2017 Create Change Fellows Goussy Celéstin and Nikomeh Anderson, 2017 Create Change Commissions Artist Olaronke Akinmowo and 2017 Create Change Harlem Artist-in-residence Joseph Cuillier explore the ways in which their art practices connect to mental and emotional health, as well as how they engage with community within the art that we create.
How do you use your art to express and illuminate feelings of sadness or depression?
Do you think that there is a link between creative expression and neurodiversity?
If yes please show examples of the connections.
Please share or talk about how your art connects to mental health and community.
What are the ways we can use art to nurture mental health within our schools and our community in general?
So, my older son is on the spectrum and this has opened up a whole new level of viewing the world and learning for me. I’ve always said, since he was born, that he came here to teach me. Since learning about and acknowledging his being on the spectrum, it’s highlighted even more how he is teaching me and I’m learning how to best parent him and support him. He is quite creative, sensitive, empathetic and unique. He is detailed oriented with a strong memory, and strong focus. From one particular perspective it might seem like he can be “rigid”, “hyper-focused”, particular on things that interest him ( it used to be trains, now it’s KidzBop and GoNoodle). He also has an interesting relationship to patterns and routine- whether it be something he recognizes in nature, in language, our routine of the day, music, etc. Another perspective is that he has a keen focus to specific details, people may generally let slip by. I believe that his creativity is definitely unique to how he views the world and himself.
As for my general mental health: I deal with anxiety, and am often experiencing a “fight or flight” mode internally, that I constantly negotiate. This is the byproduct of past trauma. Singing is a huge part of claiming my voice, and by extension my power. This is also the case with my writing/composing. Dancing is me exercising the freedom, ownership, and autonomy of my body as well. But my art isn’t just political action of survival, or a lifeline – it’s also how I see the world, how I self-identify, how I regulate myself. Dancing, moving, playing chords on the piano, singing all have the effect of “reset button” in moments of overwhelm (that’s of course when I’m not TOO overwhelmed to even do those things!) Sometimes, even I forget the access and resource I have to regulate and take myself out of overwhelm through my work. I know that when I do it, I feel vibrant, and when I share it with my community that feeling gets amplified so much more. In my work, I often do school performances, and the moment students participate and interact with the movement and music, there is such an elevation I feel in my spirit and a release of joy. I recently experienced some incredibly powerful music and movement exchange with non-neuro-typical children who are on various levels of the autism spectrum, down syndrome, cerebral palsy, sensory, PPD, etc., in a class I taught for an arts accessible program.
I’ve also done some work in the shelter system which was transformative (and heartbreaking when I had to leave because the residency was over). Something common I have found in these experiences I mentioned, is that there is something subtle yet powerful about creating movement and sound together in community. There is something powerful about allowing creativity to flow. Neurotypical, atypical, we all have creativity. And actually, I sometimes grapple with the current lingo, though I understand that it exists to name, identify and support. The flip-side is that there is still very little understanding of the brain…neuroscience is still uncovering (or trying to uncover) breakthroughs. Because of the unknown, there is still stigma in many communities. I think though that there are artists as well as scientists who recognize and uncovering the connections of creativity and mental health. From the art therapies: music, dance, art to the esoteric, “new age” communities use of sound/trance, to sound healing modalities used within meditative and yogic practices, to the ceremony up the street with the drums and calling of spirit, whether it be orisha, lwa, etc. To me this is all an acknowledgement of how creativity, more specifically sound/music has profound connections to mental states, and by extension mental health.
I am very interested in developing a sound healing practice and have been researching a bit on entrainment. This article in Stanford press (5/31/06), details some scientific findings shared during a symposium, “Brainwave Entrainment to External Rhythmic Stimuli: Interdisciplinary Research and Clinical Perspectives,” where ideas that push the boundaries of our understanding of the human musical experience were shared by scientists, Psychologists, musicians and ethnomusicologists. This article states, “music with a strong beat stimulates the brain and ultimately causes brainwaves to resonate in time with the rhythm”. The article further states, “A small but growing body of scientific evidence suggests that music and other rhythmic stimuli can alter mental states in predictable ways and even heal damaged brains.” Harold Russell, a clinical psychologist and adjunct research professor in the Department of Gerontology and Health Promotion at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, conducted a study funded by the U.S. Department of Education using rhythmic light and sound stimulation to treat ADD in elementary and middle school students. “His studies found that rhythmic stimuli that sped up brainwaves in subjects increased concentration in ways similar to ADD medications such as Ritalin and Adderall. “ Harold Russell also used brainwave entrainment to help his wife recover from a severe stroke. “One day she told me the fog went away,” he said.” I think that as this knowledge is shared, and understood, that many of us artists can incorporate our art as tools that nurture mental health in our communities.
Depression hits me in waves
Flowing throughout my body
Muddying my sight
Filling myself with a hot volcanic burn that never goes away
But only deepens
The more engaged with the world, the more I see it for what it really is, the less I’m swimming, the more I’m drowning, because what seems like a puddle is a pool, what looks to be a pool is a sea, the sea you see is really an endless ocean of all the multifaceted issues that come from looking into yourself, your identity, your environment, and who you are in the world and why– The anxiety comes from my oversensitivity and heightened awareness of self, environment, and the structures that hinder the change I need to be who I would be happy to exist as in this world– the anxiety is not will I survive the anxiety and oppression -the anxiety is do I want to in this world?
