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Inspired by our Lab@Piven production “Lived Through This”, the stories of survivors of sexual assault, this January, we wanted to discuss how art can be a healing space for survivors of sexual assault. In doing so, we asked our friends and fellow Evanstonians at Awakenings to share some thoughts on the power of art in healing. Awakenings is home to a multi-media art gallery featuring the artistic expressions of rape and sexual abuse survivors. By showcasing stories of survival, we are helping survivors find peace while simultaneously challenging the cultural taboos that prevent an honest discussion of sexual violence. Here are their words.


By, Megan Otto and Abbie Brinker

Art has the ability to transform the abstract into a traceable story, and when one has a story, it’s possible to examine other perspectives on the same event and explain the event in new ways. Fiction, for example, can facilitate an outside view of an event by introducing characters that see something differently from how the writer themselves see it. Poetry or songwriting can encourage organizing old thoughts in new ways and in different patterns. A painting can help the artist visualize and express emotions they cannot put into words. The freedom to play with form and style is also the freedom to investigate memories of an experience with new energy. Ultimately, by approaching one’s own story creatively, it’s possible to take ownership of the narrative.

According to the American Art Therapy Association (AATA), art therapy is the use of art creation as a form of psychotherapy for people experiencing trauma or illness, seeking personal development, or struggling to deal with the day-to-day act of living. Through the act of creating art and thinking about the process and medium, people are able to develop skills that increase cognitive ability, increase awareness of self and others, and help them cope with the distressing symptoms or limitations imposed by disability or disease. The primary purpose of art therapy is to help patients heal their mental and emotional wounds as much as they can.

When creating art with abuse or trauma in mind, it’s possible to process what happened, what it meant, and to then come away with a piece that exists in itself as a platform from which the artist can build upwards within their own understanding of their trauma. It’s helpful to engage with emotions in unexpected ways, to use creativity as a muscle to make oneself stronger going forward.

At Awakenings, we put art as a module for healing into action. Part of our mission is to support “art as therapy.” When survivors create, they shed layers of trauma off their bodies and dispose of those layers into a visual, literary, movement, or musical piece that carries the weight on its own. Artists and survivors at Awakenings understand the emotional and physical trauma that occurs with sexual violence. We empathize with those who have seen dark times, and we provide space and resources for those who choose to express their story through art. For one of our artists, Monika Peszek, her therapist suggested she try painting after learning of her childhood dream to become an artist. Monika began bringing a painting to every session. Her portfolio exploded as she produced raw, emotional, and captivating paintings that chronicled her trauma. Many of these paintings are now part of the Awakenings’ permanent collection. “I just want people to know there’s light at the end of the tunnel,” Monika says. “If you asked me to create another painting like these, I physically couldn’t. At a certain point, it had all come out. It’s almost like a scar. It’s painful, so you don’t want to open it. But the only way to heal is to open it up and clean it out. My scar will always be there, but now it doesn’t hurt every time I move.”


Awakenings provides a unique healing experience for survivors – it may inspire them to create art for the first time, it may provide a space for art they already created, and it may connect them with other survivors. Creating art after trauma helps transfer otherwise indescribable pain and suffering onto a canvas. There, it takes a different form, and can be truly seen by the artist and by others.

We hope that our artists discover one another’s work when they’re hosted at Awakenings, and that an interaction between artists and audience contributes to healing on both sides. This communication between different forms of art, such as visual artists engaging with the work of authors, musicians, or dancers, serves to create a larger conversation. Healing is, perhaps, most effective when it allows an individual to participate in a community. A varied approach to storytelling and the weaving of a larger narrative for survivors of sexual violence allows us to execute our mission to make the experiences of survivors visible.

When our artists work in tandem to weave a multifaceted narrative full of complex, varied styles and voices, the collective conclusion of the art proves the truth of the artists: that these stories are necessary. The power of a group of storytellers is that each is able to amplify the others’ voices, and what results is something louder, more cohesive, and all-encompassing. As these artists heal individually and explore their own stories, they form a chorus that universally seeks to recover from the presence of violence and move instead towards empathy, understanding, and honesty in art.


If you are interested in submitting your art to Awakenings, visit our website for guidelines and view our Submittable calls for art here.


References and Further Reading:

For more information on Awakenings, visit http://www.awakeningsart.org


The History of Art Therapy. Art Therapy Journal. Retrieved from http://www.arttherapyjournal.org/art-therapy-history.html


A huge Thank You to all at Awakenings who helped with this post, including its authors Megan Otto and Abbie Brinker, as well as its facilitator Jeri Frederickson!