The healing power of art and activism

Years ago, I took a class at Sacramento City College called “Psychology of Creativity, Intuition, and Problem-Solving.” The reading list included a book titled The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron, which was a book I’d heard of. In fact, at one point I had actually borrowed the book from the library, but I never got around to reading it. I had signed up for the class because I’d sat in on a class session to do an instructor evaluation (I teach at Sacramento City College in the psychology department) – and after half an hour in the class, I was more than a little intrigued. I knew I’d be in for a ride, but I really had no idea how much I’d be transformed by the healing power of the creative process. I also had no idea how creatively blocked I was – and how that block was impeding my effectiveness as an activist.

After just a few weeks of being in the class, a river of creativity opened up for me – and amazing things started happening. I created a painting of a woman on a beach, leaping boundlessly through the surf. (I’ve never taken any art classes – unless you count the once-a-week public elementary school art.) And then I painted some more. I went to music clubs and danced. I bought wool sweaters at thrift stores, felted them, and made all sorts of creations from the results. I knitted. I sewed. I dyed things in Kool-Aid. I made sidewalk chalk and drew all over our patio. And from these seemingly superficial creative endeavors, things really started happening for me. Things that had a much stronger personal and social impact – like creating a course focusing on sexual and gender minorities. And writing a book (and then another one) about edgy LGBTQ issues. And deciding to have a baby. Things like that.

I began to speak up more, and speak out. I took more risks in various areas of my life – and, through that process, I began to experience the power of my own voice, in its many forms. Not that this was completely new to me – it’s been over 20 years since I was first introduced to feminism, queer activism, and social justice work. But most of my prior work had been left-hemispheric stuff – logical, rational, scholarly, cogently argued, well-researched. When I started drawing on the right side of the brain (a shameless plagiarization of Betty Edwards’ title), something shifted. And I think that shift has something to do with anger.

Yes, anger.

Those of us who are members of oppressed groups have good reason to be angry. If you’ve been silenced, if you’ve been swept aside, if you’ve been made to feel in any way that you’re not okay the way that you are, whether it’s because of your race, or your body size, or your gender expression, or your sexual practices, or your offbeat geeky personality – these are the seeds of oppression that fuel some serious anger.  In fact, it was when I read this passage in The Artist’s Way that I started to connect the dots between anger and oppression, art and activism:

Anger is fuel. We feel it and we want to do something. Hit someone, break something, throw a fit, smash a fist into the wall, tell those bastards. But we are nice people, and what we do with our anger is stuff it, deny it, bury it, block it, hide it, lie about it, medicate it, muffle it, ignore it. We do everything but listen to it.

When Julia Cameron wrote this passage, she was referring to the anger that blocked artists are likely to experience. People who are artistic and creative – and who go to any lengths to pursue those drives – are often told: You’re being irresponsible and impractical. You won’t make any money. You’re living in a fantasy world. You’re crazyIt makes sense that people whose creative energy has been policed into conformity would experience a deep well of anger. But when I read this passage, I wasn’t just thinking about artists. I was thinking of those of us who have had to conform in order to survive and be accepted. And if we resist, we risk being told: You’re crazy. There’s a lot of anger that comes from living in a crazy world, and being told again and again that we’re the crazy ones.

Later in that same passage, Cameron goes on to say this:

Anger is our friend. Not a nice friend. Not a gentle friend. But a very, very loyal friend. It will always tell us when we have been betrayed. It will always tell us when we have betrayed ourselves. It will always tell us that it is time to act in our own best interests.

Anger is not the action itself. It is action’s invitation.

Activism is healing. And in some cases, activism is a literal lifeline. Case in point: Jeff 4 Justice is an LGBTQ activist who lives in his vehicle – initially by choice, currently by necessity. He has no money. He has few friends where he’s currently living. He suffers from periodic bouts of depression – and he has no money to get treatment for it. For him, activism is the thread of hope and empowerment that keeps him hanging on. “Activism has therapeutic value,” he said. “Everything I do as an activist, it’s not always about winning, it’s not about convincing people. Sometimes what I do as an activist is keeping my damn self sane by expressing myself how I want to express myself.”

If your selfhood has been blocked, and your creativity has been blocked, dislodging those stones opens up a wide, flowing river of potential – an opportunity to channel that suppressed anger into transformative action. And art is a powerful tool in that process. We have people that Susan Lundy of UCLA calls “Aerosol Activists” – political graffiti artists in Oakland, California whose work evokes themes of racism, war, poverty, colonization, and cultural resiliency. We have the guerilla theater tactics used by groups like ACT-UP and the Lesbian Avengers – as well as by college students who, in a class taught at Westminster College of Pennsylvania, demonstrate against sexual violence through unannounced public performances on campus. We have members of the homeless community, described in Frances Kaplan’s book Art Therapy and Social Action, who create masks and exhibit them as a way of conveying their sense of invisibility, fear, anger, and disconnection. These are actions that heal our communities – and that heal our souls.

One of our Sacramento Pride events taking place this coming weekend is called “Art on the Edge,” where trans*, queer, and ally artists and creatives are invited to display their work and to engage in on-the-spot creativity. Out of all the Pride events taking place in my city this weekend (and there are many), this is the one that I’m the most excited about. It’ll be expressive, creative, energetic, empowering – and healing. Those of you who live in Northern California, I hope you’ll join me there.


Filed under culture, gender nonconformity, homophobia, human rights, intersectionality, mental health, racism, Sacramento, transgender, Uncategorized, violence

2 responses to “The healing power of art and activism

  1. Michelle

    Wow Gayle! Powerful words. Thank you for sharing them…and you…with us!

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