Our Art Therapy Breakout trip, led by sophomores Arielle Sandor and Sojung Yi, started not in Washington D.C. but along the way in Baltimore. The first day, before our group had even established strong ties, we found ourselves at the Rita Project, a non-profit organization which works to prevent suicide. Our first encounter with Art Therapy remains especially poignant for me; the group we met consisted of attempted suicide survivors, relatives of suicide victims and those with suicidal tendencies. For many of them, the Rita Project is a profoundly safe, intimate space; yet, they agreed to expose their art and themselves to us perfect strangers. This event set a tone of respect, patience, and listening which reverberated throughout the rest of our activities.
Art Therapy has been instrumental in the recovery of the people at the Rita Project. But I know from my experience describing my trip to others, and the responses I’ve received, that there is enormous skepticism about Art Therapy. But what is Art Therapy? The name describes the practice rather well: it is the use of visual art as a means of therapeutic aid. Practiced on children and adults, this discipline strives to improve mental health through self-expression, creation, and stimulation. The Breakout trip began as an investigation of Art Therapy as it applied to children with disabilities, but the trip soon expanded, almost by its own volition, to encompass numerous aspects of mental impairment. Indeed, it seemed my leaders were but one step ahead of the rest of the group as they quickly rescheduled, finalized and reorganized events for the trip. But their managerial agility proved successful; the busy trip allowed us to cover an impressive breadth of information concerning the mentally disabled with as much granularity as a weeklong trip could provide.
Crates, barrels and workers crowded the makeshift sidewalks that led to the Art Enables gallery, one of our numerous destinations during the week. Warehouses surrounded us from both sides, and small trucks dominated the street. When at last we encountered the inauspicious backdoor to the studio, I imagine all of us were somewhat reluctant and nervous. But assistance for those with special needs, I discovered, takes many different forms. Behind the door, we encountered a dazzling enclave for the mentally ill and artistically inclined. Art Enables provides a space for this population to produce their own work, organizes shows for the artwork around the city, and sells the art on the behalf of the artists. Here, assistance teeters precariously between intrusion and advice. The workers try to direct the artists towards their strengths, and urge them to think creatively and independently. But from my own estimation, and I presume some of the workers share my sentiment, the freedom and independence involved in the creation of these works deserves enormous respect. And the prospect of sharing this work instilled these artists with pride. They spoke exuberantly of their upcoming show, and they eagerly shared with us their work hanging in the gallery, or stored in nearby drawers.
While exhilarating, visual art is hardly the only medium of engagement and enrichment for this population. The Sunflower Bakery is a small, kosher non-profit just outside of Washington D.C. This quaint shop employs a set number of the mentally impaired and trains them for positions with other bakeries in the area. This group of young adults attune themselves for the challenges they will incur in mainstream society: brisk instruction, little patience, and high expectations. As preparation, they must hone their fine motor skills, accustom themselves to the rapid machinery within the bakery, or even internalize basic cooking procedures, such as washing hands, donning aprons and separating eggs. Their efforts, rest assured, shine through their delectable baking, which we fortunately sampled during our visit.
Each short appointment with analysts, therapists, artists and social workers left an indelible mark on the trip. But certainly, the most memorable aspect of the trip was our work at the Stephen Knolls School. It was the week’s most sobering component, but certainly it was the core of my experience. Rarely have I seen such committed, engaged teachers; their dedication was especially remarkable considering the inherent dearth of resources that the public school system could allot for this special population. But never have I seen such impairment. Only some of the highest functioning students could potentially learn in a normal academic setting. Immediately questions about the efficacy of Art Therapy percolated through our minds. This subject was to dominate our conversations during the trip.
The majority of our time in the school was spent in their art classes, during which we acted as teachers’ aids. Most of the kids in these small classes were confined to wheelchairs; almost all of those who walked did so with great difficulty. Engaging with these kids was both difficult and disheartening, although undeniably enriching. I recall sitting beside a student during one of our numerous visits, introducing myself, and attempting to assist her with a craft project that involved scissors. But while I introduced myself, and guided her vocally through my actions, she did not make sustained eye contact with me. Her mouth lay slightly agape, and her glassy eyes wandered about the room. My partner and I finally invoked a process called “hand over hand” where we guided the hands of the children through the process. As we cradled her hands in ours, we led her fingers along the sheets, and we followed their languid eyes. Finally, I surreptitiously commandeered the project (as some other students had); but while I snipped vigorously, I entreated her with questions and comments, hoping to elicit some response.
I could not see much within the blank eyes of this student, but the teachers at Stephen Knolls apparently did. They spoke exuberantly about each child, and his unique personality. But they seemed incapable of engaging with the world; none of the older kids could carry on a conversation, few of them could not speak at all. To be sure, we were only there for two hours each day—perhaps there are certain nuances about each child that I could not possibly notice given my limited time. Yes, they were virtually incapable of producing art independently, but for this population, Art Therapy is not simply their ability to create, but the attention they receive. These teachers strive to immerse the students in physical, visual and auditory stimulation which, they assured us, has profound affects; in many situations, success is simply the prevention of further mental atrophy, and the maintenance of mental activity, however minimal. And yet, I imagine that even teachers need some encouragement. As an outsider, I cannot possibly make a definitive judgment about the accuracy of their comments. But from my vantage point, however, their descriptions of the children seemed optimistically descriptive.
My Breakout trip left me with more questions than answers. But that’s to be expected—a week is hardly enough time to approach a complex policy issue and process it fully. And the conversations that surged in our cars as we rushed between appointments have yet to settle. I questioned the efficacy of Art Therapy under different situations. I speculated about the socio-economic implications of the Stephen Knolls School, its status as a public school in a nice suburb, and the availability of comparable care elsewhere in the country. I argued about the use of public money on a group which, for the most part, could never hope to live independently. I discussed the unbridled optimism of the teachers, and their uncanny ability to sight responses from the students that we could not.
I considered the worth of viable results; perhaps the benefit that Art Therapy affords these people cannot be captured with a number, but does that make it any less substantial? And I doubted my own judgment—as a Princeton student, it’s tempting to definitively evaluate every situation, but such assessments may be premature without proper training. And yet, it’s alarming to think that my reason in a given area is impotent without formal instruction, that those with higher credentials but incorrect conclusions might unintentionally mislead the rest of us and that certain truths just are not intuitive.
While I have more questions, I also possess more insight with which to approach them. The residual benefits of my Breakout trip, and its convergence with my studies, I cannot yet discern. Given time to dwell, discuss, research and recover, my grip on these issues will improve. Indeed, The Breakout Trip is both the experience and the aftermath; it’s the brave departure and the seasoned return to campus. What I’ve seen out there, I will rationalize here, where my thoughts have the tools necessary to reckon with these daunting matters.