Show and workshops explore the restorative power of artwork during challenging times.

Jeremiah Jenkins crafts striking sculptures out of the shards of cups and plates. He is one of 18 artists featured in a monthslong exhibit at the Palo Alto Art Center focused on mental health. (Photo courtesy Palo Alto Art Center)

For many, art means liberation.

There’s release in belting the lyrics of a breakup song, in writing a poem or reflection after the death of a loved one, or in letting off steam with some over-the-top dance moves. There’s solace in pouring out tough emotions through paint and ink.

Over the next few months, 18 artists will partner with Palo Alto Art Center (and its guest curator Ann Trinca) to reveal their own creative journeys of resiliency and mental health. The “Creative Attention: Art and Community Restoration” group show is part of a larger Creative Attention initiative bringing art therapy workshops and wellness programs to the Peninsula. With the depression rate more than tripling nationwide during the pandemic, it’s a discussion needed now more than ever. 

“The work is not all about the pandemic necessarily, but (it’s all) about suffering in general and how we can turn that around,” says Trinca. However, she adds, “I think (the pandemic) is a really good time for this … to show people there is a way out, there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.”

With art therapy workshops engaging residents in art projects that recall happy memories, weekly free virtual meditation classes and site-specific art installations in Palo Alto accompanying the exhibit, organizers are hoping community members not only relate to the artists’ underlying reflections on mental health, but also take advantage of the restorative properties of art by making some of their own.

Artist Christine Wong Yap has been working with local teens and seniors in a residency project focused on places of belonging in Palo Alto and East Palo Alto, resulting in the “Belonging Map.” (Photo courtesy Palo Alto Art Center)

How art can help healing

Therapeutic artmaking is so much more than a hippie-ish, feel-good notion: There are studied cognitive benefits behind it.

“(Talk therapy) only activates the left side of the brain,” explains Ahn Tran, an art therapist the initiative recruited to host the community art workshops. “With art therapy, we’re able to integrate all parts and all elements of the brain to really focus on the entire healing process.”

Other studies have found that engaging art increases blood flow in the brain, giving you a dopamine rush — the same one you get from being around loved ones. 

Because art therapy is often misunderstood, Tran will be calling her classes simply “art workshops.” 

“I don’t like the way it’s viewed — as this formal way of analyzing the arcs of someone else’s heart, as something that has been extracted from their heart onto this canvas or paper. I have no right to do that!”

She hopes instead to help others use art as a self-diagnosing tool — a chance for them to reflect and be honest with themselves. “That creative process is so revealing … (But) it’s up to the participant or the creator to be able to understand and make sense of where they are in the healing process.”

She’s also adamant that art therapy is much more versatile than people give it credit for. “It can be gardening or cooking in the kitchen and being creative with the ingredients and exploring textures,” she says.

If the very act of artmaking is healing, how does an exhibit based around restoration come into the picture?

“I like to call artists ‘second responders,’” says guest curator Trinca. “The first responders come in and deal with the immediate danger, and then the second responders come in and take care of the emotional effects (of trauma).”

The goal of the show is to benefit artist and visitor alike, Trinca explains. “(The artists) are creating work to heal themselves — and in turn, when you see that work, you recognize those issues and you can either relate to them in your own life or you can empathize at least. That really opens our ability to … increase our humanity and understand where other people are at.”

The choice to make this a group show rather than a solo one is also a mindful move. Each piece — from the broken plate sculptures to the crochet-covered rocks, from the scrap fabric quilt to the meditation tent — springs from a different experience and perspective. Each artist, from the gunshot survivor to the PTSD sufferer, lends their own voice to the multifaceted conversation of loss and anxiety, illness and addiction, restoration and resiliency.

This approach honors the complexity of the topic in ways a solo exhibit can’t. “I think everybody’s taste is different and what they(’re going to) relate to is going to be different,” says Trinca. “So offering a wide variety of experiences and backgrounds makes it more likely that we’ll reach someone in a deep way.

Through his own experience with Crohn’s disease, Tucker Nichols’ “Flowers for Sick People” series examines the isolation of sickness. (Photo courtesy Palo Alto Art Center)

Take for instance, the bouquet paintings of Tucker Nichols. Through his own experiences with Crohn’s disease, the artist’s “Flowers for Sick People” series examines the isolation of sickness and extends empathy to those suffering. “There’s something about flowers,” the artist muses on his website. “Even if they are garish or they make you sneeze or they are hardly noticed, [they] can occasionally poke a hole in the wall of isolation that separates sick people from their loved ones.”

Nichols’ practice looks entirely different from that of Jeremiah Jenkins (who crafts striking sculptures out of the shards of cups and plates). “(Jeremiah) forms the vessels (by attaching) shards of found porcelain, which melt together in the kiln,” Trinca says. “The formation of the works comes from chaos itself, but to Jeremiah, the act of creating work is an opportunity to live in the moment and be open to surprises.”

The artists also illuminate different sources of healing. While some have found solace through nature or meditation, others have turned to humor, memories, or even tradition for answers. It’s a powerful reminder that there are no one-size-fits-all solutions. That said, the whole gallery rallies around an atmosphere of support. “I think it gives other people hope that they can also find a way past the darkness,” Trinca says.

The exhibit runs through May 21 at the Palo Alto Art Center, 1313 Newell Road in Palo Alto. Visit the city’s website for more information.

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Johanna Harlow

Journalist with a fondness for micro-cultures and all things quirky.

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