Recovering from trauma with art - Mendoza Project
This project was with a school for illiterate people in the farm lands of Mendoza, where our blueberries, other yummy fruit, wine, and more come from. But there is a dark side to the farming: abuse of human rights of the workers, a form of modern day slavery. In this post I tell the story of how we used an artwork to help the students, and those who didn't dare be students yet, overcome their fears and pick up their pens to learn what their rights were as human beings.
Drew and I were living in Mendoza, out in bumblefuck, with no car and just one bus every four hours that you were lucky if it bothered to stop, and yet the crops fields we went to to volunteer made our place look central.
Farming and Fair trade:
Argentina is so immense, provinces are the size of European countries. To get to the crop fields was a complicated affair to put it mildly. It was extremely isolated, enormous and, as it was privately owned, the state had no responsibilities or permission to install infrastructure of any kind, and as such: no paved roads - if it rained, you simply couldn't get there; no hospital - so if you got hurt, bad luck, and if someone died, the body rotted until somebody bothered to bury them. No buses could travel through the property; and there were no schools, hence the high level of illiteracy and why this group of volunteers went to this surreal place. They got permission from the land owner to use one of the old unused houses, offering reading and maths classes. The owner initially refused, apparently he was quite nefarious, but something happened where eventually they could use it, though it was never made clear to me.
The other volunteers told me about this little girl. I was 'advised' of her past so I would be prepared for what was to come: "a mother, grandma and daughter are coming to the school today, we need to help them avoid a fight. She is 14, happier now, with her second baby. The first had to be put up for adoption because he was found near dead with maggots in his poo-filled nappies." My stomach twisted as I tried to keep my composure...
"What happened?" I asked.
"The father of the baby was her stepfather, she was raped by him, and abortion is illegal. The mother threw her out as she thought her - then 12 year old - daughter had seduced her 40 year old husband. Her own mother did not believe she was raped." The mother had her when she was 12.
I was meeting them the next day.
It was such a bizarre place: kilometers wide, with crops as far as the eye could see, with a back drop of the wine countrys' famous mountain peaks. Traditional old Spanish houses were spotted between vineyards and squash plantations. It was, all in all, very picturesque from far, but far from picturesque when you actually looked at the state of the homes, falling apart with no windows. In winter it must have been brutal: no running water; no electricity; rubbish everywhere, as there was no arranged dustman pick up - most things were burned. The people who worked here lived here, sometimes for generations. They were paid virtually nothing, or with wine. As a result most of the men were alcoholics. Many were very violent with no consequence at all, even if they beat their wives or children to death. The people who lived here were starved of their humanity to such a degree that even picking up a pencil was physically impossible, too precise for worn-in working hands. The families rarely got on - how can you under these conditions? They were closer to slaves than workers. And this is where your wine & food comes from when it isn't fair trade, it is a form of modern day slavery, fueled by alcohol and a slightly cheaper zucchini at the supermarket. And this post I will not mention the added health issues in farms where pesticides are used.
In the meetings between the volunteers we arranged logistics regarding who had suitable cars for the venture as buses only went to the road by the vineyard, and there was a further 40 min drive within the property to get to the little room for learning. A lovely woman called Sheila lived near by me. She offered to pick me up, and we could go together. She was a valiant woman, who with these trips I grew to admire so much. She is a whole remarkable story unto herself, but I need to ask her permission before I could share her story.
After a bumpy ride to the little room in the fields, I sat in the classroom playing with the second baby of the now 14 year old girl I was told about the previous day. She had found a new partner, lived with him, and was a happy mother of a sweet-natured little boy. The four generations of women in the room giggled away learning to read, and upping their maths game. You would never know what had happened.
