Defining Where Health, Environment, and the Arts Meet

We’ve come to the twentieth entry in the Bamboo Pen. Sebold Communications has been in business for over a decade. This year, with first-rate help from Gallop Web Services, we redesigned our website to make it more responsive and useful to you, our clients and readers.

To mark all three occasions, I’m taking time to define the four interdisciplinary fields we promote through words and programs. They are—as you may have discerned from our tagline and past interviews—environmental health, arts in health, arts in environment, and arts in development.

Like most of my posts to date, this one is evergreen. I’d like it to be a “growing evergreen.” So as experts, feel free to expand the definitions with examples and resources. Once your comments accumulate, I’ll update the article. I may even quote you, if you allow. In the interim, I’d be happy to tweet news of your work.

Environmental Health

Let’s start by defining “environmental health,” the best known of the four. According to the World Health Organization, environmental health

addresses all the physical, chemical, and biological factors external to a person, and all the related factors impacting behaviors. It encompasses the assessment and control of those environmental factors that can potentially affect health. It is targeted toward preventing disease and creating health-supportive environments. This definition excludes behavior not related to environment, as well as behavior related to the social and cultural environment, and genetics.

You can find other definitions of environmental health on the websites of the U.S. National Environmental Health Association, which publishes the Journal of Environmental Health, and the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, which funds scientific research.

What Environmental Health Covers

Topics in environmental health include, but certainly aren’t limited to, the environmental causes of cancer and other diseases, the effects of pollution and climate change on human health, animal- and vector-borne diseases, housing and land use, disaster preparedness, nanotechnology, nutrition, and food and water sanitation—where the field arguably began in nineteenth-century England.

Specialties of environmental health include environmental epidemiology, toxicology, exposure science, and newer areas like EcoHealth, which assesses how changes in the Earth’s ecosystems affect human health, and ecopsychology, which covers the relationship between human beings and the natural world. Horticultural therapy and forest bathing are ecopsychological practices.

Further Reading and Future Posts

My interview with pediatrician Robert Zarr falls under ecopsychology—in part. If the subfield is new to you, you may want to start there. Then, sit outside somewhere green to read Biophilia by E.O. Wilson and Voice of the Earth by Theodore Roszak, who coined the term.

To survey recent medical literature on nature’s impact on child health, visit the Children & Nature Network. For a lighter read, check out the blog of the Therapeutic Landscapes Network.

In future posts, I’ll explore infectious disease and climate change; homelessness and water sanitation; environmental health literacy; and related fields, like conservation medicine and occupational health psychology. Nature, including botany, will get its due, too. I tweet about environmental health and the environment regularly.

Arts in Health

“Arts in health” is an umbrella term, not unlike environmental health. Although most people realize that the environment affects our bodies and minds for good or ill, not everyone knows that the arts positively shape our physical and mental health. In fact, scholars have documented their efficacy.

In The Arts, Health and Wellbeing, the Arts Council England defines arts in health as

arts-based activities that aim to improve individual and community health and healthcare delivery, and which enhance the healthcare environment by providing artwork or performances.

The Arts Health Network Canada created a useful infographic of arts in health—an artful definition.

How Arts in Health Works

Specialties of arts in health include individual- and community-oriented visual arts, writing, music, drama, dance/movement, and culinary therapies, as well as healthcare architecture and interior design. You’ll encounter artists from many disciplines, experts in health promotion and communications, and practitioners of arts in conflict and medical humanities, which uses the humanities, social sciences, and the arts to advance healing.

Locally, nationally, and internationally, arts-in-health programs help residents in hospices and long-term care facilities, clients of mental health and rehab programs, and prisoners. Audiences also include school children, disadvantaged communities and individuals, participants in special-needs and wellness programs, refugees and homeless people, medical providers and disaster-response teams, and active and retired military. The field began in veterans’ hospitals in the United States during the Second World War.

Arts in health can result in significant reductions in insomnia, depression, anxiety, pain, post-traumatic stress, hospital stays, medical visits, medication use, and—by extension—healthcare costs. Consumers of arts in health benefit socially. Artists develop their disciplines. Communications improve between patients and caregivers, especially in buildings that feature fountains and artistic signage designed to welcome and calm.

