The Arts and Trauma Healing

THI 2013On Monday, June 16th, many Ekphrasians participated in a Seminar on The Arts and Trauma Healing, held at Lehigh Valley Presbyterian Church. 

If you weren’t there, you should have been! It was a powerful event. The leader combined discussions, Scripture, and artistic activities. It was very much like a group therapy session. Here is the official description; below that are some of my thoughts and some from other participants.

This seminar followed a book and method designed by the American Bible Society to ask:


HWT 2013 EN Front Cover copyIt taught a holistic, interactive approach to engaging Scripture in the healing process for people who suffer from the mental, emotional, and spiritual effects of trauma. This workshop combined biblical truths with basic mental health principles. In it, we learned to address beliefs and emotions damaged by trauma, in their own lives and the lives of others. This session emphasized the importance of visual and performing arts in trauma healing.

The group was led by a trained facilitator, using the book pictured on the right. She guided us through conversations about why there is suffering in the world, what trauma is, what the stages of grief are and how people move through them, and the importance of bringing our traumas before the cross.

How did she do this?

* Drama!
* Visual art!
* Story telling!
* A Drum circle!
* More drama!
* Writing a lament!
* Music!

I would say that the connection between the arts and trauma healing can be summed up in the phrase Metaphor and Embodiment. Some of the activities we did were metaphorical: for instance, the evening ended with us writing our traumas in red ink on tracing paper, then putting them into water as we sang songs about the Crucifixion. The red ink came off, leaving the papers clean and the water stained. This is a clear metaphor.

Some of the other activities were ways to embody either our traumas or ways of healing from them. I found the visual art most helpful (which was a surprise; I have a huge mental block against drawing) — I ended up scattering little stick figures on a paper along with texts: quotes from poems or titles of books that seemed metaphorically connected to my own troubles.

medium_drum-circle1I also found the Drum Circle to be a wonderful activity, but it didn’t connect to trauma for me. The facilitator has found the drum circle to work for some people as a way of expressing and processing anger, kind of like hitting a punching bag. I just found it tons of fun! I haven’t made much music in the last, well, decade or so, and I’ve rarely had those moments of musical synergy when everyone in the ensemble just gets on the same vibe and something sublime takes over. This wasn’t that, certainly, but there was something in me that rejoiced at making rhythms together.

The dramatic readings, skits, and improvisations were also very powerful. There was a long, terrifying one in which four members of the group represented a family that had just lost someone in a car accident. They moved through the “villages” of anger to denial to new life. Three of the group participants in this drama are really family members and the owner/directors of a theatre group, so their performance was terrifyingly real. One of them wrote in her feedback form that the most difficult activity of the evening was: 

I think the one where we talked about grief and anger… It was difficult to do the improv regarding grief and anger. Partly because I was still processing what I was feeling from the drawings I had done. Then the music thing was very fun, but I think I was afraid of letting myself go… and I found all the clanging randomly at once to be overwhelming and chaotic.

She also said that she gained a lot from the workshop as a whole, because it tied into what she has been learning in her private life:

Working on exposing our wounds, expressing them to God, acknowledging and dealing with anger, expressing that to God, looking to Christ for healing… it just included some art handles in it.

She is preparing to start offering some art therapy sessions as a local shelter for women rescued from sex trafficking, and she said that these sessions have her “a spring board for ideas of the type of art projects to do with the women at the Truth Home.”

The evening ended with a session on forgiveness, and this turned out to be an emotional and volatile subject. We talked about what it is, what it isn’t, when it needs to happen, how it works, what it does for the victim and the offender, what happens when the offender is dead or otherwise unable to be contacted. One participant wrote that the particular conversations we had about forgiveness were “something that I haven’t spent a lot of time considering, and working through the different aspects of it was very enlightenling…. that session definitely had some difficult things to process, emotionally.” grief


May Meeting: Mahlika and Hildegard


Mahlika Hopwood

I am behind the times! I haven’t carved time out of my other reading, writing, and editing projects, both academic and creative, to keep up with Ekphrasian blogging. But here at last is a report on our May meeting. I hope to follow up with reports on our three-ish June meetings soon.

For our May meeting, Medieval scholar Mahlika Hopwood traveled down from the Bronx, where she is pursuing a PhD at Fordham University, to talk to us about Hildegard of Bingen. I learned a lot about this fascinating Mystic from Mahlika’s talk.

But first, Betsy G shared a little short story that turned out to be a dream. We discussed how to revised this work to take it from mere dream-record into the realm of the “literary.” And then later, our talk about dreams proved relevant to thoughts on Hildegard’s visions.

Hildegard_von_BingenHildegard of Bingen was an amazing person. She was a nun and abbess. She was a rock-star gardener; poet and Inklings scholar Malcolm Guite has a great sermon about her ecological work.

Two themes in Mahlika’s talk stood out.

