Innovating Through Artistry

Craving Voice Art Project for Social Change Part 3

In ENTREPRENEUR THE ARTS on August 3, 2009 at 5:51 am

Preliminary Observations to the Creative Act
After almost a year of working with opiate addicts as a counselor, I had heard what I felt to be almost every conceivable story. Even before this point, it was possible to see that there were similar story lines that characterized the population’s history despite the fact that the people, and some aspects of their stories, were so diverse. However, similar or different, the people coming to the clinic shared a common chapter of addiction and coming into recovery. Still, many of the people appeared to tell their stories as though they thought that they were the only people to ever have experienced them. It seemed to me that they could not imagine that everyone in the building, and likely many outside it, could probably relate to at least a piece of their story.
This sense of isolation is the product of marginalization. Marginalization is defined as “the denial to groups or individuals of access to positions and symbols of economic, religious or political power” (Corsini, 2002, p. 569). Marginalized populations are groups of people whose lives are affected detrimentally by not being represented within the society in which they live. For example, public misunderstanding about the nature of drug addiction and drug use leads to public policy that damages both drug addicts and drug users. An example of this was the difficulty there was setting up and maintaining needle exchanges and educating Emergency Medical Care staff in how to administer NARCAN, a drug used to stop the process of overdosing, within the neighboring communities of the clinic. Communication can collapse this segregating tendency, which can block positive change on so many different levels. Art, in my opinion, is one form of communication.
For example, the Laramie Project’s (Kaufman, 2001) purpose is to raise awareness of problems resulting from homophobia. The creators of this project conducted interviews with people that were in some way involved in the murder of a homosexual man in Wyoming. The material from the interviews was turned directly into a theatre script. The play is performed to inform people about this particular event and therefore hopefully to prevent hate crimes in the future. This project was effective because of its ability to communicate directly how violent acts are created by homophobia and general human ignorance.
Art can also give a voice to those who might often be left out of the dialogue. It can provide a way for people to work together and come to a deeper understanding of the other’s needs and ways of being. Because expression does not require educational degrees or financial backing, art can function to put people on equal footing. This can potentially break through many rigid social structures (Assaf, Bacon, & Korza, 2002, p. 6).
After almost a year of working in this environment, I was acutely aware of the bureaucracy that existed within the clinic. It was designed, whether intentionally or not, so that it keeps people dependent. By this time, I was aware of the power dynamics (Rogers, 1977, p. 4) at play, which sometimes forced the clients into demeaning and degrading positions and limited their ability to move on and heal (p. 3-28). There was also an intense and narrow focus on the drug addiction that was represented by a pervasive belief that if someone simply did not do drugs, his or her life would be better. Rogers writes, “To me it is entirely logical that a technologically oriented society, with its steady emphasis on a greater control of human behavior, should be enamored of a behaviorist approach” (Rogers, 1982, p. 57). Logical or not, I saw a supposed healing community that was set up to keep people from healing.
I also saw these defeating structures in the larger community. Many of the clients had histories of incarceration, criminal charges, debt, and medical problems. These histories left them with little chance of having successful lives within the larger community. For example, clients were refused adequate care from medical institutions, prescribed addictive drugs when they obviously did not need them, and refused drugs when they did. They often wound up unable to secure work or suitable homes. These dynamics frequently made clients dependent on even the inadequate care they could get from the clinic. It appeared to be their only chance.
After a year of working with the clients, I was also aware of their self-destructive behavior. If they did get a chance, many of them would destroy it much more quickly that they were able to attain it. They would attack people who were trying to help them. They would lie and steal so that no one could trust them. They would retaliate against their own self-constructed destructions, which appeared to them to be mostly external, with anger, guilt, shame, pseudo-nonchalance, or whatever technique that had worked thus far.
The reasons for these types of behavior are supposedly well known in the therapeutic community. However, I infrequently saw anything that looked like a real communication (Rogers, 1980) or a stance that was authentically supportive and not enabling (Corsini, 2002, p. 328; Rogers, 1980). I saw very little life-affirming change and many more deaths. I frequently wondered if these people had much of a chance and what it would look like if they had one.