Proof and Upcoming Articles

There are joint university programs in fine arts and public health. Medical schools encourage students to study the humanities. You can even come up with your own quasi arts-in-health program to help you write at work.

Simply attending arts programs improves health and wellbeing. It encourages us to celebrate, strengthen, and preserve our own and others’ cultures—to feel pride when surrounded by struggle and loss. At an exhibit I helped curate, I saw two artists embrace after their presentations: one had seen the towers fall on 9/11; the other had endured years of conflict in her home country, Iraq. Both found personal healing through painting in response to Iraqi poetry about war and resilience. For another example of how the arts alleviate trauma, see my post on Lisa Garlock, an art therapist who uses arpilleras (story quilts) to mend individuals and communities.

In 2017, the newly constituted National Organization for Arts in Health released a white paper that offers references, resources, recommendations, and detailed descriptions and examples of the creative art therapies (above), expressive art therapy (which uses more than one art at a time), and the settings for arts in health.

In an upcoming post, I’ll focus on arts in health in Syria, where I lived long before the war. Later, I may examine how arts in diplomacy, visionary or outsider art, improv theater, and arts in education overlap with arts in health.

Arts in Environment

Google (or Bing) “arts in the environment,” and you won’t find it. Instead, you’ll find “environmental art,” which encompasses only the visual arts. What about the others? They have evoked landscapes and addressed environmental catastrophe just as often as sculpture and painting. Get on Twitter, and every day, you’ll see writing, drama, dance, music, and more on nature and climate change. Where, then, is the umbrella term—the equivalent of “arts in health”?

Let’s start to answer the question by defining environmental art, from ancient cave to modern junk art. Then, helped by the accepted definitions of environmental health and arts in health, we can define arts in environment.

Based partly on a 2010 greenmuseum.org post by Sam Bower, Wikipedia defines environmental art as

a range of artistic practices encompassing both historical approaches to nature in art and more recent ecological and politically motivated types of works.

So ancestors’ scribblings of bison on walls and more recent paintings of buffalo-filled landscapes constitute historical approaches to nature in art. Those who practice “art in nature,” a subfield of environmental art, might create ethereal constructions of twigs and flowers, with or without an environmental message. So-called land, or earth, artists move, dig into, or otherwise alter landscapes, sometimes permanently and harmfully.

EcoArt, Branch of Environmental Art

For the purposes of defining arts in environment, we are most interested in what visual artists call “ecological art,” or “EcoArt,” which began in the 1960s—around the same time as land art—to advocate the Earth’s, not the ego’s, good. Among ecological artists would be sculptors who address habitat destruction by fashioning bison or buffalo out of natural materials found on the prairie. In the last fifteen years, EcoArt has surged because of concern about climate change.

EcoArtNetwork offers the following definition:

Ecological Art is an art practice that embraces an ethic of social justice in both its content and form/materials. EcoArt is created to inspire caring and respect, stimulate dialogue, and encourage the long-term flourishing of the social and natural environments in which we live. It commonly manifests as socially engaged, activist, community-based restorative or interventionist art.

Proposed Definition of Arts in Environment

In view of the preceding definitions, I propose that

arts in environment uses the visual arts, architecture, music, dance, creative writing, drama, culinary and other arts to call attention to environmental issues and promote the Earth’s health, including the well-being of humans and other species.

Found poetry, found music, slow food, acoustic ecology, and documentary film may find a way into arts in environment. Feel free to amend the definition or suggest other nonvisual arts in environment.

In future posts, I may survey subfields of EcoArt, such as restorative art, sustainable art, recycled art, and green art and architecture. I may interview practitioners of ecovention, urban acupuncture, and social sculpture. For an example of restorative art, see my article on Patterson Clark.

Related visual arts like found art, junk/trash art, BioArt, and SciArt may prove intriguing. We may dig into traditional crafts, landscape painting, art in nature, even land and crop art.

Learn and Question More

For now, begin by reading Land and Environmental Art (1988) by Jeffrey Kastner and Brian Wallis. For newer resources and links, visit EcoArtNetwork and Leonardo, which focuses on arts, technology, and the sciences, including the environment.

