After 26 people, including 20 children, were shot and killed at Sandy Hook Elementary in 2012, many mourners turned to art therapy as a means of healing. The process, which is essentially a free-form experience of drawing whatever comes to mind, has been shown to be especially helpful for children who lack verbal means by which to convey sorrow. Art therapy helped those who suffered from the Boston Marathon bombing. And now, art therapists hope to help the Charleston community.
Almost two months have passed since the tragedy at Mother Emanuel Church. After countless vigils, unity rallies, dinners, and concerts, the Charleston community is beginning to heal. But what happens when healing is hard? How do you tend to a wound that won’t quite close?
Dianne Tennyson, an art therapist and teacher at Mt. Pleasant’s Art Connects, has joined forces with the Charleston public library to create thrice-weekly art therapy sessions for the community. The sessions are an hour-and-a-half long and free to attend. The point of the sessions? To mend, or at least start the process of mending, Charleston’s broken heart.
“After trauma our verbal process shuts down and we lose the ability to express ourselves,” says Tennyson, speaking to a group of 14 people in a classroom at the Main Library. “When you undergo a lot of stress, the most primitive part of your brain stimulates fight or flight mode. It can lead to physical problems and you don’t know where it’s coming from,” says Eric Vincent, Tennyson’s husband and colleague.
Tennyson takes turns directing these art sessions, along with Deborah Milling, a psychiatrist, Sharon Martin, a psychoanalyst, and Laura De LeMaza, an art educator. While art therapy can take many forms, this program uses mandalas as the jumping-off point. Each participant receives a piece of paper that explains mandalas — essentially, a mandala is a circle — and their universal significance in most religions.
Tracing a circle on to a piece of paper is the only structure involved in this free drawing session. After each person draws his circle the room grows quiet, prompted by a sign that reads, “Please no talking while drawing.” Music plays softly in the background and pencils and crayons scratch away at white paper, slowly filling it with color. Or not. It’s up to the artist. There are also pre-made templates available so if the thought of creating something new is terrifying, there’s always the option to simply color.
Before the drawing starts each person introduces him or herself and says why they decided to attend. One woman explained that, as an artist, she’d been trying to cope with June’s tragedy, and she wanted to see what it would be like to draw in this environment. Another woman had used art therapy before, to cope with the loss of a fellow church parishioner. One woman’s husband had recently died. Another woman was visiting from out of town. Several people were just curious. Mayoral candidate John Tecklenburg and his wife were there, supporting Tennyson, a longtime friend.
“There’s no prescribed way to grieve,” says Jamie Thomas, the library’s public relations coordinator.
Thomas is all too familiar with the recent tragedy. Cynthia Hurd, who was killed in the Emanuel AME tragedy, was a manager of the St. Andrew’s public library and a good friend and confidante to Thomas. At the end of the session Thomas’ mandala has two bookshelves facing one another, one with nine books, the other empty. “When the cameras go away people have to think and start contemplating what happened,” says Thomas.
While she says that these sessions are a useful outlet, nothing is “all-solving.” Tennyson acknowledges this point as well, encouraging people to return to more sessions to keep exploring their feelings.
One of the artists who shared her mandala at the end of the session put it on the wall next to the mandala she’d completed on Tuesday. They were surprisingly different. “It’s crazy how much you can change from day to day,” she says. The artist is a studio art major at the College of Charleston and her mandalas are, naturally, beautiful. But they don’t have to be.
“This is not about artistic talent,” says Tennyson. Mandalas line the wall behind her, many representing the twin towers of 9/11. Several are framed, with the artists’ words underneath. The descriptions are raw, like the words of one 15-year old girl, “The bold colors represent how hard I have been thinking about these things. The background that is pink represents how much I love everyone and I try to please everyone. I would rather make other people happy so they will be happy with me instead of me being happy and others not.” Her torment highlights an important aspect of these sessions — it can get personal.
The sessions are intended to confront the tragedy that the city of Charleston shares, but they also offer participants an opportunity to explore personal tragedies. We created our own mandala to see how effective art therapy could be. Many dulled crayon tips later, we were surprised by what we saw. Like the artist across from us who marveled that she’d drawn outside of the lines, our minds had also travelled for a while.
In 2010 the Foundation for Art and Healing published an article, “The connection between art, healing, and public health: a review of current literature,” that talks about art therapy as part of holistic health. It lauds art therapy for giving trauma victims a sense of purpose. After the Emanuel AME shooting the community found ways to grieve and ways to celebrate life. But what do you do after you donate, join hands, and pay your respects at the church? HeARTS MEND HEARTS is one way to relieve that sense of helplessness.