim being a woman whose life was dedicated to serving others, must not go unnoticed.

The depth of the art therapy groups at Village Shalom, as residents face their own mortality and begin to look back on their 20th century lives, is profound. One topic which we cover often is the existential question of living well in spite of the collective upheaval and shocking atrocities many of the residents experienced during the Holocaust. From their vantage point as octogenarians and beyond, the overall message gleaned from this generation is to choose goodness in the world, to prevent the pockets of evil and hatred from flourishing.This type tenacity is one we should all apply to this week’s tragedy.

In keeping with the goals of this art therapy blog, I will present a small art therapy exercise along this theme. This particular art exercise relates to the current exhibit showing in the Epsten Gallery, (a gallery located at Village Shalom) called, Looking at After: Four Contemporary Artists Reflect on Legacy l A Creative Spark: The Art of Anna Ilona Gondos. This beautiful art show includes art by a Holocaust survivor (who happened to be my husband’s grandmother), Anna Ilona Gondos. As an inmate in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in 1944, Anna spent her days teaching art classes to children in the camp, using sticks and dirt. The creativity, strength and courage to exhibit this type of hope in such despicable conditions illustrates the ultimate form of resilience. Another piece in the art show is by local artist, Tanya Hartman. In a series of eight giant panels, she writes the line, “What was beautiful today?” followed by something she found beautiful in her day. Her work encapsulates thousands of days of repeating this activity, until she was able to retrain her brain to automatically recognize what was truly beautiful in her day. Tapping into these two ideas, which really boil down to attitude, please find some pen and paper and write the words, “What was beautiful today?” and fill in your answer. Recovering from a trauma such as the one that the Kansas City community experienced this week? Try it for several days, and see how it can alter your attitude toward a positive place.

 

 

Art and the systems of your life.

imagesDid you know that you are part of a system?  In our 21st century lives, it is easy to think of ourselves as individuals, and not connected to our circles of people in any way. Isn’t that what the 20th century Western world has led us to believe? Me, Me, Me, and Me. This line of thinking does not really parallel the overall trends in human history, nor what biology tells us about how homo sapiens are wired. Even in the mental health field, the trend over time has been to pathologize the individual, and remove them from their “system” to make them better. As a veteran employee of the in-patient psych world, I can attest here to the high recidivism rates when adhering to this line of thinking.

Let’s think about your system. Please find some paper and a writing utensil and spend a few minutes creating a family portrait. “Family” is a loose term which might mean your family of origin, the current people with whom you reside or even your workmates.  Rather than drawing actual people, faces or stick figures, please draw cogs (like the image in this blog entry) to represent each person in your family. As you assign a cog for each person, please think of how much power or presence they have within the system, and represent this power (or lack of power) with the size of their cog. Think of other emotions or behavior exhibited within the family. Can you stretch your imagination to represent this in the cog you draw for that person? Are the cogs close together and humming along nicely? Are any of the teeth broken, causing the entire system to be shut down? Could you change or fix the system if something is not working? Can you recognize a problem being caused or solved by the entire system working together? If you were to draw separate images to represent your family of origin and your current family as cogs, do you see any patterns that have been repeated?

The bottom line is that we create each other. This simple art exercise might bring up some powerful feelings or insight into your current dynamics. Investigating family dynamics as a system can be an enlightening  opportunity to address a family or individual’s problem. The risk sometimes involves investigating how you yourself might be contributing to the problem. If you find that you have a visceral experience to this art exercise, please do yourself a favor and track down a local art therapist or marriage and family therapist to further explore your raw feelings.

ART and art of not judging fellow humans

sherryjacobswebThe Olympics serve as an incredible opportunity for collaboration, cross cultural understanding and personal growth, even from the convenience of the couch upon which one sits to watch the spectacle. As the Winter Olympics of Sochi progresses, millions of people are tuning in to witness these 17 days unfold.

Detractors might be focused on the security threats and unfinished amenities connected to this particular event, but at its essence is an unusual opportunity for exploring our connection to our own culture. For those lucky enough to be hanging around the Olympic Village for the next few weeks, their opportunity for cultural exploration is heightened by living in such close proximity to “others” with their sleek outfits displaying their nation of origin literally on their sleeves. Reports from the front describe a beautiful and magical atmosphere, with people from so many different cultures living in close proximiy to one another.

