(One of) The best and most memorable art exhibits I ever attended consisted of heartfelt creations by art therapy clients from around the city of Chicago.
I ended up at this exhibit because my work was in it, but I promise that has nothing much to do with why this was one of the best and most memorable exhibits I’ve seen.
Hear me out; this will include you, too.
How did I end up at this exhibit?
At the time, I was participating in group art therapy at a place formerly known as Rape Victim Advocates. I was a client, and I’m sure you could have guessed that I was there to work through the trauma of experiencing rape (culture).
The art therapy group met once a week for 12 weeks. We made art, connected, talked, and worked through our trauma.
Our group would meet in a small room on the north side of Chicago. Once we arrived, we would check-in, then make a piece of art on the week’s topic. At the end of each 2-hour session, we would share our work and offer feedback and support to our fellow group members. Sharing my art with the group was sometimes hard for me. At the time, I did not identify as an artist, and often, I was embarrassed to share. The experience felt vulnerable and raw and as though it exposed the deepest parts of myself. I wanted to remain closed off and protected, and this experience cracked me open, and others were there to witness it. Additionally, I had the absolute honor of witnessing the healing and transformation of the other group members.
The small room on the north side of Chicago had shelves and drawers stuffed with art supplies. Every art supply you could imagine was in that room and available to us for use: Paint, charcoal, glue guns, magazines, beads, thread, everything. We got to decide what materials called to us and what we would create on that particular day. If you don’t yet believe you are an artist or if you’re new to art, you can imagine how awkward it can be, as a grown adult, to sit in a room and decide to mush around some paint with your fingers or glue beads to cardboard to move through the effects of sexual trauma. We did some of that, though it was much more profound than it sounds.
Some of the strongest, funniest, and kindest women I have ever met were through art therapy in that little room in Chicago. It was a safe and lovely space, and I witnessed some life-changing art, and heard stories I continue to carry with me. (Bless those gals!)
Overall, the experience felt beautiful, intense, and rewarding, and it helped me to work through some hard things. This book, The Body Keeps the Score, and my therapist, helped me better understand why we used art to heal.
A lovely art therapist (truly the best) facilitated every 12-week session, and alongside her, a visiting intern from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago who was earning her masters degree in art therapy. Once our session ended, the intern asked our permission to display our art at her school.
I was into it! I had never had my art on display anywhere. We were allowed to opt-in (or out), write an artist statement, and attend the exhibit as it was open to the public.
It felt special to witness my group’s work on display in that beautiful space at SAIC. My group and I connected and healed so much in each other’s company. We got raw and vulnerable and had tough conversations with one another. There were tears and anger, and we learned a lot in those weeks. We turned those emotions into art. Seeing it on display felt like honoring the time spent healing and connecting. Not to mention, that sharing our hearts with others can be an act of service and love.
When I visited the exhibit, I checked out both my group’s pieces, and the others groups’ pieces. Each masters students had been placed around the city to fulfill their internship requirements, and their clients’ creations were on display, too.
These internships occurred at youth centers, hospitals, addiction treatment centers, specialized residential facilities, and more. I witnessed art created by youth coping with their violent neighborhood, adults with disabilities, folks working through addictions, and more. Each facility had its designated area for their clients’ work to be displayed.
As I walked around, I was surprised by how moved I was by this experience. It was awe-inspiring.
While living in Chicago, I frequented art museums. These included the Art Institute of Chicago, the Museum of Contemporary Art, The National Museum of Mexican Art, and The Chicago Cultural Center. I went everywhere. I enjoyed street art, too, and I deeply loved most of these experiences.
However, this exhibit at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago blew me away.
Assuming other groups were like mine, clients didn’t know ahead of time that their art would hang for all to see. In my group, we created to learn, heal, and discover the depths of ourselves, and we had no idea this work would go anywhere. So, we created with pure hearts, like a child looking to get creative and feel around for the sake of it. It was so innocent and sometimes heavy, but always authentic.
The pieces felt like peoples’ souls undisrupted by the noise of expectations, ego, or pretentiousness, at least that’s how I saw it.
When walking around the exhibit, taking everything in, I could see the artist that existed in everyone. It didn’t matter what professional training they had if any. A good piece of art, in my opinion, is heartfelt and soulful and doesn’t require a fine arts degree. (Though, of course, there is a place for that, too)
I saw these pieces created from a deeply human place, one of wanting to connect, heal, understand, and feel. There was a thread that linked all of us, from all the groups, and it wasn’t trauma. It was honesty and vulnerability. We were funny, hurt, and also hopeful, and we showed up to rediscover ourselves. Everything was so beautiful and interesting because people are both of those things and it came through in the simplest modalities. In handwritten letters and thumb prints and yarn weavings. In sculptures, and colored pencil drawings.
I felt like I was meeting the inner child of all of these artists. There was no elitism. There was no higher education tied to the reason why someone was able to make their way into this exhibit. If anything, people’s creations ended up in that space because they were willing to get vulnerable and creative and say yes.
In that space were hearts and healing, pain and expression, confusion and commitment. There was community, connection, self-love, and hope, too. To witness this is a gift. It’s a reminder of our human-ness and it acts as support.
This exhibit helped me to see the brilliance of all people. When a heart speaks, it has all my attention, and I know I’m not the only one. In that space, it was clear to me that hearts were speaking. Don’t so many of us want more of this heartfelt creating?
That day, I knew not one name on display, but I felt everyone’s presence. No Kahlo, or Van Gogh. (Though I love those two) It was simply the raw, honest beauty of my Chicago neighbors that held a massive presence. This presence exists within the hearts of everyone. This beautiful expression exists in all of us. Many of us have experienced hurt, trauma, and the stifling of our inner child. Many of us are the similar in that way. I don’t necessarily want to bond over our pain but rather connect over our expression and the freeing of ourselves through whichever medium. Although, let’s make space for all of it. There is an artist within (all of us) that wants to speak out, and it needs no permission to do so.
I know this sounds idealistic, but the world could benefit from more heartfelt expression, honest creations, and vulnerability in the form of color, lines, and songs.
Everyone is an artist, including you, if you want to be. Formal training is interesting, of course, and so is the creation of someone who never studied at art school. Everything has a place and all of it belongs.
It’s funny that that was one of the best and most memorable exhibits in my life because it kind of goes against everything we have learned: that we need to be deserving to share our art, voice, and creations, and those who are deserving will be granted permission. However, we are innately worthy, all of us. We all have stories to express and share, and sometimes those stories are is in the form of mushing paint around on a piece of paper at age 30, and sometimes the mushing results must be shared with the world. (For whatever reason.)
That day, at that exhibit, more heart came through than I had witnessed at almost any other exhibit. It surrounded me. It healed me and lit me up. Thanks to those hearts for sharing.
It reminded me that I want to hear stories and see art from everyone, all people, not just those we expect to hear from. All of it belongs and so do you.
What will you create? What will you share?