There is a long history of creativity in response to trauma. If we look back even in the past century, some of our greatest artists (Frida Kahlo, Georgia O’Keefe and Virginia Woolf among them) emerged in the wake of our world wars, our forgotten wars and our economic downturns. They, like all of us, used creativity to express the complexity of emotions, perceived and subconscious, that result from the experience of being alive.
Last August, I suffered a traumatic brain injury resulting from an accident I suffered while doing something I love — kitesurfing. It left me unable to tolerate bright lights, nearly any sounds, and the basic functioning of a normal life. I rode the subway wearing a baseball hat, sunglasses and headphones — sweating with the effort of being so close to other people. I went to dinners with friends, only to leave after less than thirty minutes, and sometimes ended up in tears from the onslaught of sensory inputs. I only started to manage these symptoms after falling into a new pursuit: painting.
Pre-injury, I wasn’t a painter. And when I impulsively drove to an art store and bought hundreds of dollars in oil paints, brushes and canvases, I imagined it would be another wasted expense in the journey to heal. Yet, the first day as I swept the brush across the canvas and watched the rampage of colors swirl together, I felt a moment of deep intense relief. My headaches stopped. My brain exhaled. I cried.
It’s not uncommon for our efforts to make sense of trauma to result in creative endeavors. Tobi Zausner, in her book When Walls Become Doorways: Creativity and the Transforming Illness, looks at eminent painters who suffered from physical illnesses. She notes that these illnesses led to new possibilities for the painters’ art by provoking disequilibrium, breaking old habits, and generating alternative strategies to respond to their creative goals. In research from Marie Forgeard published in Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, she notes that there is a strong relationship between the number of adverse lifetime events and perceived creative growth as well as breadth of creativity. Trauma helps us to find creativity and expand our capacity for expression.
As I began to emerge from my self-imposed quarantine, I’ve found myself here, in a nationally-imposed one. Again, my brain is channeling this grief into painting. For me, the sound of the brush stroke is meditative. The stillness in a well-composed painting feels sacred. When I achieve the perfect equilibrium of paint to oil, the sensation evokes a feeling that I can only describe as love. As I conceive new imaginary worlds, my brain exhales, my heart opens, and very often, I cry.
We all have different responses to trauma, likely due to the varied types of trauma that we experience. However, one gift of this moment is that we are going through trauma together. I find myself shifting from painting to art that engages and surprises the community. This past weekend I created a surprise public art floral protest piece and decorated an East Village block with balloons as a surprise for my goddaughter and the community. For me, I hope to channel my recent quarantine into art that helps others understand that this moment is temporary, that there is an end to it, that indeed we will be able to collectively exhale.
We do not process our grief and trauma at the same pace. We do not find ourselves turning to creativity at the same time. In the research from Forgeard, she notes that we do not all even find our way to creating. At this, I cry. At this I imagine hundreds of thousands of people, pushing their emotions inside. This, more than the pandemic, is what will harm our nation.
Assessing potential traumatic impacts for our pandemic moment is without precedent, but could be closely correlated to those moments after a natural disaster. Research on natural disasters finds that PTSD is substantial: 14.5% of residents in New Jersey post-Hurricane Sandy tested positive for PTSD. People with PTSD struggle with interpersonal problems, parenting difficulties, reductions in household income, and have several mental and physical health comorbidities. All of those symptoms impact the fabric of our national society. Buried trauma always finds its way out of the dark.
Art will not stop trauma, but it can help us adjust to it. So, pick up a pencil. Find clay. Grab for a marker. Locate an empty page. Take a moment to create. Let your feelings emerge. Whatever you first make will be terrible. Keep going. The output of the art is not important. The chance to let your brain exhale, your heart to open and your tears to fall in front of you, though, is the most important thing you can possibly do. If we do not respond to trauma now, trauma will pile on with more trauma and it will be nearly impossible for us, as a nation, to move forward.
Kristina Libby is a writer, author and educator living in NYC. She is also the Chief Science Officer at Hypergiant Industries.