1. Visual Art

Although it does not appear that Hildegard was herself an artist, she fostered the visual arts among those in her convent. Check out this site with a slide show of the works she commissioned. What astonished me is how “Eastern” these works are: they look like nothing so much as Buddhist Mandala. Their ideas are very similar to Charles Williams‘s concepts about holism, coinherence, and exchange. She pictured the universe as an egg, or as a heavenly rose like Dante’s. She had vivid visions of God’s presence and working in the world, such as the one on the left, in which the inspiration of the Holy Spirit is like a fiery hand gripping her head and forcibly transferring the revelations to her mind. We can see her writing them down, but her faithful secretary also waits off to the right to help her capture her visions in words.

Hildegard enjoyed a startling degree of academic, religious, and personal freedom for a woman of her time. She ran her own Abbey. She was highly literate in several languages. She wrote her revelations in influential forms. Her visions were approved as genuine by the Pope after an examination for their doctrinal soundness. She even traveled around preaching! And… she wrote music.


2. Music

Another part of Mahlika’s presentation that I found very impressive was Hildegard’s musical skill. She was a composer; check out her music here or here or listen to some of her compositions on youtube. More than that: she thought of the world in musical terms; she used music as a metaphor, or a fully-developed allegory, for spiritual reality. But it was more than an allegory: it was a unified, spiritual-scientific way of picturing the cosmos. The planetary spheres sing, and their harmony holds all things together in musical relationships. It is far more complex than that, but I hope that you go and read up on her life and work for yourself!



After Mahlika’s presentation, several members of the group shared their work, and we had the usual lively discussions, full of remarks about what we liked and suggestions for revision and improvement.

Jeff H shared a chapter from the novel that he wrote during the 2013 Three-Day Novel Contest, entitled No Sand for a Beach. You can read his prologue and first chapter here.

Earl P read the opening section of his Tolkienian narrative of elves, dwarves, and — spoiler alert! — dryads: a short story with the preliminary name “Jotori Chronicles.”

Richard B shared drawings from the Kimmeriorian character set; you can see some of his other work here to get a sense of his style. These pictures led to a very, very lively discussion (debate?) about the perceived sexism of his depictions, both written and visual, of women. We talked about working within and/or subverting the expectations of the graphic novel/superhero genres.

Finally, Joshua L shared some of his photos from Players of the Stage’s production of Midsummer Night’s Dream. The director, assistant directors, and major members of the cast are all Ekphrasians and were present to enjoy his beautiful photos.


Special Event: Saints and Syntax and Style, oh my

331424_101966673261750_1352144233_oOn May 5th, Mahlika Hopwood, Medievalist, scholar, teacher, and PhD candidate at Fordham University, will speak to us about the devotional writings of Hildegard of Bingen. This presentation will follow directly from our recent workshops on sentence structure and stylistics: looking at how this religious writer expressed her intense passion for God in her writings.

Monday, 5 May 2014, 6:00-10:00 pm

Living Hope Church, 300 Schantz Road, Allentown

Please bring food, work to share, and a donation to help cover our guest’s travel expenses. Suggested donation: $5-10.00 (please give more if fewer people attend; this is our last special guest for a while, so be generous!)

Please RSVP on the facebook event page:

Tentative Schedule:

Hildegard+von+Bingen+hildegardvonbingen* 6-7 food, fellowship, and a workshop on sentence stylistics
* 7-8 Mahlika’s presentation, including discussion and Q-&-A
* 8-10 our ordinary share-and-critique workshop



Sentences, Music, and Nudity: Meeting Report 7 April

This past Monday evening, Ekphrasis hosted a very special guest: Tobias Emanuel Mayer, German pianist and singer-songwriter. Check out his website,

But first! We had the most exciting event ever….drumroll, please… hold your breath… wait for it…. A grammar workshop! That’s right, kids: grammar can be fun. OK, it was a bit more advanced than grammar: it was called “sentence stylistics,” and it was about how the architecture of a sentence carries its emotional impact. Take this passage as an example: the opening of A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway.

In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains. In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels. Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees. The trunks of the trees too were dusty and the leaves fell early that year and we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling and the soldiers marching and afterward the road bare and white except for the leaves.

Take a look at how the first three sentences are built, then at the last. Do you see how the last sentence uses polysyndeton (extra conjunctions) to string together lots of short independent clauses? Well, what’s the effect of that? The effect is to make the reader rush along through the sentence, feeling the meaningless haste of the troops marching and marching along in an endless, meaningless cycle. Isn’t that great?

OK, maybe I’m the only person on the planet who gets wildly excited about grammatical structure, but there you have it.

IMG_0293Anyway, then Tobias presented his program. He had prepared a series of pieces, interspersed with a meditation on the life of David. His talk was very inspiring, taking us through some of the moments in David’s life when he was closest to God. And the pieces of music he played were sweetly integrated into the mood of his meditation.

