Editor’s note: This is one in a periodic series called Stepping Up, highlighting moments of compassion, duty and community in uncertain times. Have a story we should tell? Send it via email to firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject “Stepping Up.”
Art needs to go on, now more than ever because of the isolation caused by the coronavirus.
That need is what drove Path with Art, a nonprofit organization since 2008 that uses art to help transform the lives of adults recovering from homelessness, addiction and other trauma, to quickly change from in-person classes to online classes.
“People who have experienced trauma are often isolated from the community, even in the best of times,” said Path with Art Executive Director Holly Jacobson. “This is the only way we can deliver our program right now. We just had to make it work.”
With help from volunteers across the country who are helping teachers and students with the new online experience, Path with Art quickly pivoted to distance learning, and is offering classes in poetry, drama, choir, music improv and visual art.
Before Path with Art could serve its students — about 850, who are referred by 44 social-service programs — it had to make sure everyone had online access. Many of the program’s students are low income, and their online access had been libraries and community centers, which were shut down.
Getting grants to buy tablets wouldn’t happen fast enough, Jacobson said, so the program bought tablets to disperse to the students who needed them. So the art goes on.
“A lot of times when people experience trauma, there is a feeling of helplessness, that they aren’t in control,” Jacobson said. “What art does, it puts us in control. In art, whether you are painting or sketching on a piece of paper, it allows a certain kind of choice and empowerment for people who may not feel empowered, and that process rewires your brain. It goes a step further too in that it gives you permission to fail. You have to try things out that don’t work and try again.
“But there is also a recognition, that, ‘I wrote something,’ or ‘I made that.’ And with that comes a sense of accomplishment. A lot of folks on the receiving end and living in poverty, don’t get to have that experience of accomplishment very often, or that feeling of contribution. And these are really profound feelings that translate into, ‘I matter, I belong, and I am OK in who I am,’ and that has a ripple effect in their lives.”
Michael Hammond, an Army veteran who has battled depression and has been taking Path with Art classes for about a decade, said he was shaken by the coronavirus and felt himself drifting away. That started to change, he said, when he began taking Path with Art’s online classes in writing and choir.
“Having these two classes has really helped me get myself moving again,” Hammond said. “Because I had stopped doing really everything, and that is not good. Part of my strategy of dealing with the depression — it is still with me, it will always be with me — is to remain active and involved in pursuing things that interest me. And when the shutdown came, it really knocked me for a loop. When the online classes happened, it was like the lights came back on.”
Hammond, 71, said he is particularly enjoying his writing class taught by Seattle author Warren Etheredge.
“He is just amazing, and I’ve never been exposed to this kind of thinking where writing is concerned,” Hammond said. “I am one of those people who has to have things explicitly explained and that is what he is doing.”
Hammond said doing choir online has been different.
“One of the aspects of choir is being in a group, so it is not as satisfying as it would be if we were all in a group, but I am learning, and we are working on stuff, and if we ever get a chance to get together, I think it is going to be pretty good,” he said.
One of Hammond’s favorite teachers at Path with Art is Pamm Hanson, who is now teaching ink drawing and painting and has been with the program for about 10 years. She said the program is even more important during tough times like this.
“This time can activate trauma,” she said. “People who have had trauma in their lives, sometimes it comes up at a time that is as challenging as this. This is a time with so much uncertainty and unpredictability, and if someone has recovered from some kind of trauma, one of the things that is hard to do is to tolerate unpredictability and the unknown.
“Making art demands that you have to tolerate the unknown to create anything. Some of those same skills of the creative process — taking risks, learning, changing course in response to what happens — are the kinds of things we need to tolerate just the normal amount of unknown and predictability, let alone these times.”
Hanson said she is getting great feedback from her students, which has made the challenge of learning to teach classes online worth it.
“I don’t want to just make a video that people can watch and copy,” she said. “I want to find a way online that we can find a way to recreate this exquisite experience we have in the studio classroom, where everyone is working but there is kind of a buzz. I am trying to recreate that on Zoom (online video conferencing software). Making art is so odd because it is extremely solitary, so because of that, artists desperately need community. I am hoping we can find that through Zoom.”
Path with Art also has been holding twice-a-week live video workshops for the public as part of its #ArtTransformsUs Campaign.
Among the guests who are taking part in workshops is Grammy-winning singer/songwriter Dave Matthews, who is scheduled to appear May 19.
“May is Mental Health Awareness month, and we think everyone can use a little support in dealing with the real trauma that is our world, so we are trying to open up little art experiences for everybody,” Jacobson said.