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Healing the Divide: Using Art to Create Community in a Time of Conflict

Words by Gretchen Horton-DunbarJuliet Moran
Illustration by Nathan Paul Rice

Conflict divides us, and the political realities of today’s America have unveiled stark differences in values, principles, and priorities between blue and red states, communities, and individuals. This sense of divisiveness, a fear-based response to an unstable reality and shifting futures, has not gone unnoticed – nor unrecorded by our bodies. A recent poll on stress in America post-election found that 72 percent of Democrats reported the political climate was a source of stress, while 24 percent of Republicans felt similarly. “The country was already divided,” said Elaine Ducharme, a licensed clinical psychologist, “but the election has made it feel more so.”1

Feeling a sense of dividedness and the resulting stress impacts our lives in profound ways. Stress impairs cognition, and is correlated with poorer health outcomes. It can increase levels of depression, cardiovascular disease, and anxiety – all of which may also fray our sense of community and increase feelings of isolation.2 Social interaction and relationships are important for good health, and have strong influences on both our overall health and health-focused decision making and behaviors such as how much we smoke, exercise, or even what we eat. A perceived sense of support also has a direct positive impact on overall health regardless of a person’s innate stress levels.3

So what to do in these troubled times? Turn to art, as “[A]rts and culture make considerable and necessary contributions to the well-being of communities…” and, “are powerful tools with which to engage communities in various levels of change.” 4

A creative practice, whether music, movement, the written word or other visual arts, demands we step away from anxiety and fear to give expression to what really drives us, and most importantly, to create. The act of creation itself is inherently a positive action that requires focus; a willingness to try, experiment, move, build, add, improve, perfect, allow failure and keep working to find success. It is the opposite, not just of despair and destruction, but more importantly, of paralysis. It demands an unyielding attention to the task at hand, leaving behind all competing thoughts, to pour ourselves body and soul into what we make. If we allow ourselves to be consumed in our work we leave all distractions behind, suspend all worry for this moment and build on something we love. This pouring of light into our work shows us our worth, gives us hope, inspiration, and a way forward.

The feeling in this state has been described as “flow” and a “secret to happiness.”5 A state in which we perform at our best, providing not only a zen like calm, but a suspension from time and distractions, “flow” is the place where our bodies seem to move themselves without our conscious effort. As an artist and facilitator of collaborative art groups I have experienced this first hand. Once, immersed in a charcoal drawing, I was so fixated that I ‘awoke’ when I finished, surprised to find the charcoal in my left hand. I am a life long right-handed person, but somehow in the process my left hand took over and I had no conscious participation, nor memory, in the change of hands. Often I have lost track of time while immersed into my work, pulled out only by others who demand my attention. My best work requires removing myself from distractions, taking some deep, slow breaths, meditatively making a cup of tea, setting up my work area, to coax myself into the right frame of mind.

This act of creation or flow, while a wonderful break from our daily stresses, does not have to be a solitary effort. Sports, music, qi gong, tai chi, yoga, and quilting bees are among the many ways people find themselves in a like community. Athletes have often described how when they are in the ‘zone’ they perform best, on instinct, in the moment knowing what to do, moving in concert with teammates. Coloring and painting parties have proven to be a popular social outlet for those seeking ways to de-stress with friends. The key is finding respite from divisiveness to create together in a spirit of collaboration and cooperation, muscles we often do not exercise enough.

“A creative practice, whether music, movement, the written word or other visual arts, demands we step away from anxiety and fear to give expression to what really drives us, and most importantly, to create.”

In working with groups of non-artists to achieve collaboration, we have found it important to first step away from daily stresses (no cell phones), take a moment to quiet the mind, and meet each other on equal ground. Hierarchy, or perceived differences, can get in the way of ‘seeing’ each other. With the right preparation and environment, teams of people can create, operating in a sort of group ‘flow’ that cooperates to make something of beauty and meaning. In one collaborative group art session to aid in transitioning to a new facility, a neurosurgeon, physical therapist, nurse and housekeeper came together to create a painting. First writing their intentions for their new space, then taking turns leading and following in silence, this unlikely team bonded together to create a work for their new building, putting their own vision into their new home. Making art provided a sense of group identity and also created lasting, tangible evidence of that effort.

Community organizing groups have also drawn on artistic engagement to build community connection during times of change. As a volunteer for a local nonprofit committed to cross-border organizing post-NAFTA, I participated in Paint-A-Thon Banner projects focused on linking unions to advocacy efforts in Latin America. Our efforts brought diverse individuals together – few of us actual artists – to create expressions that reflected our hopes – and built lasting ties for a brighter future.

In this time of conflict, and defunding of the National Endowment for the Arts, what we need now in America is more art, not less: more connection, more beauty, more awe. Focusing on doing something creative together may be the most valuable way to building both a healthier self and community. For “[T]hrough creativity and imagination, we find our identity and our reservoir of healing.”6

 

1. Alderman, Leslie. “Therapists offer strategies for post election stress.” New York Times, 29 March 2017.
2. Sandi, Carmen. "Stress and cognition." Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Cognitive Science 4.3 (2013): 245-261; Taverniers, John, Marcus K. Taylor, and Tom Smeets. "Delayed memory effects after intense stress in Special Forces candidates: Exploring path processes between cortisol secretion and memory recall." Stress 16.3 (2013): 311-320.; Campeau, Serge, et al. "Stress modulation of cognitive and affective processes." Stress 14.5 (2011): 503-519.
3. Glanz, Karen, Barbara K. Rimer, and Kasisomayajula Viswanath, eds. Health behavior and health education: theory, research, and practice. John Wiley & Sons, 2008.
4. “Arts and Positive Change in Communities.” Creative City Network of Canada, 29 March 2017, www.creativecity.ca/publications/making-the-case/arts-and-positive-change-in-communities.php
5. Hardy, David. "Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention." Personnel Psychology 51.3 (1998): 794.
6. Stuckey, Heather L., and Jeremy Nobel. "The connection between art, healing, and public health: A review of current literature." American journal of public health 100.2 (2010): 254-263.