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Healing Through Art asks: What's the arts' role in DC's mind, body, and soul?

Lisa Richards Toney, interim director of the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities, welcomes participants to the "Healing Through Art" panel discussion

The Rev. Joani Peacock speaks about her struggles with bipolar disorder: "When I could barely pick myself up, I could pick up a paintbrush"

Moderator Hawah Kasat

Gay Hanna says that baby boomers need new experiences (like art): "bingo’s not gonna cut it”

Jeff Majors recommends being mindful of your music playlist: "But watch your music diet, feed your ears and soul"

Shanti Norris: "Support the arts, support artists, and just enjoy"

In the second installment of the DC Commission on the Arts & Humanities' Curate Your Culture series, a crowd of close to 200 artists, non-profit workers, arts supporters and advocates gathered for a panel on Healing Through Art on Wednesday June 4th. The conversation engaged community partners who incorporate the arts in programs for at-risk young people, the elderly, people living with and caring for those with life-changing and life-ending conditions, and various members of the arts and non-profit community.

The Commission event was held at the Smith Center for Healing and the Arts on U St., an organization that serves D.C. residents living with cancer. Executive Director Shanti Norris was one of the panelists discussing arenas for the arts to provide healing.

Lisa Richards Toney, the Interim Director of the commission, welcomed the group and turned the mike over to the Reverend Joani Peacock. Peacock, a recent organizer and performer in the Unhinged: True Stories of Living with Mental Illness installment of the storyteller series SpeakeasyDC, shared a frank, funny, and deeply personal story of coming to terms with the bipolar diagnosis she shares with her mother. In the recount of her hospital stay she told of how she looked forward to visiting the Art Room every day, “when I could barely pick myself up, I could pick up a paintbrush.”

Following that delivery, moderator Hawah Kasat of One Common Unity led the panel in discussion. Along with Norris were musician and educator Jeff Majors, who works with the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency to offer young men art through life skills; Capt. Moira McGuire, who incorporates art into programs at Walter Reed as chief of Integrative Health & Wellness; and Gay Hanna of the National Center for Creative Aging (NCCA).

Kasat opened by asking what challenges and stigmas the panel was encountering. McGuire shared that many of the patients in her Warrior Clinic don’t see themselves as artists. She brought home her point by admonishing the crowd when artists are asked to raise their hand and only a smattering of attendees do.  “All of you should have your hands up,” she chided, with a smile. She adds that while there still exists a stigma in the military against the arts, the “DoD is the largest single employer of musicians in the world.”

Hanna posited that ageism is the significant pitfall her and other aging baby boomers are encountering. With 10,000 Americans turning 65 every day and life expectancy extending, there is a need for rich experiences during this time of life. “We’ve got some growing pains to get through and bingo’s not gonna cut it.”

Majors said he doesn't necessarily see challenges, but knows there is work ahead. The harpist and educator offered: “I’m here because I want to see healing in my city. I want to see healing in my neighborhoods.”

Kawat asked panelists to discuss breakthroughs they’d seen by using healing in the arts. Norris describes a recent non-residential retreat at the Smith Center where people with cancer diagnoses were facilitated through small group activities, including visual and culinary arts as well as therapy and discussions, “telling your story is the beginning of healing,” she stressed.

Captain McGuire discussed a recent creation of a series of masks by Walter Reed patients, who, while they were still challenged to see themselves as artists, presented a body of work McGuire considered museum worthy.

Hanna spoke to the model of aging provided by artists themselves – that their continued engagement with the world and lack of interest in retiring made them models for rich and varied experiences in their later years. She also promoted the importance of art in caregiving, a role that more and more people find themselves in as the aging population expands. Caregivers are at a high risk of losing their individuality, and, Hanna says, their hope, as they are caught in the fatigue and stress of providing round-the-clock care to their loved ones. Creative expression is a way to guide them back to a sense of self.

The panel heard questions from audience members both during and after the formal discussion.  Questions ranged from advice on starting their own non-profits to sources of personal inspiration, addressing mental health issues in the workplace and using art as a healing tool for those in substance abuse recovery.

Before the event transitioned from Q&A to an opportunity for artists, educators, and change agents to mingle and share ideas, Toney called on the audience to contact her with ideas and feedback. “We have to be inspired to be constructive, to serve you beyond grant making,” she says, commenting on how her staff is energized by collaborating with the arts community they provide services to. “Your voice, your opinion, and your input matters.”

Curate Your Culture’s third and final installment will come later this year. Watch this space or visit the DC Commission's website for more details.
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