Today’s art exercise will take this opportunity to reflect on our own culture and investigate our attitudes towards others outside of our culture. Please find some paper and jot down some messages you are getting from your culture these days…maybe from: popular songs, commercials, twitter feeds, newspapers, blogs, friends etc. Are there any messages of an “us” vs. “them” peppering your thoughts? Can you bring your thoughts down to a personal level and think about anyone you encountered in your day as an “other” whom you might have unfairly judged? Could you be brave and share your list of messages with them as an opportunity for a cross cultural experience? If you can, there is a strong likelihood that you will have your very own Olympic Village moment. Good Luck Earthling.

Perception- the art of seeing

photo-66Perception is defined as: the way you think about or understand someone or something. 

How Do You See?

The mosaic pictured is a QR code for this art therapy blog. A few years ago, this mosaic might have just looked like a replica of an ancient one found in an excavated Roman ruin. You might be standing in front of this mosaic at an art gallery, and have found your way to this post via your QR code scanner on your smart phone.

This QR technology allows this mosaic to no longer be just a mosaic, but an interactive, fluid art piece that will constantly change, yet remain the same. Your knowledge of the technology needed to interact with this piece of art makes all the difference, thus altering your perception of its layers of meaning.

QR codes, or “Quick Response” codes have quickly crept into our lives as yet another means to access information. Really, they can be observed as a metaphor for rapid access into another world. In their simplicity, they can reveal something far beyond what can be understood at the surface level.

Using this metaphor of QR codes and smart phone technology, is there anyone in your life whom you are misreading or not comprehending? Can you go back through your day and think of any encounters with others that you would like to revisit? Perhaps you judged someone only superficially?

Can you imagine how different your interaction might be if you had QR technology to access parts of their psychic apparatus? Would you see them differently and at a deeper level? Would you have been more; patient, kind, loving, forgiving etc? When we really open our eyes and hearts to those around us, it becomes clear that we all have natural  “QR technology” to genuinely perceive the world around us. This is the beauty of perception.

Art therapists spend years training to hone their skills of perception, to truly understand their clients and their clients’ artwork. In a clinical setting, traditional talk therapy can move slowly based on the defenses we have built up though language. When art making is introduced, tremendous insight can be gained quickly. Art making, as neuroscience is confirming, can serve as a fantastic partner when exploring issues that have been buried for years in one’s subconscious. The goal is to blend art making, memories, and feelings to assist individuals in growth and healing from their wounded identities.

Mediation and Art Therapy

1348638108_peace-sign-coloring-pages-31     The courtroom is not always the best place to solve a problem. As a mediator in the small claims court in my county, I have witnessed seemingly impossible conflicts get resolved with very creative solutions when cases get booted out to mediation. It turns out that most cases can be solved outside of the courtroom if both parties are willing to hear each other out under the guidance of a great listener. The role of an effective mediator is to not tell the parties what to do, but to empower them to craft their own solution by moving from their positions (what each party wantsto interests (why they want it). Judges don’t take people’s emotions into consideration, but in mediation it always becomes crystal clear that strong emotions often make up the true foundation of most cases.

For today’s art exercise, please think of a conflict you might be dealing with in your life. Write it down at the top of the page. Below this, write or draw about the emotions and feelings you have attached to this conflict. Can you get the opposing party to do the same? These emotions with conflict often involve: pride, shame, jealousy, fear, anger, embarrassment, disappointment etc. Any of these ring a bell? While defending or hiding these emotions in a conflict, we can often get stuck in our “position” on the matter. Once we are more transparent with our interests, an opportunity for creative resolution can occur.

Now take your paper and draw a line dividing the rest of the paper down the middle. On one side, please write or draw about your position connected to your conflict, or WHAT you want connected to this problem. On the other side please write down your interests or WHY you want this resolved. Drawing rather than writing can be a powerful tool to identify complicated issues. Using symbols or metaphor to represent your issues might help you gain a better understanding of the situation. Even stick figures can pack a powerful punch when trying to express your inner thoughts and feelings.

