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.


Nudity in Art in the Classroom

At one of my Ekphrasis session, a topic came up that I’ll treat separately here. There were two art teachers present. One teaches in the local Christian high school where I taught for one year; the other teaches art and art history to homeschooled students of all ages at the arts academy where I currently teach English. I should mention that both of these schools are fairly “conservative,” even “fundamentalist,” populated mostly by Evangelicals. In the high school, many of the families (and faculty/staff) would be of the Young-Earth no-dancing type of persuasion. In the course of Ekphrasis, the topic of nudity in art in the classroom was broached. Two widely different approaches became clear.

David-accademiaTeacher #1, the high school teacher, said that he puts post-it notes or little cut-out black construction paper shorts over the private parts of nude figures in his art books. He laughed that students will peak underneath the paper shorts of, say, The David. But on the other hand, students want to help cover up the nude figures and will participate in the cutting-out of paper shorts and the application of strategically placed post-it fig leaves.

Teacher #2, the homeschool teacher, on the other hand, shows nude art to her students. She begins when they are fairly young (I would guess late elementary school?). She talks to them about why artists do this: To celebrate the beauty of the human body, perhaps, or to practice their own technical skill in depicting such a difficult subject. She explains the difference between nudity and nakedness. And they’re fine with that.

Here’s a personal anecdote. At the same school where Teacher #1 works, I was teaching a Greek Mythology unit to the 10th graders. In addition to learning facts and stories about the Greek gods, goddesses, and heroes, they were responsible to learn how to recognize these characters by their distinctive features, objects, and so on. We had a Visual Arts quiz, thus. I chose ten or so of these Greek characters, found online two works of art for each, and presented a slide show of the images. The students had to identify the god, goddess, or hero in each pair of paintings/sculptures. But before we got into this unit, I gave them a little lecture about nudity in art. I explained why the artists did it (see above) and told the students: “You are going to have to be mature about this. If anyone is uncomfortable, come and tell me and we won’t do it. But once we begin, you are not allowed to laugh, snicker, make snide comments, or anything. Just act calm and adult and don’t be weird about it.” And you know what: it worked! One class was totally fine: just looking at the images and quietly focusing on the identification task at hand. In the other, one young wag started to laugh and make a comment at the first picture of Zeus (with rather prominent masculinity), but caught himself immediately, said, “Oh, wait, we’re not allowed to do that,” apologized, and acted mature all the rest of the time.

So I do not wish to cause any young people to stumble by putting before them images that might cause them to lust. But I believe that there are three different approaches to the unclothed human body: (1) sexually, lusting after it carnally (2) artistically, appreciating its glorious beauty as created by God (3) medically, looking at it as flesh whose health needs to be promoted and maintained. However, it’s hard to know for sure if we can appreciate the unclothed human body purely artistically: I mean, be honest, we’re fallen, we’re sexual, we’re driven (sometimes, to some extent) by appetites. Yet I’m not convinced that keeping away from great art, simply because one has an overblown libido, is the answer—anymore than keeping away from certain classic literature that describes sex, sexuality, or attractive persons. Shouldn’t we strive to raise our desires from the merely carnal to the aesthetic in situations in which the carnal is inappropriate? Shouldn’t I learn to look at the David without blushing?

Here is a Classical school’s position paper on nudity in art; it falls pretty far on the ‘conservative’ side, keeping students away from such art unless they happen to encounter it in supplemental materials.

On the other end of the Christian spectrum, here’s a statement on the use of nude models from Gordon College, my alma mater.