Watching the news coverage of the two black men being arrested for simply sitting in a Starbucks store, I was reminded of how painful it is to be treated like an outsider. Few things sting as much as being treated as if you don’t belong based purely on what you look like.
I felt that pain when I immigrated from Taipai, Taiwan, to Tulsa, Oklahoma, at the age of 13. Because I was unable to speak English, the kids bullied me and shouted obscenities; they told me to go back to wherever I came from.
Art classes became my safe haven. I was handicapped in every class in school but art. I loved drawing. In art I communicated without impediment. I excelled and won awards. In art I found the solace I needed to express my diaspora experience as an immigrant and to fight back the emotional distress of racial discrimination. Art was therapeutic for me.
With proposed budget cuts to education, art education in public schools — such as dance, music, drama/theater and visual arts — take a big hit. The programs that serve low-income students and students with disabilities often go first. This is especially tragic because there are impressive benefits from arts education. It can lead children to be more motivated, have more positive attitudes and better school attendance.
Studies show colors and soothing room tones can have a powerful effect on a child’s behavior. Art therapy has been used as a successful intervention for many children who experience traumatic grief from terrorism and violence.
Art therapy is essential to mitigate further damage to children who lack language or basic coping skills to deal with the nightmare of almost losing their lives during an act of horrific violence.
Most recently we’ve seen art and design used to promote racial healing with the opening of the National Lynching Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama. The brainchild of lawyer Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative, a Montgomery-based legal advocacy organization, the memorial utilizes sculpture, art and design to examine the history of racial terror.
Later in life, I found a lifeline in art as a domestic violence survivor. I began creating photographs to convey this trauma. Growing up Asian, I was not raised to understand sexual/emotional abuse. I thought my then husband, had the right to treat me however he wanted. Although he never hit me, his words cut me as deeply as knives would. I thought he was always right – but I was wrong. In therapy, I learned all about how he practiced gaslighting on me. Through play and art therapy; our son, just four years old at the time, learned to function as a child of divorce.
The stigma of abuse is deeply taboo in many cultures; I truly thought I was alone in my world. I had suicidal tendencies, and I needed to make art to fight back.
I partnered with local refugee agencies and made one-of-a-kind portraitures of political asylum and domestic abuse clients. The outcome was an art show about stories of heroic survival. This series of artwork still hangs in the Human Rights Initiative intake area. The artistic concept is now utilized as an art auction for HRI to benefit the nonprofit as “Rock Your Heart Out.” It is an annual fundraiser that raises over $100 thousand per event. With art as a healing tool, whether it is creating poetry, making paintings or simply playing music, domestic abuse and trauma violence survivors are finding creative ways to cope with hostile environments.
Anyone who has experienced and understands art’s importance to healing should make sure we preserve arts funding. We can turn rip tides into wind changing direction for the entire arts ecosystem. We need politicians to sign off on teachers’ pay raises to prevent future strikes. We should demand that this administration makes no further cuts in public education funding. Educators, healthcare and business professionals must value liberal arts education as much as math or science because art has a long lasting impact in empowering academics. We need more discussions about ways to implement artistic practice for community restorative justice, not less.
Art bears witness to our experience of being human. It helps us to heal and to grow. If we lose sight of that we become less. Art is a necessity, not a privilege.
Jin-Ya Huang is an interdisciplinary artist and the founder of Break Bread, Break Borders, a social entrepreneurship that provides economic empowerment to refugees through sharing food and culture. She is a Dallas Greenhouse Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project.