This occurred to me recently as I tried to help my four year old daughter though a toilet training trauma. It wouldn’t be polite to share the details, suffice to say that it had been going on for almost a year and my wife and I couldn’t talk about it without flaying each other, such was the stress little Ella’s situation caused. We all dealt with the stress in different ways. Ella drew. Before the situation came to a head – so to speak – Ella drew these complex abstract drawings in bright colors of intricately connected shapes. They were clear, orderly and beautiful, like stained glass windows. But in the midst of the potty transition, when things were really tense at home, I would pick her up from day care and she would present me with very different drawings of tangled knots of color. I could feel her fierce energy in the slashing collisions the markers made. She was detonating her frustration on paper. Now, as things are normalizing again, she makes amazingly detailed human shapes – stick arms and legs on giant heads with identifying features. “That’s you, daddy” she says, pointing to the one with only five little stalks of hair on his head. Many of these figures have lines on their faces indicating tears coming from their eyes. Tears of relief, I think to myself.
My wife heals herself creatively too. Her father is dying and it has triggered a kind of avalanche of feeling in her, feeling so overpowering she is in constant motion at home. The only time she is relatively still is when she is asleep or at work at one of her quilts. They are gorgeous, but I’m biased, but really – they’re lovely. She usually makes about two a year, at a leisurely pace. But this past fall, as her Dad went from bad to worse, she made three quilts in as many months. She usually works in soft colors, but the one she made for Ella was neon orange and green, with mermaids. The one she made for the mother of a friend was autumnal: deep moody browns and maroons and dense, intricate patterns. The third escapes me now. But it didn’t escape her. She escaped into it and it relieved her of her suffering.
Creativity allows us to escape for a bit. Actors are particularly prone to use their art to salve their wounds. As an acting teacher, I watch again and again as my students use the shield of character to leave themselves, selves that are frequently encrusted with late adolescent anguish or lingering childhood trauma. Acting is a safe way for them to express their own pain. It’s okay for a while, but then we have to take our problems out of the rehearsal room and into the therapist’s office. And yet I don’t disparage my students’ use of performance as means to heal. I did it too. In fact, I don’t think a person can be anything but healed when they make something, be it a drawing, a quilt or a character from Chekhov. In making things we re-make parts of ourselves, we bring order to chaos, or we blow the order to smithereens because doing so in real-life would be unacceptable.
What I said to my Friends in Colorado was this: that when we create we are closest to divinity, because in creating we imitate the original divine act, an idea I adopted from the Christian mystic Matthew Fox. We are not alone when we make art. God is working with us.
So the next time someone tells you art is a luxury, or that we shouldn’t be paying taxes so that kids can do plays, I encourage you to politely tell them that art heals children, nourishes communities and saves lives. Or you could just look him square in the eye and say “Mooooo!”