I don’t think these projects are about helping them to become more comfortable with artistic expression as much as they are about simply helping them to become comfortable with themselves. The projects we do are not readily embraced by all, and the level of engagement varies across the board. However, if even one girl finds comfort and hope in the details of one artistic/expressive project, then that is enough. We’ve done everything from creating makeup holders and jewelry holders to helping the girls get organized and to feel more calm by way of an orderly room; to helping them develop self-regulation skills through the creation and use of silly putty; to the development of compassion and empathy through community outreach projects that involved making Valentine’s Day cards for underserved youth at a YMCA to birthday cards for a young woman with Autism whose birthday was ruined when none of her classmates attended her birthday party.
Other girls have undertaken more personal projects such as the poetry book mentioned above, to murals that two of our girls created in response to Autism Awareness month (one of our girl’s brother is autistic, so she wanted to shed light on the challenges associated with autism and how these individuals have as much worth as any other individual). Still others have created collages that highlight their interests in various subjects and have then put these in their bedrooms as a way to add personality and individuality to their space.
It therefore seems that the projects do not necessarily matter as much as the outcomes—the outcomes being not necessarily physical, tangible objects, but outcomes such as the various dialogues that take place between peers and staff, resulting feelings of pride in one’s work and efforts, or possibly the introduction of new perspectives that come through the active process of art making. The latter is particularly important, for as our girls have worked on activities in the Craft Cottage over these past months, many thoughtful and intellectual conversations have come about while making seemingly “mindless” art. While some see arts and crafts as a mindless behavior at times, I would argue that art is always mindful and provoking. Our girls have tackled race relations, conversations about racial and sexual identity, political happenings in our community and at-large, mental health concerns, eating disorders, and family dynamics just to name a few.
From this view, I would argue that we are therefore using art not so much as a way to help the girls become comfortable with artistic expression but using art as an alternative platform to help them express themselves in unique ways. Art provides expressive capabilities beyond the typical conversing dimension that many think of when speaking about therapy. Art allows individuals and our girls to talk back to stereotypes, judgements, insecurities, challenges, etc through written word, painting, drawing, sculpting, dancing, coloring, building, and other visual forms. Art gives our girls a voice without having to say a single word.
The challenge then is helping our girls to feel comfortable with the visuality and permanence of this expression; whereas spoken word is sometimes fleeting and intangible, art leaves a visual mark and calls for viewership. This is something that some of our girls find frightening while others find strength in. But this is also the beauty of art in that the art can speak, and it can speak in different ways. The artist (or our girls) may choose to leave the work but the work is always there ready to speak or ready to be heard. The girls’ art thus provides the same. For instance, the clothespin wreaths the girls made for their bedrooms may simply hang on their doors and become overlooked objects in the coming and going days as the girls enter and exit their rooms in routine fashion, but one day their thought might be re-focused onto these objects, and with that re-focusing, a flood of feelings and memories surrounding that artistic process may emerge as well. And with that, their work becomes alive again, those memories become alive again and a voice is re-ignited and new opportunities to locate strength through those moments are born.