It was at this point that I was asked to create a painting as part of an awareness campaign. My mouth eagerly accepted, a sometimes-unfortunate characteristic of many artists, before my brain thought it through, and I was instantaneously in a quandary. I was aware by this time that the major problem that held all the others in its frame was that everyone involved was only willing to listen to his or her own narrowly defined version of why things were the way they were. If I created a painting that crossed these distinct parameters of belief, it would likely be rejected as utter insanity. Although I might, if I had maintained this approach, have succeeded in confrontation, I would have failed to communicate. Confrontation in my mind is often chosen, and sometimes necessary, for political and social change. Communication is needed for healing. Communication was of essential importance in this situation where many of the problems experienced were exacerbated by its lack. To communicate effectively in an authentic and direct manner appeared virtually impossible. In the words of Carl Rogers: “How can I maintain my integrity and yet hold a position in a system that is philosophically opposed to what I am doing? This is a terribly difficult problem, often faced, I suspect, by many of us” (Rogers, 1980, p. 46).
I struggled with the issues brought to the fore in staff meetings so that I might nourish some ideas and make them strong enough to connect what was important to treatment as seen by the clinic and what I knew from experience. I kept wondering, “What was this awareness I was asked to campaign for?” The treatment issues, which were said to be important in staff meetings, were rarely what appeared to be most important to the clients. And although little changed with the clients (some made it; some did not.), many of the staff kept on pursuing ways to teach the clients how not to be who they were. Implied in the staff’s behavior was the idea that the clients would be happy if they could only learn to be and do as they were told. In my mind this is the antithesis of a healing environment.
The behavioral approach, which is found in many facilities aimed at improving mental health and is the predominant methodology for treating substance abusers, is effective at changing behavior (Mogenstern, 2003). However, this effectiveness does not translate into comprehensive healing (Tatarsky, 2003). For example, substance abusers, who have succeeded in stopping their intake of illicit drugs or alcohol, frequently continue associated behaviors. These continued behaviors are the same ones that were used to determine that there was a substance abuse problem in the first place. Failure to understand and treat the whole person rather than just the problem is a limitation of the behavioral approach. Broad-scale change in this area will most likely take much time. However, the implementation of supplementary programs that do not conflict with already-established clinic policies and increase the effectiveness of the facilities goals could prove to be useful in both the short and the long term. By examining the healing effects of art projects used to work with social issues and effect healing, it is possible to use these projects as supplementary programs. It is this gap, between the established clinical structure and the needs of the population it was intended to serve, that I attempted to bridge with this project.
I recognized that I could not address every aspect of being a drug addict in recovery. I could not speak for every drug addict. For a brief while, I had tried to play peacekeeper and I had recognized that there was no chance I could be creative from the clinical perspective or that I could create a useful piece that was an overview of the entire situation. At this point, I had to do what I had always relied on my art to do, tell the truth, to the best of its and my ability. The truth, within this context, was contained within the stories I was told by the clients.
It appeared that the best approach to this project was to attempt to “hear the deep human cry that lies buried unknown far below the surface of the person” (Rogers, 1980, p. 8). It appeared many clients had banished the “unsuitable” memories and thoughts to dark and deserted corners of their brains, similar to the ways the clients themselves had been banished by much of society; they were trying to believe that they were like they imagined everyone else to be (Colman, 1995; Perera, 1986). I decided I could try my best to honor these stories and the clients who experienced them. I understood this honoring as being facilitated by the healing agent of empathy (Rogers, 1980).
Maintaining an empathetic stance, I gathered the material and created the final product of the painting. In Up from Scapegoating: Awakening the Consciousness in Groups (1995), Colman describes the dynamics of the empathetic approach:
To work in a group this way, I need to know the compound better than the molecules, and the mixture more than the compound. I must soften my focus and my boundaries, then expand my awareness to include the experience of myself in the group, then the group in me, and finally just the group. The pattern of the whole must emerge full force. In temporarily accepting the group collective as my consciousness, I must trust that the “I” will be back later to translate what I have experienced in the language of individuality so that I can communicate it. But for now, I am reaching toward an “other side” of consciousness (Colman, 1995, p. 64).
The empathetic approach is natural for many artists. For me, it is an essential element in understanding my subject. Empathy is intrinsic to a theory of art that is socially conscious. Examples are feminist and New Public Genre Art. Susan Lacy says: “Empathetic listening makes room for the other and decentralizes the ego self. Giving each person a voice is what builds community and makes art socially responsive. Interaction becomes a medium of expression, an empathetic way of seeing through another’s eyes” (Lacy, 1995, p. 82). Within the project, “Craving Voice,” empathy was an important agent of change. The people with whom I was working did not have voices within their communities, families, or frequently, even the clinic. Creating an open and empathetic environment gave them a space to be and speak in a way they had not experienced before. This had apparent benefit.