I’ve got the race and gender blues
Seems no matter what you choose you’re sunken and unseen
Don’t know where I’ve been, Don’t know where I’m going
I’m showing up, stripping down, building up
The Personal is Political
I tell myself
As I try to take care of simple needs
And function as
But the ever-present feeling
The itch I can’t ignore
The pain I store inside the deepest aspects of
Is to be me is not allowed in this world
My dreams are invalid
The world I could breathe a sigh of relief in will never come
So I slip
To The Sunken Place
Hazily staring at each white face that
With well meaning white intent
Bent on the silent erasure of me
They/them I whisper to My Self
Tucking in the scared little boy
Caressing the sensitive little girl
Trying to let them be a whole child
Let them heal
Let them cry
No tears come as I stare in the mirror at the skin I’ve learned to love
I think this has got to be the whitest creation I have ever heard of: race
The Human Race will not be owned by whiteness
I will not be owned by whiteness
I will understand and use whiteness as it has used me
I struggle to dismantle the cultural and societal brainwashing
My colonial and colonized mind
I am alone in a crowded room
I have no voice
Only my body
My body will move dance create
My hands will type truth to power
My eyes on the horizon
My self-reclaiming my Black Power
These are two poems from an immersive show I am developing called “The Dystopia of Normalcy” (working title). In this piece, I am using my poetry, dance, singing, and connections with ensemble through directing and choreography to illuminate my own mental health and neurodivergence. I am an organizer with The Icarus Project NYC, a radical grassroots mental health support network (we’re “mad” not “mentally ill”, The Mad Movement, or rad mad community as I like to call us) and am collaborating with the community in my producing of The Dystopia of Normalcy with Free The Arts Festival, an artistic, immersive, outdoor festival focused on healing, education and community rallying/empowerment towards greater liberation from oppression. The ensemble of my piece will be the collective that is also developing their work with Free The Arts Festival, we have been intentionally creating a community where equity, and an understanding of oppression in regards to identity, is not only the forefront of the organization, but of the work/material we share with our communities.
My own personal connection with creativity and neurodiversity as a neurodivergent person self identified on the autism spectrum, with complex trauma (or CPTSD) and chronic physical pain, has been that my hyper focus on art has given me more agency, and different communication tools for when words/language as it is is difficult for me (especially in verbal communication), but I certainly think my mental health and neurodivergence makes me a unique artist. I call myself an Ensemble Theatre Artist, because there is not terminology that accurately reflects my identity as an artist, I love working with ensembles (and this also fuels my connection to community work) and as an artist I do many things-I act, direct, choreograph, dance, sing, play piano, write poetry, musical direction/arrangement, dance improvisation, comedy improvisation, I dabble in some photography. I definitely want to echo Goussy in that even though I am my own type of artist due to my neurodivergence, everyone has creativity–and though it is helpful for me to acknowledge how my brain may be different with terminologies like neurodivergence or autism, I think that artists have always been valued for our unique perspectives on the world and ability to think different. Which is why I think all the baggage and stigma that comes from language like autism or CPTSD, and the pathologizing of trauma-induced behavior sans a trauma-informed lens from biomedical model (which also tends to fiscally benefit pharmaceutical companies, though I am also of the mindset that people should have agency to take drugs that are helpful to them not feeling suicidal/in pain/etc, but maybe this shouldn’t be influenced by capitalist drug companies).
As someone who has struggled to find therapy that has not only a trauma-informed lens but a societal lens about oppression, that understands me and my perspective, is helpful and gives me tools/real skills to cope– I think art can and maybe should be aware more of its therapeutic benefits and be utilized in that way. Art can connect you to yourself, and also connect you energetically and spiritually with the communities you create art with.
Honestly, I think one of the best things that schools could do in regards to creating safer communities and mental health is to create community agreements and then artistically foster to include these agreements to be part of a child’s life and artistic practice.
Some agreements that I find helpful are:
I statements – speaking/framing discussions from your perspective, so you’re not talking for someone, or assuming others experiences.
Move up / Move back – those who talk more are encouraged to let those who talk less talk more
One Person One Mic – one person speaks at a time (much appreciated for those who cannot follow multiple conversations at once / get very overwhelmed in group setting by this)
Owl Vision – acknowledging and being aware of the dynamics in the room to allow for group breaks / serving the group’s energetic needs. This might translate in a school context in that maybe lessons are put on hold to hold space for emotional / social needs of students
Assume good intent and take responsibility for impact – in discussions sometimes people say hurtful or oppressive things that trigger emotional trauma/hurt people’s feelings and they don’t know why it impacts a person that way, there needs to be space for folks to make mistakes and also learn from them by understanding the impact.
Share responsibility for community learning / be a teacher and a learner – This is a framework that I think would radically shift how we think about education (this individual competitive mindset) so that not only are teachers teaching, but the community is educating each other and helping each other understand concepts facilitated by the official teacher.
Use language of investigation, not alienation and judgment – Ex. NOT: That neighborhood was a hard place to grow up in, BUT: Tell me about the place you grew up.
Social Media clause – some form of stop drop and roll to disengaging from escalating online conversations and commitment to talk face to face about the issue while honoring community agreements.
Anti-Oppression clause– this is directly from The Icarus Project with some of my own tweaks to the language: We recognize that overcoming oppression helps everyone’s liberation; it is the group’s responsibility to challenge racism, classism, sexism, ableism, ageism, homophobia, and other forms of prejudice. We call each other in and educate each other in the spirit of solidarity, and hold others accountable for their behavior without criticizing who they are as people.
I was diagnosed with ADD as a child, making it really easy for me to get distracted. You would think a quiet space would be ideal to avoid distractions, but the opposite is true. I find silence to be very unsettling. So, I always use music as a part of my pedagogy. I listen to it when I am learning and I play music in my class while I’m teaching for it’s inspirational and soothing qualities. So I created a playlist of songs that comfort me as a way to share a tool that has always been beneficial to me.