Rockville, MD – Rockville resident Helga Luest began a trauma-informed social experiment one year ago to improve the mental health and resilience of residents in her neighborhood. The results so far are very promising. On both a personal and community level, participants are sharing, healing, and creating new friendships that become new sources of support.
Using an old French parlor game called the Exquisite Corps, Luest sections canvasses into thirds (head, torso, feet) and passes them around to neighbors. Each person takes one section, and paints on the theme “healing from childhood experiences.” When one community artist was finished, Luest covers all of the artwork except a tiny sliver of color and lines from which the next artist connects their own painting. The artworks themselves are surreal and abstract, and oddly connected.
Luest, an expert on psychological trauma, is also a survivor of an attempted murder that took place more than 20 years ago, and more recently, she experienced domestic violence. She has been integrating art in advocacy and educational efforts since 2008, many of which became award-winning concepts and projects. This particular project she calls Art 4 Social Change, which was recently featured at a staff meeting at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services because of its potential and efficacy.
“When you share stories through art, in a process where you are collaborating to make one piece, something really special happens,” noted Luest. “People open up on a deep level and strong friendships are forged.”
Luest has a few themes going and all have a mental health connection. Yet the focus is not on wounding or trauma, but rather on the strength found to “live through life,” as a way to normalize experiences, avoid stigma, and promote wellness. During unveilings of the artworks, discussions often include personal reflections that illustrate the nature and impact of trauma, and how people cope and heal.
“’Healing’ is something anyone can relate to, but if you put labels or pathologize healing from life experiences as ‘mental illness’ or ‘recovery,’ you immediately lose some people.” Luest continued “This is about bringing community together to build understanding, forge new connections, and expand our community support system. It’s about creating beautiful artworks, having fun, and sharing life experiences so that we can be stronger together.”
Luest has been monitoring and evaluating the effectiveness of the program so far and the results are quite promising:
› 100% felt the process of creating their artwork made them think about their experiences and what keeps them strong.
› 100% felt that seeing the artwork of others, reading artist statements, and hearing stories at unveilings taught them something about how others heal and stay strong.
› 100% made a new friend and/or found that an existing relationship (within or outside the project) deepened as a result of being involved in this project.
› 83% will continue to be involved in the project by attending future unveilings, exhibits, and/or presentations.
Art 4 Social Change is facilitated by Helga Luest, senior manager of communications with Abt Associates in Bethesda, MD and founder of Witness Justice, a DC-based national nonprofit providing advocacy and support for survivors of violence and trauma. The goal of Art 4 Social Change is to use the process of creating collaborative artworks to build understanding around life experiences and facilitate new and meaningful connections and friendships in neighborhoods and other communities. The initiative also includes a written version that is being facilitated on Facebook and has international participation as far away as Australia and China.