The painting is abstract—a conflagration of small lines crowd the canvas over the top of a yellow field, like multitudes of brain synapses firing. What was the artist saying? Maybe it was a rendition of thought or fear or love. Or maybe it was his way to describe the constant static in his brain when he tried to simply parse a single thought out of all the noise. Maybe it was where I could find the real him in all the chaos. Or maybe it was all of these things.
I couldn’t ask the artist these things because he couldn’t speak well enough to verbalize his intentions during that creative process. He dealt daily with a myriad of cognitive disabilities and was officially diagnosed as undiagnosed. But he seemed satisfied with the painting and in the ways it answered a call in his being that no other form of communication offered.
The role of creativity in therapy is well documented. It can reach out to the unsettled mind, both for the artist and the viewer. Psychologists use it both to diagnose and to soothe. Hospitals have discovered that a landscape painting on an office wall can relieve some of the anxiety of a doctor’s visit. Art can both pose the question and provide a pathway to the answer.
I knew an elderly woman, the granddaughter of an Ojibwe medicine woman, who painted a scene from her childhood while out in the wild with her grandmother. It seemed like a puzzle she needed to solve before she died.
When I taught English at a tribal school, we often received students who had struggled in public school. They had a predilection for forms of writing that were emotion-based—scriptwriting for film with its primarily visual aspects, or poetry that allowed the students to use meaning and form for their own purposes.
Poetry, it seemed to me, bypasses the inner skeptic that resides in the frontal lobe and allows a more honest self to emerge. One student became so enthused by the project that he stayed after class to finish his poem, then handed it to me.
“Why are you so angry at the white man?” I asked. I wasn’t questioning his right to that anger or making a value judgment. I simply wanted him to recognize his feelings.
“I’m not,” he answered. In fact, he took pride in his ability to function with a foot in both worlds. I read his poem out loud to him.
His response? “Oh.”
I am producing a documentary with a partner who deals with Asperger’s. He is extraordinary when working with the details of video editing, but struggles with infusing meaning into the work.
We are the perfect partnership. I struggle with PTSD, which means the details sometimes escape me. He is all about details, but struggles with emotional expression. The subject of the documentary is the art murals at the Northern Great Lakes Visitors Center. We interviewed the artist, Kelly Meredith, and she told us all about the meaning in her work.
I have produced radio shows and comedies, with a production crew that was composed of predominantly people with disabilities. In radio, so much is left to the imagination. With a little dialogue and a few sound effects, a person who can’t walk can fly across the universe at the helm of a space ship.
The tools of creative expression make this possible. With the creative arts, the blind can see, the lame can dance, and the mute can sing.
For the artist, the tools are the difference between drawing with the big crayons or a box of 100 crayons in all its glorious shades of color. How many words are there? In the English language, tens of thousands. But even the most accomplished linguists use only a fraction of those available.
People who struggle with verbal communication, don’t always know the word that describes what they feel at any given moment, if such a word even exists. But how many colors are there? Millions, and there is always a color that describes what each person feels.
If perception is reality, then the world seen by those with disabilities, though frightening at times, and hidden at others, can take shape and form. For the viewer, listener, or reader, creative works not only offer a glimpse of these inner worlds, but show us a structure, a system of coping, and interrelationship between thoughts and feelings that we would not experience through our own devices.
Creativity in all its forms provides those with disabilities with a minimum of form—the time signature, scales, and rhythm in music; height, width, and depth in painting; nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs in poetry—and a host of tools to employ within those boundaries. It then challenges us to defy and escape those boundaries.
Evan Sasman is a support specialist for people with developmental disabilities and certified peer specialist in Wisconsin. He deals with a disability, a hand amputation and resulting PTSD. He is currently writing a book about PTSD and building a website about trauma issues. He lives in rural Bayfield County, Wisconsin, near Ashland. He is an award-winning journalist and has worked for newspapers ranging in size from small weeklies to urban dailies. He was previously editor of the Bad River Tribe newspaper and has taught at-risk students for the tribal high school. He is a former instructor for Lac Courte Oreilles Community College. He is a member of the Wisconsin Writer's Association and the Lake Superior Writers.