Description of the Painting: Visual and Conceptual Form
As an artist I find the visual form of “Craving Voices” lacking. The painting has integrity because of its importance as a healing agent; however, it in no way pushes the edge of art. This has been, from the beginning, one of the most difficult aspects of this project for me. My ultimate goal is to have a very high degree of fusion between artistic form and healing effect. This did not happen with this project. However, the success of this painting as compared with others, with regard to its ability to effect healing, made it most appropriate for an evaluation from a psychological perspective.
The starting point for determining the aesthetic composition of the painting was the stories of the clients that were heard with an empathetic ear. It seemed natural and productive for me to write down the pieces of the story that I heard repeatedly from people with whom I was working. Telling their story meant to me that I was going to leave the words in the same language in which they were spoken. For example, the word “anguish” would not be used in place of the word “pain” unless this was the predominant way participants described how they felt. The purpose of this piece of writing was to capture the essence of what I thought this population was experiencing during the initial phase of recovery.
One of the most frequently asked questions was, “Will this get better?”  It appeared to me that the fear of pain, suffering, and confusion lasting forever was often one of the reasons for relapse. How can someone believe that things will be better when everything in their environment is negative? How can someone continue to suffer the trials of the moment without hope or faith in the process of life? I believe that one of the most important therapeutic elements at work during sessions was my belief that whomever sat in front of me could change to meet his or her heart’s desire. But quite frequently, it did not get better, nor did many even know what “better” meant to them. However, hope tempered with the realities of the moment might secure survival. In addition, the painting’s purpose was to create a pathway to healing, as well as to convey the messages told by participants back to them in a way that they felt they had been heard.
In the end, I decided to leave the words as words and not turn them into an image. I did this because the words represented the limited thought patterns of the clients and were limiting thought patterns in themselves. An attempt to translate limited thoughts into a less limiting form of a visual image is akin to trying to translate the Bible into God. Creations of this type look stiff and feel like cartoons or advertising. Much of what blocks healing in both therapeutic and societal settings, in my opinion, can be understood as attempts to take a single effective principle and expand it into a panacea for all. For example, equating a change in behavior to an achievement of total health. Allowing things their appropriate context is beneficial; this is what I wanted to do with the stories. Historical stories are limited and not expansive structures for the same reason that the past cannot be changed. However, one can change one’s relation to it. Respect required that I represent the stories true to their form within the painting. Thus, the stories remained as words placed into the more expansive possibilities of the canvass and possibly someday life itself.
When reading the words that were chosen to represent this phase of the participants’ lives, it is important to remember that they came from the mouths of people who had decided that they wanted to stop using opiates and had experienced significant difficulty in doing this. As an artist working empathetically to translate others’ stories, I am not making a statement about the larger category of drug use, but rather expressing the story of a group of people and their particular experiences with opiates. The words of the stories are as follows:
When was I addicted? Right away. It just worked. I kept going back. It didn’t take long. How much? Too much. I need it to feel normal. I lost it all: car, family, lover, house, self-respect. I mean, I lost everything. It was all about the drug. And now that I am clean, all I can see is loss, and all I can feel is pain. Mine and those that I hurt. Irony is it’s like my lover died when I stopped using. I don’t even know what to do for fun. My old friends are either dead or still using. I feel so alone. Sometimes I think that I should go back to using, but then I remember how I got here. I wonder will it get better? Yes.

