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Trauma Art:  Creating It, Healing from It

April 30, 2024

By Karen Gross, Trauma Educator

Pre-Pandemic, I spend much of my time at disaster sites, helping students, educators and institutions find pathways forward following a traumatic event.  Whether it was a concert massacre or a border detention facility or a school shooting, I worked with individuals and organizations where trauma abounded.  One lesson I learned was that to do this disaster relief work, I had to exercise self-care because, as the saying goes, you can’t pour from an empty cup.

Through a combination of making a mess with paints, expressing visually what I could not address verbally and exploring color, I created art. It was not originally designed to address trauma explicitly; it was designed to help me ameliorate the trauma I was witnessing (and to be candid, had witnessed throughout my life).

Here are two example of my early pre-Pandemic art that appear in a published book of poetry for children titled Flying Umbrellas and Red Boats published in 2019. 

But, along came the Pandemic and the omnipresence of trauma across the globe.  It was at during those early months that my engagement in and with art changed. With an unanticipated intensity, I created art that reflected the abundance of illness, death and dying as well as isolation and confusion and complexity with which we were living.  And, I started to share art and its creation with others as a way of ameliorating trauma.

Let me explain.

For me, textured art took on new meaning. Collages moved to the forefront of my efforts.   This was in part a response to the world in which we were living – it was filled with bumps.  Our lives were far from smooth, and my art reflected the absence of that smoothness. And it showcased the intermixture of feelings and situations that both adults and children were feeling.

Here’s a sampling of my early Pandemic art, reflecting at least for me, the larger issues in our world.

Although I continued my art in private, I started sharing my art and then “doing” art with children and adults in the classes I taught remotely and later in person during the Pandemic.  This art took many forms.  

I tried using art to illustrate what trauma was doing to us – how it was dysregulating us and creating a sense of uncertainty and disorganization.  The goal was to give visual cues as to what was occurring within our minds.  While I continued to write books and blog, I saw art as another pathway through which to share trauma’s profound effects near and longer term.

Consider this example.

Then, I saw a need to illustrate how current trauma trips off earlier trauma, setting off a host of intense reactions.  I called these tuning forks as our response to trauma mirrored the physics principles of action and reaction. The reverberations got stronger with each touch of the fork. When many forks were activated, I referred to it as “tuning fork orchestras.” And to this day, I keep a fork near me as I work, reminding me of trauma’s retriggering power. I reference tuning forks when I talk to professionals about trauma anniversaries/memorials.  

Consider this example of “tuning fork art.”

Then, I introduced students to Kintsugi art – both seeing it and creating it.  The idea was to take what was broken and mend it, uttering the phrase used in Kintsugi art, “more beautiful for being broken.”  I shared Kitsugi motivated art that I created (I termed it “making peace of pieces”).  I actually broke and mended bowls with educators who experienced trauma.  Here are some examples.

Our art then took different forms, all reflective of the Pandemic and its impact upon us all.  We created Kindness Rocks that were then given away to activate empathy engines. We created paperclip art chains that were strung around furniture and people to showcase the value of connection.  We utilized zippers that reflected whether we were emotionally zipped up or totally unzipped. We did art on walls and in halls.  All these art efforts were designed to respond to trauma by activating the senses and encouraging imagination but also to ameliorate trauma’s symptoms, focusing on connection and mending. It is this latter theme that accounts for the title of our new book, Mending Education: Finding Hope, Creativity and Mental Wellness in Times of Trauma (Teachers College Press, 2024).

Consider these examples:

Common Objects

Much of the art displayed here uses common objects, making it vastly easier for students and educators to find:  forks, zippers, buttons, thread, yarn, rocks, paperclips, labels, glue and paint.  With these common objects, we can create art that responds to the trauma we are experiencing – both representing the trauma and our pathways forward through mending.

As my students of all ages used art, I too expanded my art repertoire.  I, too, used shards and common objects.   I used ripped paper and glue. I used plaster of paris.  I used things that were discarded.  And from the detritus, I created art that messages.  And I shared it is with students and educators.  

Art can help us both recognize and ameliorate trauma.  I cannot think of anything more powerful than enabling all individuals to move forward through difficult times.  Art is one strategy for doing that.  We would be wise to recognize art’s power and not marginalize it.  Art, as described here, is not static; it is created to help move people and in that effort, it allows all of us to see and experience the effects of creativity and the power of the possible.

And, to that end, here is one final piece of art, exemplifying the themes presented here. Emotional stress, dangling with uncertainty, piecing things together and finding beauty.   And, if you are doing trauma art – whether for yourself or for your students — reach out.  I’d welcome that.

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