I was in my 20s when I was thunderstruck with the idea that art saves lives.
It's not an original idea. It predates writing; probably predates languages. It's uniquely human.
And being uniquely human, art has an impact on every part of our lives. Every minute. Art saves lives.
I'm not talking about art therapy, which is important. I'm talking about ART. Creation. Imagination. Using materials at hand to communicate an idea so complex or personal or elegant, that common speech will fail.
This week I was privileged to be Artist-in-Residence at the national conference of the National Federation of Families for Children's Mental Health in Washington. I led a photo workshop for the Youth Track, teens and young adults who attended with their parents or alone. They are advocates for proper education and treatment for young people with mental illness. They work every day to remove the stigma of mental illness.
My job is simple. I introduce the materials. I suggest some techniques. I encourage them to think deeply about what they want to say in their finished piece. We have one day.
It's during the shooting phase of the workshop that I get to know them a bit. If the group isn't too big, I can work one-on-one, helping each get the kind of images they want. After the film is developed, the real creativity begins. The materials are basic: glue sticks, scissors, mat board, colored paper, tissue paper, whatever is at hand. They get one instruction: create your story.
Every time I do this workshop, I am blown away by the results. Without limitations, each artist creates something spectacular! I watched commentaries emerge: peace, how teens seem to have no control of their lives, living in shadows, dreaming of freedom. One artist used the actual film negatives to frame his work. It hurt me, an old film photographer, to see negatives damaged, but I got over it as I watched the power of the piece emerge.
We installed the work in a public place at the conference the next day. It would have taken me 5 minutes and no drama to install the work alone. I asked the group to do it instead. It took an hour. There was drama. The final installation, like many installations, was a work of art in itself. It was far better than I would have done.
Art saves lives. For this group, art inspires lives too.