When I finally painted the words, I paid attention to how they fell on the canvas. I did not become obsessive about this. For the most part, I wrote the words as they fit. However, through composition, I accented both the phrase “I am” and  “remember yes.” With color I accented “now I can see, feel” and the words “love,” “feel,” and “right away.” As I wrote previously, I see these bits of story as limited thought patterns. Out of these reflections emerge the potential of a new thought pattern, new ways of being, which can be found in the text emphasized as well as the positive endnote of the reflective narrative.
Sketching one day, I drew an image and knew that it was the image that I wanted to use in this piece. However, I could not really understand how it would fit into the format in which I was working. It turns out that it did not. It, unlike the words, represented the live, real, organic, and growing form of the person in recovery. The figure was not leaping blissfully in an open space next to a golden sun, as depicted in much of the imagery in the recovery propaganda, which all but promises more radiant sunsets after entering the clinic. The figure is sitting curled around itself with its eyes closed. The figure represents the real, the potential of the person, which can be used in any way by that person.
Both Jung (1997) and McNiff (1992) discuss the benefits of free association with an image or symbol in order to draw out deeper levels of its meaning. Time meditating on this figure might bring one to some of the conclusions that it brought me. It is the figure of someone who had moved away from their past just slightly, someone who is in the trenches of recovery—uncertain, perhaps, if there is sunlight. This is how I perceived many of my clients. They appeared to be in a psychological space where all the fears and the questions might take them over and make them think that the path that they had chosen, most of them out of desperation and pain from loss, was not a worthwhile one.
This space of little movement can be seen in ritual—for example, the blindfolding and disorienting of initiates during the separation phase of ritual (Turner, 1977; Jung, 1964). It can also be seen in the mythological space of the hero. Campbell writes: “That is the basic motif of the universal hero’s journey—leaving one condition and finding the source of life to bring you forth into a richer or more mature condition” (Campbell, 1988, p. 124). Sometimes, the hero has to spend time frozen or in darkness. For example, Han Solo, a hero from the Star Wars Trilogy, gets frozen in a copper compound (Lucas, 1983). Part of his journey includes this conscious but immobile state. At points one has to surrender, as this figure appears to be doing, so that one has a chance of succeeding in one’s quest.
The figure appears embryonic, to be just coming alive, to be painfully aware, like never before, of the mistakes and losses that are often unchangeable. Whether we have been in recovery or not, it is a place that we have all visited. To further support this view of newness, the figure is also almost blank white, as if ready to be given more dimension, to be filled in. At this point in time, the person has the potential of being born anew. “The self is made up on the growing edge, of models, forms, metaphors, myths, and other kinds of psychic content which gives it direction in its self-creation” (May, 1975, p. 99).
The figure could also just have shot up. It could be an image of one’s past, one’s last relapse, or one’s last fix.
The figurative image, and all its possible associations which bring it meaning, came to rest on the words below it. In the context of the painting these words also have a pictorial as well as a narrative aspect. They can become the boxed-in words of the story. They are much too small to live in. These words contain truths but even in their pervasiveness do not create the whole picture, only a part of it. They can be the labyrinths of thought. These words add dimension and small bits of color—color, which is found in small amounts, dispersed throughout. It does not make a concrete form. It lends itself to neither beauty nor ugliness. The dispersed color creates a liminal feeling. The words can be seen as behind the image, as not restraining. The words can be a wall that stops one from going back. The words can be the pain of the story blocked by someone who just got high.
The eye refocuses. It moves away from these words towards a free form capable of stretching and expanding. What is this figure doing? Has is just finished shooting up? Is it tolerantly waiting for something to pass? Is it sleeping, waiting to be reborn? Is it a person waiting for solidity? Perhaps it is a figure that represents the noble part of the person that can endure until the time is ripe to extend beyond his or her previous limitations, whatever those limitations might be. Or maybe, it is a figure that is fertile with possibilities and strength enduring. Or yet, it may be a figure that is free to develop whatever relationship it wants to the story that is an element of the same picture. The figure is a person, whom, like any person, is able to decide what his or her life should be like.

  1. Kate Siner Francis:
    I found your project interesting, but at times I had difficulty understanding. I am a retired high school counselor.
    I usually don’t find anyone with the Siner surname.
    Steve Siner

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