So far, there’s little proof of EcoArt’s power to educate or directly benefit the environment. I found one study of environmental art, climate change, and carbon offsets. In 2015, Scientific American published a piece on climate-change data and environmental art. But I can’t find any analyses of the effectiveness of nonvisual arts on raising environmental awareness or instigating positive, lasting change—even locally. Stay tuned. Send me your thoughts—or research.

Arts in Development

More established than arts in environment is “arts in development.” Although the field makes use of many artistic disciplines (like literature and theater) to advance health, education, environment, social justice, you-name-it, the “arts” are often handmade traditional crafts. At best, finished products bear “fair trade” and “organic” labels.

Outside of major cities, like Washington, DC, “development” doesn’t imply international, and, sadly, “international,” especially in “international development” circles, doesn’t always include disadvantaged communities in so-called developed countries. In the Bamboo Pen, development as in fundraising for a business or nonprofit doesn’t interest us. Nor do we care about a living thing’s maturation (apart from the four fields of the blog).

Fair Trade, Best of Arts in Economic Development

Instead, our focus is on crafts and agricultural goods, like artisanal honey and soap, used in local, national, and international “economic development.” Arts in development, done well, benefits producers financially, if not culturally and socially, and leads to improvements in their families’ health and education. Ideally, arts in development projects are also fair trade: from design to sale, they favor craftspeople and farmers over middlemen and are environmentally sustainable.

When it comes to definitions, the word “economic” is key to distinguishing arts in development from the other three fields we’ve defined. Fair-trade arts (and agriculture) in economic development is really what we’re after.

The World Fair Trade Organization (WFTO) offers the following definition:

Fair Trade is a trading partnership, based on dialogue, transparency and respect, that seeks greater equity in international trade. It contributes to sustainable development by offering better trading conditions to, and securing the rights of, marginalized producers and workers—especially in the [global] South.

Fair Trade organizations have a clear commitment to Fair Trade as the principal core of their mission. They, backed by consumers, are engaged actively in supporting producers, awareness raising and in campaigning for changes in the rules and practice of conventional international trade.

Gender equity, capacity building, and healthy working conditions are among the ten principles of Fair Trade the WFTO advocates.

You can find other definitions on the websites of U.S. organizations like the Fair Trade Federation  and TransFair USA.

History and Distinctions

In the United States, fair trade started in 1946 when the Mennonite Central Committee founded Ten Thousand Villages, which sells crafts (and now foodstuffs) in stores across the country. Fair trade became a movement against neo-imperialism in the 1960s, when makers wanted fair and equal access to markets. Crafts became less attractive to consumers in the 1980s, so fair traders moved into agriculture. Concerns about the environment arose, and certification and labeling regimes began. See the Fair Trade Resource Network for a very nice timeline.

Not all arts, or crafts, in development organizations are certified in fair trade, even though they meet many of the qualifications. You can learn about the pioneering work of Aid to Artisans in an earlier post. GoodWeave, another U.S. nongovernmental organization, works to eliminate child labor in carpet production. Human rights and education are their primary concerns.

To survey fair-trade arts in development, consult The Impact of Fair Trade on Social and Economic Development: A Review. To learn more about arts in development generally, read Art, Culture and International Development: Humanizing Social Transformation, a book published in 2015.

I’ll blog on fair-trade (and nearly certifiable) organizations and individual artisans. Future posts may feature Ten Thousand Villages and Serrv, which market jewelry made by silversmiths in Mexico and recycled-paper baskets woven by entrepreneurs in Vietnam—among many other edible and nonedible artisanal products. On my list are the Women’s Bean Project, where American homeless women assemble soup mixes, and Al Mokha, which sells coffee from war-torn Yemen. Get inspired yourself by volunteering for a fair-trade group near you!

Conclusion

By now, you’re probably amazed, if not overwhelmed, by the many places where health, environment, and the arts meet. You also may have noticed considerable overlap between environmental health, arts in health, arts in environment, and arts in development. On the same table, you may have found food sanitation, culinary therapy, organic slow food, and fair-trade plates. Perhaps you’ve seen a skit on Zika and climate change. If you have, share it with us as an example of arts in environmental health.

