Art as Healing
Contributed by Rhoda Miller.
I don't know if creativity is an innate or cultivated characteristic. I do know that what creativity I was born with was nurtured from a young age by my parents and an influential art teacher I was blessed to learn from for 11 years through my childhood. I also know that at the lowest, darkest times of my life, I have clung to my creativity and art like a life preserver in the middle of a raging ocean, and without fail, it has held me up every time. I've often heard people talk about having pets for their ability to love unconditionally, and it may sound silly, but that is what art has done for me. Art has always given back to me in a way no human or pet ever could.
Art pulled me from the depths of what could have been a vast depression after my sister, SaraLisa, ended her life when I was 19. A sophomore in college, having recently changed my major to art, I poured myself into creative expression as a form of healing for the first time in my life. For several years after SaraLisa's death, I was very resistant to traditional counseling; I have later come to realize that I am a very internal processor, one who can sit on my thoughts and emotions for weeks without being able to make sense of them. In the early stages of grief, often my only moments of great clarity were found through creating art. In the lowest times following my sister's death, I sank deep into myself and was often only pulled out through visual expression, writing, and the sheer determination to continue living.
Throughout the years, many people have told me that something good would come of her death. Life events of such enormity are never able to be quantified, nor would I ever begin to find equal the exchange of my sister's life for my expanded artistic repertoire. What I do know is while my loss has brought me great pain, my pain has inspired multiple facets of creative expression that I may have never otherwise experienced.
Years later, I had the wind knocked out of me again, slowly and repeatedly this time, over the course of a six year relationship and a series of lies I desperately wanted to believe. My therapist likened it to Chinese water torture, each lie another drip. Divorced, childless, and paying a mortgage on a non-profit salary was not where I pictured myself at 31. However, even as I felt the ground shifting again, I was overwhelmed with a vast sense of inner calm; I had already overcome more than I could have imagined and certainly I was stronger than ever before. Also, hadn’t millions of individuals in the history of the world faced tragedy and hardship and yet prevailed? Surely my human experience was not inherently unique.
Again I found myself purging my emotions through creative expression. Tired of keeping secrets and pretending at normalcy, I found huge reprieve in creating a series of paintings I shared with my community in a solo show just 8 months following my separation. Titled “Within”, the series explored depth and layers and sparse barrenness. While my art is incredibly nonobjective in nature and I was purposefully sparing in my artist statement at the time, sharing my work left me feeling inside out and scrubbed raw for all to see. It was necessary for me to realize hiding would no longer suffice for surviving. I wanted more from life.
I credit art more than any other one thing in my life for bringing me great healing. Art has taught me to be gentle with myself, as nothing ever comes out on canvas in the way I imagine it, and I have learned vulnerability by sharing my work with others. Healing never happens in a vacuum or through one mode of processing alone, and I believe the proper combination of these is different for each person. Art is something I take with me wherever I go and I know as long as I have the ability to create, I will feel like a whole person with a world of possibility at my fingertips.
The italicized portions are featured in the book Be Your Finest Art by Joanne Miller and Dorsey McHugh, published this year.
Rhoda Miller is an Ohio transplant living in Harrisonburg, Virginia. When she’s not busy running, creating, hiking, or catching up with friends, you might find her at her day job as a Crisis Response Coordinator at the Collins Center. She shares her art and other musings on her website.