When we think about “the arts,” what usually come to mind are thoughts of theater productions, fine art galleries, or musical performances. However, there is another dimension to the arts that not only can activate our curiosity and fulfill our need for enjoyment, but can also serve as a means for addressing emotions and thoughts in relation to life stresses, traumas, or grief that cause emotional, psychological, spiritual and/or physical distress or imbalances. In this sense, the arts can help us heal from the trials and tribulations we face not only as individuals, but also within the communities in which we live and participate.
On the individual level, the arts are a means by which people may access and address the deep emotional or psychological turmoil that may result from disease, illness, or trauma. Moreover, medical research points to the interrelationship of mind and body in securing individual health. A growing body of studies has argued that patients suffering from chronic illness can directly address the emotional aspect of disease through creative activity. For example, Dr. Susanne Babbel, a psychologist investigating the connections between emotional stress, trauma and physical pain has observed, “During a traumatic event, the nervous system goes into survival mode (the sympathetic nervous system) and sometimes has difficulty reverting back into its normal, relaxed mode again (the parasympathetic nervous system). If the nervous system stays in survival mode, stress hormones such as cortisol are constantly released, causing an increase in blood pressure and blood sugar, which can in turn reduce the immune system’s ability to heal. Physical symptoms start to manifest when the body is in constant distress.”
Babbel has also suggested that physical pain can function as a warning signal that there is still emotional work to be done. Enter the arts. As Joshua Smyth, a psychologist at Syracuse University has contended, “By engaging in dance, poetry or music, people are likely to initiate processes that help them manage stress, reduce negative mood states and perhaps change behavior that we know impacts cardiovascular risk and recovery.”  Researchers in New Zealand working with individuals suffering from congestive heart failure asked patients to draw pictures of what they thought their hearts looked like. Those who depicted their hearts with the most damage turned out to have worse outcomes, raising the possibility that doctors could use drawings to help their patients change mental images of their disease and possibly improve the course of their illnesses for the better.
So, art can help individuals access and address sometimes obvious or occasionally deeply hidden emotions, but how exactly does this help them to “heal”? The Merriam-Webster definition of the verb, heal, is “to make sound or whole.” Often when people are “unhealthy” they can identify that they are out of balance in some way, whether they are overweight, depressed, suffering from a disease or experiencing other challenges. By addressing the emotional dimension of suffering, or imbalance, individuals may take steps to bring their minds and bodies into alignment, knowing what we know about the mind-body connection. Finally, arts-based healing is about self. These processes empower individuals to take ownership of their emotions and release them creatively.
Creative processes can help to identify and release negative, painful, and even repressed emotions that can free up our immune system and clear our minds. This in turn, allows the body to fight off disease and heal emotional wounds. But how does a community access the arts as a resource for healing? First, its members must identify possible sources of community suffering. Has there been a traumatic event or a natural disaster? Has polarization occurred over a topic or issue? Second it is important to understand the context of the conflict or suffering within a community. What perspectives are involved? What are the other dynamics of the situation? As Craig Zelizer, Founder and CEO of the Peace and Collaborative Development Network, has observed, “While it is unlikely that community-arts processes have the ability to halt the violence of severe conflict or directly address the more structural and economic components of conflict, it is clear that they can play an important role in building relationships between groups in conflict.” Those interested may employ different media to facilitate community healing through the arts. Whether through theater productions, storytelling circles, dance and movement, painting and photography, sculpture, or another medium, it is critical that community art and artist assets are leveraged and utilized in the consideration and development of a peacebuilding or healing arts program.
One international nongovernmental organization, CHART (Communities Healing Through Art) works with local communities to, “provide traumatized & grieving children & families with a safe environment to heal, grow and move beyond their losses through creative arts activities.”  Populations that currently participate in this program include CHART-Haiti, CHART-Sandy and CHART-Thailand. Other locations may be found on their website, http://communitieshealingthroughart.org/. Several additional organizations are involved in facilitating community healing through the arts across the United States. One in California, called engAGE, seeks to promote active engagement and independent living for low-and moderate-income seniors living in affordable apartment communities by providing arts, wellness, lifelong learning, community building and intergenerational programs. EngAGE offers a program called, “engAGE in Creativity,” in which professional artists teach college level art classes and host events with residents in communities at no cost to them.
Finally, such initiatives may also be found here locally in Blacksburg, Virginia. One group of actors and musicians from the Virginia Tech School of Performing Arts and Cinema, called Building Home, conducts interactive theatre and music events with communities throughout the New River Valley. Just a year ago, this group of faculty members and students partnered with the New River Valley Livability Initiative, a program of the New River Valley Planning District Commission, to host a Town Hall Event to build awareness and invite healthy, productive public dialogue around community issues. As part of an independent graduate student project, members of the Building Home team created “Whether System: A Town Hall Event,” drawing on stories and perspectives collected from Building Home’s 20-plus community gatherings in the city of Radford and the counties of Giles, Pulaski, Montgomery, and Floyd.
This brief snapshot of current programs demonstrates the spectrum of possibility for which communities and community leaders can utilize the arts to engage in community healing and empowerment. Through the creative processes of the arts, individuals can improve their overall health. The arts also can be a means in community by which we can address conflict, trauma, suffering and other issues affecting our lives and become whole again.
Jackie Pontious has earned a Bachelor of Science in Environmental Policy and Planning from Virginia Tech and is currently working towards a Masters in Urban and Regional Planning and a Graduate Certificate in Nonprofit Management. Her research interests are in nonprofit governance and leadership and the role of the arts in community change and healing. Before Graduate School she worked for a local nonprofit corporation, Community Housing Partners, on a U.S. Department of Labor stimulus grant to train unemployed and dislocated workers in renewable energy and energy efficient construction practices. Prior to this she has worked for a range of nonprofit organizations on sustainability and social justice issues across Appalachia and Virginia. Jackie is also an artist with her medium of choice being paint, digital art and graphic design. You can view her art and design work here: https://www.facebook.com/consciouscreativeworks