Here is his program.

Yearning for the Sound of Heaven:
Episodes of David’s Life – The Man after God’s Heart
A Short Concert at Ekphrasis, Pennsylvania, Mon., April 7th 2014

Music and Moderation by Tobias Emanuel Mayer

I. Living Water: How David’s journey began
Piano Piece No. 1: Lebendiges Wasser / Living Water

II. Yearning: David’s longing for God’s presence
Piano Piece No. 2: Sehnsucht / Yearning

III. In His Presence: Worshiping day and night at the tabernacle
Piano Piece No. 3: In Seiner Gegenwart / In His Presence

IV. Take Me to Your Sanctuary: The Vision “on earth as it is in heaven”
Song: Zieh mich in dein Heiligtum /Take Me to Your Sanctuary

I must say, his entire presentation was very moving. He has a very close, even mystical, relationship with Jesus, just dwelling and luxuriating in God’s loving presence. His motto is “Playing and Praying.” (I didn’t ask him whether that rhymes in German). He prays while at the piano, and God guides him into words and melodies. He plays at a local prayer chapel in his hometown in German, and often feels the Spirit moving him to play things he’s never played before and maybe cannot capture afterwards.

After Tobias played, we asked him lots of questions. We talked about where he is from, his education, his compositional process, and his inspiration. One particularly good question had to do with absolute vs. programmatic music. The questioner wanted to know what made a musical element match up to an event, emotion, or other topic. Take Beethoven’s 6th, for instance: What’s particularly “Pastoral” about that? How do its sounds suggest a story? Specifically, he wanted to know how those instrumental pieces, without text, mapped on to the life of David. Now, that’s  a good question in any language!

The answer was, essentially: They don’t. Tobias did not compose those pieces with the life of David in mind. Later, when he was asked to participate in a program about David, he chose his Scripture passages and pieces of music that he felt fit. They certainly were meditative and thus worked well with the thoughts he was giving us.


Andrew Stirling MacDonald at the piano

After Tobias finished his program, we had two more pianists. Later on I will post videos of these three performances.

Curt D. performed two jazz pieces: one of his own composition and another his Latin-style arrangement of Brubeck’s “Take Five.”

When Curt played, I got inspired to plan a future “Ekphrasis Live!” event at which we have all the visual artists exhibit their work, and the musicians perform for an hour each. We’ll do that this summer! Details are forthcoming.

Then Andrew Stirling MacDonald played an original composition that he wrote as a 21st birthday gift for Betsy G. The composition is entitled “An Old-Fashioned Girl,” after a book by Louisa May Alcott. Betsy was the first person Andrew met who had also read that novel. The piece goes through several sections, exploring aspects of Betsy’s personality, her sweet childlike nature, and her love of history.

After the musical section of the evening, we moved into visual art. Chrissie S., she of the many nicknames (most commonly “Momo”; sometimes “JoJo”; I call her “Mojo”), is taking an art class at her local community college. She shared a few drawings she made in soft pastels. Here is one of colorful cabbage leaves: IMG_0310

Momo talked about how she works in soft pastel, and that they are quite a challenge (they smudge very easily) and that she loves getting really messy with them.

Then she shared a first at Ekphrasis: two fine art nudes. I have a photograph of one below. We talked only a little bit about how she was uncomfortable drawing nudes at first (working from photographs, not from a live model), but that she very quickly lost her discomfort and discovered how beautiful this form can be.

IMG_0313After Momo finished presenting her pieces, Sharon G. brought two works-in-progress to share with the group for notes. The first was a graphite-pencil drawing of her nephew, shown from an interesting, top-down perspective. The photograph she’d used as a reference for the drawing included a bit of motion blur, and we had a brief discussion as to how that could (or whether it should) translate into the drawing itself. Sharon’s second piece was a project she’d begun work on five years earlier, and recently decided she’d like to try to finish. The drawing was of several pieces of a mirror, reflecting different parts of her face. She had originally intended to connect the mirror-pieces with another drawing in the background, and we discussed her new ideas as to how the piece could be finally brought together.

Earl P. continued his magic-colored-bread project. The bread he brought to this event was intended to be Mana-blue. He discussed some of the techniques he’d used to try to color the bread without using artificial food coloring. The bread did have a somewhat blue color to it, though it did not turn out as blue as he’d hoped. Next up is black, and we gave some ideas and suggestions as to the best ways to accomplish it.

Josh L. gave the evening’s final presentation, a series of photographs captured in his signature style, without editing or alterations to the original photographs.

With the night winding down and the person who had the keys to the building wanting to go home and get some sleep, the group decided to continue the fellowship and socializing at a local diner, where we met and whiled away the time until the wee hours of the morning.

— Written by Sørina Higgins and Andrew Stirling MacDonald