by Deah Schwartz, Ed.D, CTRS, CCC
As a clinician specializing in expressive arts and recreational therapies, I believe in the healing and transformational powers of art. I have worked with a wide variety of populations in a multitude of treatment settings and have seen art lend a voice to people who are suffering and are unable to express their feelings through traditional talking therapy. As a teacher I have seen art help students integrate concepts and learn material that was less accessible to them through purely didactic methods of instruction. And as a mother I have seen art bring giggles, joy, and a positive identity to my child when other modes of expression left him feeling inadequate and left out. At this point in my career, with my focus on working with people who struggle with body image issues and disordered eating, it comes as no surprise that I consistently see how art is an efficacious tool in exploring triggers and identifying less self-destructive coping mechanisms. I adore my work and my clients and have no desire to change that part of my professional life…but every once in a while I get a reminder that although these psychological struggles are devastatingly painful and potentially lethal, they are often more prevalent among people of privilege.
In other words, if someone is still operating from the base of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs Pyramid (see figure) which pertains to our physiological needs (food, water, breathing, clothing, sleep), then he/she is not as likely to be exposed to the same constant messages urging them to fit in to society’s ridiculous and narrow standards of beauty, or other known cultural etiologies of developing an eating disorder. One of these reminders recently showed up in my mailbox and it touched me deeply enough that I wanted to spread the word.
Even in California, when winter sets in, the temperatures drop, our weather becomes more inclement, and the desire to snuggle up indoors and hibernate grows stronger. It is also the time of giving and receiving presents and we are inundated with advertisements urging us to shop ’til we drop. For those of us fortunate enough to have homes and money to participate in these rituals, we can experience great joy, eat wonderful food, and open presents while concurrently complaining about the commercialism from inside our cozy nests. After the accumulation of what some refer to as the “excesses of the holidays,” we are then expected to set New Year’s Resolutions to lose weight, join the gym, or somehow change our bodies because of external pressures to be thinner and healthier. If you are homeless, however, the holiday season is often anything but a time of warm fuzzies. So when I opened up a package in my mailbox and saw a DVD entitled Humble Beauty, my first thought was that it was a holiday gift and it was something about body image. The letter attached, however, explained that it was a documentary about two art programs for the homeless in Los Angeles and would I be willing to watch the film and, if I liked it, write a review. It may be important to share with you that I don’t frequently watch documentaries because the format tends to be too predictable and stilted. But once in a blue moon I watch a documentary (Sins Invalid is another example that I have written about) where the stories being told are so compelling that the formatting fades into the background like pentimento and I am left just focusing on the foreground of the “painting.” To my delight, I found that Humble Beauty did just that.
Humble Beauty is an inspirational and reaffirming film that shares the powerful stories of The Skid Row Art Workshop and the Lamp Art Project and the changes that art is manifesting in people living on Skid Row, the homeless section of Los Angeles. Referred to as “Outsider Art” (Insider Art is a term that has been historically used to label art created inside institutionalized settings) the paintings, drawings, and sculptures that the viewer sees being created by the homeless and marginally homeless are stunning. The artistic styles are as diverse as the artists themselves and their stories of how they became homeless.
In an uplifting and poignant sequence of interviews between the artists and the creators of the programs, the film makers Letitia Schwartz (no relation) and Judith Vogelsang demonstrate that art has inherent therapeutic value. The process of the art-making is the therapy, not the analysis of the art. There are no specific art directives being given by an art therapist and no specific treatment plan objectives, yet you can see how the artists’ self-esteem and affect improve from the act of creating.
An additional component is the provision of supplies and a safe place to create, both of which add a sense of worthiness to the artists as human beings…an attribute that is usually NOT assigned to the homeless in our society. We see the artists find meaning in their lives that is not associated with possessions and get the feeling that there is a certain amount of contentment and appreciation for what they have in lieu of a focus on what they do not have. Just a tad different from the media messages we are bombarded with during this time of year, no? Watching Humble Beauty was a great reminder to be grateful for what I have and to continue to find ways to help those who are not as fortunate as I.
There is no doubt that making art is not a cure for homelessness, but helping the hopelessness…what do you think? To see the trailer of the film and find out more information, you can visit Humble Beauty’s website.
Deah Schwartz, Ed.D, CTRS, CCC, Educator, Activist, and Clinician with a private practice in Oakland CA, has more than 30 years of experience in using Expressive Arts Therapies to treat Eating Disorders and Body Image issues. Deah is the co-author of Leftovers, The Ups and Downs of a Compulsive Eater DVD/Workbook Set, a resource for Eating Disorders, and author of the Size Acceptance syndicated blog, Tasty Morsels. To find out more about Dr. Deah’s work visit her website at www.drdeah.com.