Illiteracy; Symptom of Underlying Issues
I went for a few months once a week with Sheila. The turnout of students at the little room was on and off. It was always women, but there wasn't much consistency in who turned up. I got to know a little of the struggles and inner demons the students faced being illiterate, and how it came to be that way. Argentina has free education, from primary all the way to a PHD. At University there are grants for parents whose kids go to school, and free transport for kids to get to school, so to end up illiterate is actually quite difficult. Someone will have had to actively prevent you from going for you to miss it. Even distance wouldn't stop you as there are ways to organise transport to schools. And here lies the issue of why the illiteracy is a symptom of a deeper problem. There has to be abandonment from the parent for the child not to read, which usually means home life wasn't ideal, and that the child is on the back foot. And this is a vicious cycle that tends to repeat. I don't want to simplify a very complex issue, but in short, if one of these women was illiterate, most of the time it came hand in hand with a violent upbringing that made them feel worthless enough to deserve undignified treatment from employers as well as partners.
Illiteracy, Femocide, and Tackling Everyday Tasks:
There was a real confidence issue, compounded by everyday interactions that we might take for granted, but that to the students would mean a world of shame. For example, if they had to go to the town center, they would walk about an hour to get to the main road where buses would pass. Some went to the center, others to fuck-knows where. At home I would wait for my bumblefuck bus and prey it would stop. If it did, the driver was usually pretty annoyed he had to stop on our road, being a full blown arse-hole about it. Many times that it stopped before my destination, or took a different route, I would simply take another bus, working out which was I need to go. But for these ladies, just asking where the bus was going would bring up such a level of shame that they could hardly bare it. This, enhanced by the fact that for some bizarre reason bus drivers were real arse-holes in Mendoza: "can't you read the bloody sign?!" was the general response if you wanted to double check you were not going to end up lost in the most bumbly of fucks. But I was a confident black belt raised to know my worth [most of the time]. For these women, that comment would make them turn around and not want to leave their home. For them, making a mistake had painful consequences, beatings and torture - better not to try at all, a mistake could be fatal, especially in a region where femicide is common practice.
During this time a whole perspective opened its window to me. Taking the bus myself, I became very aware that some people may be struggling to get home. A few times that the bus was rerouted I realised that you would see people standing for hours where the bus used to stop. I would see there was a sign saying to take the bus round the corner, but no one considered some people may not be able to read it. I would not-so-subtly complain VERY LOUDLY about how annoying it was they moved the bus stop as I passed, "DAMN THIS 407 BUS GOING PAST CHACHINGO NOT STOPPING HERE ANYMORE, I KEEP COMING HERE OUT OF DEFAULT... Did you guys forget too? Bloody changes!" And as I would walk off, a little queue of people would form following me to the new bus stop. No one would mention anything, but it made me realise how many people couldn't read around me, and appreciate how easy it was for me to get around, an everyday task I totally took for granted.
To gain confidence, we must feel safe and not fear making mistakes.
As I got to know the situation better, I began to realise confidence was the priority. These students needed to somehow not fear making a mistake; to somehow reboot from the trauma and gain the confidence to turn up to the classes, get on that bus, and not give a flying fuck about the arsehole bus driver. After a month I finally had my eureka moment when I saw a Jackson Pollock painting. I had been obsessed with Chaos Theory and the artistic techniques that used Chaos Theory to create magnificent artworks, such as Pollock's fractal splashes and the divine mistake. I realised the students could create an artwork where it was impossible to make a mistake.
I designed the concept based on techniques used to make 'divine mistake' artworks.
It was a huge canvas. I masked out a sunset, which I knew the students would be moved by, and it happened to be the logo of the volunteer group. After masking the basic forms, the idea was to splash the shit out of the canvas - the more chaos, the more energy the piece would have. And to make sure it wouldn't turn into a brown mush, we would combine colours in various layers that would mix deliciously, allowing each layer to dry before painting the next. Remove the masking tape, and voilà, a stunning sunset.
The key was that it was impossible to make a mistake. All you had to do was pick up a brush and splash. A simple movement that was lots of fun, no skill required. I mentioned the concept to the volunteer group and they immediately shut it down saying, "if we can barely get them to pick up a pen how do you expect them to make art by painting?" Understandably they were worried the few students that they had would be scared off, but luckily, the organizer of the volunteers gave me the go ahead. She was a visionary.