Maybe you’re wondering what would happen if we reversed the words in the names of the four interdisciplinary fields. What would “health in arts” encompass? A diseased organ in a painting? A real heartbeat in a piece of music?

[head-spinning semantic overload … &%zap^#! … actually seeing angels on pinhead]

***

In layout and content, the Bamboo Pen has come a long way since Setting Themes.

Based on readers’ responses to my first twenty posts (sadly, I lost my social shares in the redesign), I’ve decided to concentrate on writing reviews of events, including exhibits, and features about people who—for the greater good—devote their time to mixing and matching health, environment, and the arts. Feel free to send me their names.

For now, let my post be a gift to those of you—scientists, artists, health workers—who are too busy discovering, creating, and healing to categorize your work intentionally or worry about definitions. Caring is what all four interdisciplinary fields (and the broad areas of health, environment, and the arts) have most in common.

As for me, I’m tuckered out from defining what you do. I think I’ve earned a green art–wrapped, mood-enhancing, artisanal, socially responsible, and environmentally sustainable chocolate bar. Every bit of one—or two!

If you need me for writing, editing, or programs, I’ll be at my desk. I might be interviewing a “wrapper,” urrrr … “rapper” who just composed a song on solar cookers.

[cooked]

Environmental Artist, Activism Protect Nature

Patterson Clark’s least favorite invasive plant is Japanese stilt grass. That’s because he hasn’t figured out how to use it in his art. Boiling it yields weak brown ink. Its fibers don’t make for strong paper. It’s not even good for fuel. “It got over here as packing material. If that’s your best use, you’re a pretty sorry little plant,” he said wryly.

I met Clark, a hyper-local plant patriot and environmental artist, over coffee, a brown brew whose use no one questions. American country music played in the background as he spoke about his mission to rid the world—at least the wooded area around his studio—of alien weeds. With authority and training from the National Park Service, he frees native species by harvesting invasive plants in a section of Washington, DC’s Rock Creek Park. Then he makes art out of them.

By day, Clark creates science graphics for the Washington Post. So think Clark Kent and Superman—for nature. Even their names are half the same.

Back in Arkansas, our Clark majored in biology, a broader field than his father’s botany. After studying conceptual art and painting as a graduate student at the California Institute of the Arts, he got caught up in the art of journalism.

“Visuals for newspapers must relate to a horizontal demographic. They have to appeal to people from a lot of different backgrounds. Fine art is oriented in the opposite direction. It has more of a vertical appeal, with a narrow audience, generally with an education in art. So I was won over by the egalitarian pursuit of journalism and focused my energies on that.” For a good while, he did op-ed illustrations for the Arkansas Gazette and Miami Herald. Until recently, he wrote the Urban Jungle column for the Post.

His superhero cape, or smock, was thus infused with environmental and social justice. By now, it’s well stained with the blood, or sap, of enemy plants.

Fine Invasive Art

Unlike stilt grass, most invasive species don’t flummox Clark. His website, Alienweeds, features not only finished pieces, but also the botany, chemistry, and environmental activism behind his art. Some of it’s quite complicated. For pigments, there’s Amur, or bush, honeysuckle, which yields turquoise, and leatherleaf Mahonia, which makes fluorescent yellow. To get purple, he crushes Asiatic dayflower, whose beautiful blue petals burst forth at dawn.

Out of white mulberry trees, Clark makes a bright, tough paper, perfect for prints. Paper mulberry, traditionally used in Japanese washi, is easier to harvest, but the pulp dries into a cream color, isn’t as brilliant as the stock he gets from its cousin. Armed with bamboo pens, porcelain-berry brushes, Norway-maple woodblocks, and other homemade tools, Clark minted “weed currency” out of his inks and papers. He determined the denominations by the number of invasive plants in each.

For carving, a favorite is Callery pear, whose blooms whiten the margins of highways come spring. Its well-known hybrid, the Bradford pear, hardly stayed sterile. Look nearly everywhere in forty-two U.S. states, and you’ll find Ailanthus, the so-called Tree of Heaven, rightly dubbed the “stink tree.” It contains a ton of water and tends to warp, check, and cup. But once its honey-colored wood stabilizes, Clark can plane and carve it to reveal its brown grain. Like Irish ivy (not to be confused with English ivy), boiling it drives him from the house for the funk.