( One example: A barking dog is driving a neighbor crazy.  The dog owner doesn’t care about the neighbor and feels he has the right to let his dog do whatever it wants on his own property. This is his position he feels strongly about. Once he comes to mediation he learns that the neighbor is a soldier who recently returned from combat duty and is triggered by sounds such as barking dogs. With this new information,  the dog owner softens on his position and shows empathy to the neighbor, thus allowing room for a creative resolution to the problem. This type of emotional exploration would not have happened had the case remained in the court room for a judge to sort out. )

Even if you are not yet involving the other party at this point in dealing with your conflict, this exercise will most likely you enlighten you. If you are able to move from your position to interest,  you will be altering the course of the conflict. Try it, and have a peaceful day!

Boston Marathon bombing and art therapy interventions

sherryjacobswebThis week’s bombing at the Boston Marathon is yet another tragic event testing Americans’ sense of resilience. The flavor of comments floating around the media in the aftermath are, “You messed with the wrong city” meaning that Boston is far too strong of a town to let acts of barbaric terror bring it down. This thought process actually is the result of dozens of generations steeped in the collective memory of the American Revolution. The attitude that freedom will be preserved even in the wake of cowardly acts of violence is one we sadly have had tested too often this year. At this writing, the source of the blast is unknown, leaving citizens confused and on alert.

One notable and amazing element to this event which took place in the immediate aftermath was the reaction of people standing close by after the bombs exploded. The video footage showed people running toward the explosion rather than away in an attempt to rescue victims. In a post 9/11 world, all Americans have become the first responders. Many lives were saved due to this visceral and immediate response. In today’s art exercise, we will use the strength of Bostonians and everyday citizens who were present and mimic their resilience through an art exercise.

Please find some pen and paper and take a few minutes to write words, images or symbols all over your paper in no particular order. Let your imagination wander all over the place in your mind, and jot down information about: emotional, historical, social, political issues relating to this incident. Make sure to write the words or symbols all around the paper. This exercise is designed to explore feelings that are often hard to capture in our linear way of speaking and writing. Once you have completed this, leave it for several hours or a day, then go back to it, and circle some words or images that seem connected to one another on the page.

How are you feeling based on the information you jotted down? This exercise can be a great process to explore our subconscious. Can you find someone to share your information with to help you process your feelings? If you have an overall positive outlook, can you connect with the resilient individuals we have witnessed this week? If you are feeling very negative, is there a way to bridge your feelings to those individuals who showed extreme courage this week? If you are looking for more art therapy interventions, please look around this blog and adapt other exercises to this topic.

Because the Boston Marathon attracts such a global crowd, I assume people in most parts of the world might have strong feelings connected to this race and everything it represents. Our hearts go out to the victims and their families.

Mastering Boredom

DSC_0389Snow Day? Free time? Screen time? The catalyst for this blog entry comes on a full fledged snow day in which my city has come to a screeching halt with inches upon inches of beautiful snow. After the initial hours of joy on this type of day, boredom is often the next mood that sets into the average home of homebound individuals. Our latest technology seems to dictate how we march through these kind of days, screens in hand. Before you grab a screen if you find yourself with some free time, can you find some time to just sit? The art therapy exercise today is to just sit without any distractions. Are you up for the challenge?

One of the biggest casualties of our brave new world just might be boredom. We are so over connected and overwhelmed with lack of time in the western world, and our devices most likely are the culprit. The word boredom even has very negative connotations in this era, but this constant distraction to avoid boredom at all costs just might be dampening our creativity.I am inspired by the story J.K. Rowling has shared in many interviews on her moment of inspiration for the Harry Potter series. She was on a train, without any reading materials or writing journals, and the train experienced a several hour delay. While staring out of the window wondering how to pass the time, she shared that the entire series hit her like a bolt of lightning, and had she been engaged in a book or actively writing in a journal, this entire story might not have ever been imagined.

Another source of inspiration to encourage you to find some time to be bored comes from Thomas Edison. Edison had an arm-chair in his lab that he would sit in during the day while holding two balls in his hand, with the balls facing down. When he would begin to drift off into a alpha or theta state of consciousness, the balls would drop with a thud, arousing him into a state of full consciousness. He would jump up and capture all of his thoughts on paper. He shared that this need to stop and just sit without any distractions was a key element in developing his ideas.

Try it. Record your thoughts after sitting.  Good Luck!