By: Megan Nemire
Welcome to my imagination, in the days before embarking on this journey to Cambodia.
I imagine a part of myself as an archetypal warrior of justice, in my own way. Privy to the tragedy and suffering of the masses I’ll soon encounter, there I stand, silhouetted shield and weapon in hand, survival belt across my waist. There is a flash of light, and with a further look, the sword is rather dull, with fanned bristles, rising triumphantly over my head toward the sky. A drop of paint slowly sinks down from it toward the earth and me. I’m not here for a fight. Rather than round to deflect bullets, my shield is flat with rectangular geometry, penetrable canvas stretched across wooden framed edges, absorbing the atmosphere. Survival kit at the base of my spine has a travel watercolor kit, pack of colored pencils, the wisdom to breathe, the courage to create. Not to mention, there’s my band of imaginal allies. My imagination muses a little more and I let out my cry: “I COME WITH AAAAAAART!” I shout atop painted mountains, surrounded by still-life drawings and abstract expressions of nature.
And then I feel ridiculous. There it goes, that imagination of mine. Part archetype, part reality, part humor, what is that? I mean really, as lovely and colorful as that is… it sounds trivial, right? Warrior Art Therapist of my imagination, are you a humorous application of my career as an archetype, or is there validity to you? How do you fight a war with a paintbrush? How do you claim to support your self, your work, your clients— with a canvas? How on earth can you say that art can be healing in the wake of generational disaster, genocide, and evil?
Thank goodness for the wisdom of mentors. The words of Pat Allen ring so true: “[the art therapist] must be willing to be in the paradox that, on one hand, making art is ridiculously inadequate, and on the other, making art in service to the pain of the world is necessary” (Allen, 2007, p. 75).
With a deep breath and sigh of relief, I lower the brush onto the canvas shield, guide my awareness through my body, and exhale a shaky but strong dark blue line. It’s an image of the internal sensation of what is true for my shaky breath and overfilled heart as I approach the threshold of this Service Learning quest. Yes, I feel hopeless and devastated at the suffering of traumatized and exploited women, men, and children. And yes, with that same gestural painted line, I savor the tremendous somatic relief and existential realization: I can have art and suffering. And when I have art, I have something more than materials. I have an ally.
It is true, we cannot expect to transform the world with a paintbrush alone. The acts of art require attention, and care, for which some people and systems do not have patience, time, or necessity. So, what can a group of budding art therapists really do in a broken situation, the inescapable realities of our clients? According to Allen et al, we must bare witness to the world, and “midwife the images that the soul of the world sends to [us]” (73). We can “[offer] art as a respite, a momentary pause in an awful reality” (74). Of course, many people we will encounter will not have awful realities. Some will. Perhaps for some, a momentary pause doesn’t sound like much. However, we cannot deny the opportunities for another being to be seen, just as they are. We cannot know if it is the first time a person is witnessed and treated with respect; the first time they are seen, and not touched.
No, we cannot change the dominant negative paradigms that oppress and silence. We can do something else. Bit (1991) writes, “Cambodian culture is endowed with unlimited human potential to see the inner world of imagination to find new truths” (152). We can support them in remembering this ally they have known all along. We must sit and acknowledge the pain that is reality for so many, with humility, and mirror-like grace. And when we feel triggered or called to action, we can take down the brush and give shape and color to the truth of our own feelings, and own them. If attacked by painful experience, hold up the canvas shield and collect the spray. In this way, art can be an intermediary, a filter, a comrade.
In my own life, art has been a savior, a rival, a mirror, and an adrenaline shot of reality. When the pain of past or present grows too strong to hold inside myself, art has been there to hold it for me. I can hide the images, burn them, hang them as inspiration, give them as gifts. This is a profound privilege, and coping skill.
During the reign of the Khmer Rouge, art and expression were specifically targeted for eradication from the culture. This particular aggression (one of many horrors of the genocide) was an attack on hope, internal resources, and the notion of freedom and expression. It is enraging to consider. My Warrior Art Therapist self raises her needles and thread for this one, and creates gowns from old clothing, repurposing scraps that was used and torn, into a completely unique and intricate garment, standing for voice, and justice. I cannot remedy these ills of humankind, but I can witness them, and create art in honor of justice and social change. I can show others, and tell them what is happening.
“Images of hope are potent and necessary: they shape our goals and give us impetus for reaching them… Many of us are….groping in the dark with shattered beliefs and faltering hopes, and we need images for that time if we are to work through it” (Macy, 1991, p. 25). This is what we can do. Sure, it may begin on a micro level, which seems small for systems thinkers. It takes a bit of faith to believe there is power in reminding people of the value of images. In the words of Allen et al, “these tools [of art] are [our] passage to the place of all possibilities. These are our paths to the imagination and hope. Here we can fall apart over and over, dissolving our resistance to our grief and strengthening our ability to say yes to life again and again- not merely on behalf of our designated client but on behalf of the institution and, most importantly, on our own behalf” (75). We have the privilege to walk these paths with others.
Allen, P. (2007). Wielding the shield: The Art therapist as conscious witness in the realm of social action. In Kaplan, F. (Ed.), Art therapy and social action (40-55). London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
Bit, S. (Ed.) (1991) The Warrior heritage. A Psychological perspective of Cambodian Trauma. Le Cerrito, CA: Seanglim Bit.