Catharsis & Expressive Art
The following week I got the materials and we took it all to the students who were having a little jumble sale. At first, the fear was ever present, but I began to play, splashing, repeating: "take a brush, it's impossible to make a mistake", making them laugh by doing the most ridiculous things I could think of with the paint and brushes. One by one they all had a good go, eventually laughing, splashing about, and cackling: "take that you lazy bastard!" One student metaphorically using the paint as cathartic vengeance on her husband. It was magic, pure play, and no person was left behind, even the shyest of the shy kids were encouraged to have a go. And then the most beautiful thing happened. A few of the mums saw what it was bringing out and how the kids finally would step out of their shells, and said: "we should organise this more often, especially for the kids, it's so good for them to not have to be perfect, to not fear, to just play." And apparently this is what they did. Not only that, but attendance in class went up. That day, the students bonded; they played and laughed together; they were free, if just for that moment, it was enough to let a little light in.
So why did it work?
After we completed the project in Mendoza, I wanted to better understand how and why what we did had worked. I found an article in psychology today. It mentions developmental trauma, which seemed like an accurate description of what many of the students had shown symptoms of. To summarise, it states how the brain works similarly to a ladder, working in stages. If a step is damaged by a trauma, the person can get stuck in that stage of development, or revert back to that stage as an adult. It also states methods to heal these 'gaps':
"Following assessment, a therapist uses activities selected to address the area of the brain impacted by trauma. The goal is to bridge gaps in development that have been identified. For example, if assessment indicates gaps related to brainstem and midbrain functioning, therapeutic activities will include expressive arts, yoga, massage, etc. After these functions have improved, activities progress to facilitate further sequential development of the brain."
I have obviously highlighted the expressive arts in the quote because that was what we practised. Naturally the activity induced play, which from other research I have done I know activates many parts of the brain, stimulating, in my opinion, from experience, greater healing.
The article mentions psychologist Van der Kolk’s approach to healing trauma. He breaks down trauma integration into three phases, each with its own dynamics and requirements for treatment. I believe this artful project with these students went through these phases.
Van der Kolk’s approach in Bold
1. Establishing a sense of safety and competence. Engage with survivors in activities that do not trigger trauma responses and that give them a sense of pleasure and mastery while facilitating self-regulation (van der Kolk, 2017).
- Safety, established by the fact that it was impossible to make a mistake in the act of painting, made the women feel safe, added to the long established trust built by the volunteers. The way the painting was layered produced a wonderful effect without needing any drawing skills. The women were proud of the final piece and felt expressed in the act of painting as well as pride in their part in making it. They went on to replicate the project for their kids, having gained the knowledge to pass on and feel a mastery of it.
2. Dealing with traumatic re-enactment. Survivors may replay their original trauma with other people. This can include perceiving people who try to help them, such as therapists, as perpetrators (van der Kolk, 2017).
The physicality of splashing, though so simple, brought up the opportunity to mimic the same movement of other contexts, and reenact the situations that the splashing movement reminded them of such as the working of the land; or even as harsh as a beating. But the activity remained in a state of play, so they could share the experience with others, without feeling exposed, finding common ground, and expressing how they truly felt about it.
3. Integration and mastery. Engaging survivors in neutral, ‘fun’ tasks and physical games can provide them with knowledge of what it feels like to be relaxed and to feel a sense of physical mastery.
As mentioned above feeling the achievement of the final piece, and doing the same thing with their kids.
Conscientious Consumers help Tackle Modern Day Slavery
So, in conclusion, did this artful piece save the world and the life of these students? No, it didn't. Realistically, one intervention will not do the trick. We need to support these people by being conscious consumers. We need to ask questions about where what we eat comes from, and honour who had a hand in growing our food by valuing the land, their work and not blindly following a good bargain at the cost of someones else's life; Eat organic, eat locally, and buy wisely. What this project did show, is that we as a species can heal trauma, that art can be an ally to help. But without a shift in our consumerism, art is healing an open wound that will only close when we close our wallets to modern day slavery.