Healing Through the Arts

Healing Through the Arts. The name of this growing DelArt program series identifies its impact. The goal, says creator Vanesa Simon, is to use art to help community members heal. A cancer survivor herself, Simon has a singular understanding of how art can help people through deep trials and connect them with others in a community of support.  

Art strengthens mental health, reduces stress, improves well-being, and helps us heal – mentally, emotionally, and physically. The Delaware Art Museum is reaching beyond its walls to provide experiences with art to those who need it most. We offer artmaking as a practice that catalyzes healing and builds community.  

The idea was sparked in 2017, when community members Vanesa Simon and Luisa Ortiz shared ideas about the role of creativity in healing. DelArt gave seed money to pilot their initial idea – three painting workshops and a community celebration for cancer patients. From this first event, Healing Through the Arts grew as a joint venture between the Museum and Simon’s company, Mariposa Arts.  

Grief drumming, watercolor, and clay workshops were soon offered to partner organizations serving the cancer community.  Cris Vitsorek and fellow Museum Guides developed gallery tours to complement the program. Guides facilitated reflective dialogues and deep looking centered on select works of art, some sharing their own experiences with cancer. 

In contrast to traditional services like cancer support groups, “I find that looking at art, and talking about art, provides a different vehicle to reflect on your experiences,” shares Vanesa Simon. “That’s what’s special about the tours Cris and the Guides developed. Participants come to the Museum, a place that doesn’t have anything to do with cancer. They look at beautiful art, or even challenging art, and see things in it they’ve never noticed before. They talk about their observations with a group of people that know what they are experiencing. Sometimes it isn’t about cancer, but they have space to talk about their lives through a different lens.” Within the tours and workshops, relationships develop and participants bond. “As we’re exposing people to new materials and different kinds of art, we’re leaving space for what grows organically, for community-building to happen.” 

When the pandemic hit, Healing Through the Art sessions moved online. DelArt and Mariposa sustained their relationship with the Cancer Support Community of Delaware through online guided art workshops and virtual tours. “We saw that we could continue to offer experiences to the cancer community, but we also realized that the rest of the world needed art for healing as well,” shares Simon.  The challenges of the pandemic crystallized the widespread need for art as a tool for healing. Healing Through the Arts expanded its focus to serve not only people experiencing cancer, but also people experiencing environmental traumas, including gun violence, social conflict, and adverse childhood experiences. Healing Through the Arts workshops are now offered at several partner sites throughout the city, and the content changes to reflect the needs of each new audience. 

“We returned in-person in 2021 with an outdoor labyrinth workshop led by the artist KYMA. We’d all been cooped up and only connecting online. Participants were moved to tears, in front of strangers, by the power of sharing space. It was beautiful to witness. I observed a man grieving – maybe he had lost someone, I’m not sure,” continues Simon. “That workshop was so special – people connected so deeply with KYMA’s practice. I could feel the power of our shared experience and see the healing it brought to our community.” 

As Healing Through the Arts developed new community partnerships, the approach to collaboration and to teaching changed as well. “I know what a cancer patient goes through, and I have an idea of what helps them. But as we went into new kinds of organizations to help people with different traumas, our role shifted to one of listening. We let our partners know about the resources we offer, and we asked what could best help their communities,” shares Simon. “I did not experience gun violence, nor the level of poverty or other stressors that some of the students at The Teen Warehouse face. I wasn’t sure if my art teaching would reach these teens. But the partner told us that the teens are interested in mindfulness, and they asked me to instruct them. At the Warehouse, I encountered situations that were new to me as a teaching artist. In one of my classes while I played soft music to create a quiet atmosphere, a teen began laughing uncontrollably. I checked in with her to make sure she was ok, but she continued laughing for ten minutes. I reflected on the experience afterward with art therapist Christine Byma. Byma identified the teen’s laughter as a possible traumatic reaction. I realized that I needed to pursue additional education in this area, and I sought out trauma-informed practice training through the Bartol Foundation. I learned techniques to help people through their trauma. 

Healing Through the Arts now delivers art experiences through eight partners in greater Wilmington. In alignment with DelArt’s strategic focus on developing anchor partnerships in the region, further growth is planned. “We have a lot of goals. We are now sharing the program in Spanish and reaching out to the veteran community, and we hope to expand these areas. It’s all about to happen,” shares Simon. “But it’s important to continue this work in a way that is human-centered, even as we grow. These are not just quantities of people that we count – these are individuals experiencing real pain, whether environmental, health, mental health, or just the challenges of daily life – they are experiencing real stressors. Each of these people matter, as does each person who works behind the scenes to run the program, to teach art, or to collaborate with us.” 

We’re introducing art as a tool for wellbeing. The goal isn’t to become a trained artist or a master of technique, but to find wellbeing through the practice of art. It’s lovely to get your hands into all kinds of artistic media. We hear a lot of protesting that “I’m not an artist!” You don’t have to be, to participate. 

 In the coming year, formal evaluation will assess the program’s impact. But Simon knows Healing Through the Arts is having an effect. She’s overheard teenage girls sharing how they see each other growing. She’s witnessed her teaching space become a refuge. She’s seen adults process their experiences while modeling clay. She’s read participants’ reflections on how art gives them confidence or makes their days better. Art is a healing force in our community, and it’s available to all.  

Healing Through the Arts sessions are offered free of charge, thanks to the generosity of funders and individual donors. You can help DelArt deliver healing experiences with art to all in our community by making a donation to the Museum in support of Healing Through the Arts. 

Experience Healing Through the Arts yourself by registering for a virtual Looking and Reflecting Tour, open to all on select Sundays at 2 p.m. 

This program has been supported by our partnership with the Arsht-Cannon Fund. This program is made possible by Incyte and Museum Council. This organization is supported, in part, by a grant from the Delaware Division of the Arts, a state agency, in partnership with the National Endowment for the Arts. The Division promotes Delaware arts events on www.DelawareScene.com.

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