N Touch
Wednesday 13 November 2019
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Resilience and the power of the pencil

Culture Matters

RESILIENCE – being able to adapt and bounce back after difficult situations. As artists, how can we use creativity to reshape or bolster our youth and communities in crisis? Venezuelan immigration, climate change, ongoing gang violence and myriad challenges across our communities.

This week, we were once again faced with stark reminders of the fragility and changing face of our society. At every level, we were forced to deal with the realities of managing and coexisting with migrants, the impact of extreme weather on livelihoods and health, and the challenges of putting order to a nation still struggling to find its way.

Our artistic work this week with vulnerable young people mirrored these societal challenges. Their method of communication was instinctively aggressive, violent and negative. Vocabulary was routinely laced with expletives, not as a means of shocking the adults, but simply as a form of learned conversation.

Not surprisingly, some members of the group were young Venezuelans. Through their drawings, they illustrated their desire for home, faith and love of family. Some of the young people from TT revealed traumatic family situations through their artwork, while others simply refused to participate.

Although it was our responsibility, we almost questioned how creativity could break through these seemingly impenetrable barriers. Of course, it is possible, with time and consistency, to demonstrate through the arts that there are alternatives to gangs, violent lifestyles and underachievement. The challenge is how do we make activities such as dance, drama and visual arts not seem irrelevant or trivial in the face of foster care, suicide, teen pregnancy, gunshot wounds, abuse or delinquent parents?

The following understanding of creativity puts the question of relevance into perspective. Described as “the ability to bring something new into existence,” creativity is seen as a “pathway to resilience, healing wounds and starting over.”

As the teenagers sat quietly in a circle drawing their names, their teachers marvelled that they were actually sitting still, co-operating, working quietly, focused.

Interestingly, the young people refused to be hurried, unbothered by the fact that we were trying to get through our programme. They took their time, drawing and designing their names.

In a sense, the exercise had become an act of self-proclamation and a rare opportunity to focus on something positive. For us artists, the session was a chance to witness once more what researchers have found – that the act of drawing or painting causes breathing to slow and the person doing the art to become more relaxed.

I discovered afterwards that artists in New Orleans used this process of self-renewal after the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina. In 2006, one year after almost 2,000 deaths, more than US$100 billion in damage and the displacement of 400,000 residents, an artist suggested that the community should draw. “When you have a pencil, you have control. You can create something...”

In 2015, ten years after Katrina, the 24-hour draw-a-thon attracted almost 2,000 people. In Dominica, so devastated in 2017 by Hurricanes Maria and Irma, artists have also begun to use their art to express their sense of loss, but also as their way of contributing to the resilience of that society.

There is enough evidence from around the world to support the impact of arts-based programmes on the vulnerable. For instance, the development of skills such as imagination and perception aid critical thinking. Resilient youth are “adaptable, flexible, effective problem solvers, have a strong sense of self-esteem, show independence in their thoughts and action...”

However, it is not an easy task to build resilience through art. It is a process that is long-term and often painful. As one arts educator pointed out, “Problems, big emotional problems, are not solved on our stage.”

Thus, in addition to implementing creative activities, it is essential to make the link to more standard education outputs. This includes the role of the arts in developing cognitive abilities, recognition of patterns as in mathematics, or the potential of using poetry to develop a love for reading. As more young people battle mental health, incarceration and other issues, true integration of the arts into mainstream education and programmes for the vulnerable is essential.

At the end of our session I asked the young people whether I should keep the drawings or if they would like to have them. One immediately responded, “Nah, keep them so you’ll remember our names.” Perhaps it is time we recognise that our path to resilience may well be contained, not in punitive measures, but in the simple power of a pencil.

Dara E Healy is a performance artist, communications specialist and founder of the NGO, the Indigenous Creative Arts Network – ICAN

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