Bad Plants

Both species are evil-smelling, evil-doing varmints of the plant kingdom—according to most environmentalists. And we humans are in part responsible for the infestations. Yes, every species has a use and, certainly, a right to exist, somewhere. Many are quite attractive. But what seems like a good green introduction in one era proves disastrous later on.

Take Ailanthus again: American botanists found it standing tall on Chinese temple grounds, alone, it turned out, because its roots released a noxious chemical that retarded the growth of surrounding plants. Ditto here, where, unlike most plants, it thrives on road salt and knocks out every native around it. If you whack back its branches, even its young trunk—bam—it comes back with a vengeance. Never mind all the seeds.

Invasive plants breed like rabbits. They spread quickly, often with little interference from hungry animals and diseases. Their weaponry includes runners and rhizomes and countless survivalist seeds with myriad methods for dispersal. Although native animals prefer to dine on indigenous species, they do eat invasives and poop the pips.

Birds drop them, while mammals amble about with pods stuck to their feet and fur. Kernels wedge in our shoes and dangle from our tractor blades. They muck up our mulch. Once mature, the invaders degrade ecosystems by competing with native plants for resources and pollinators. Rare species disappear. In no time, diverse landscapes turn into manic monocultures.

Clark removes the troublemakers. “My first act is always one of environmental restoration.” Usually, other non-natives grow in the spaces he frees, but some local wildflowers will take down stilt grass, unless deer devour them first. The Park Service has its own invasive-plant treatment programs. He can’t interfere by, say, sowing native seeds.

Invasives Anyone?

Like other environmentalists, Clark doesn’t favor using gasoline-powered tools and herbicides to manage the bad guys. “There’s a fellow in North Carolina who uses the Boer goat, a meat goat. He takes them into kudzu patches, and they fatten themselves up on the vine. They love it. He just keeps hammering with the goats until he exhausts the kudzu, without using a lot of poison or disrupting the ground. Why not provide food for people?” Japanese, who can claim kudzu as their own, and, increasingly, Americans in the Southeast make jellies, tea, even noodles from it.

Clark is an invasivore, too. He eats the grape-like, blue berries of leatherleaf Mahonia, which are loaded with vitamin C. Then there are the raspberry-ish wineberries, sold at posh farmers’ markets. Mulberries, the dark ones with native red genes, are tasty. They’re juicier than pure white mulberries but not as sweet, according to Clark. Garlic mustard, before it bolts, cooks into a delicious winter green. Pair it with a slab of invasive feral hog, deer, or Canada goose—if you’re into meat. In that case, best to slug some Mahonia juice first: like other members of its family, it contains berberine, an antimicrobial.

Educational Outreach

When hunting down art supplies (or foodstuffs), dog walkers and park goers sometimes spot Clark. He estimates that one out of ten people asks him what he’s doing. “I tell them what I’m up to. Mainly, they give me a wide berth. Dogs get weirded out by me and start barking. So people finally come over and put their dog on a leash. Sometimes they’re curious.” More receptive are the Weed Warriors, gardeners, scientific and botanical illustrators, environmentalists, and art and science students to whom he speaks regularly. Nurserymen, still intent on selling homeowners some of the nasties, haven’t asked him to share.

Right now, he’s working on a calendar for the American Printing History Association. He’s producing 136 sheets of paper for the month of May and designing an image to print with verse by his sister, a poet. In September, he’ll take off for SUNY/Fredonia to deliver a series of lectures on art and invasives.

Unlike Clark Kent, though, Patterson Clark rarely flies. Environmental artists and activists like him don’t like fossil fuels. But they do drink caffeine. So powered by an Americano with extra shots, he bade me goodbye to return to his day job. Like Superman, he was ready to save the forest floor with his handsaw, to make art from the vanquished.

Volunteer, Give to Free Ideas

What happens when you volunteer? Do you feel enlivened? Do you get when you give, whether you intend to or not? More specifically, do ideas come unbidden when you donate your time and talent?

I asked the last question on social media recently. One person reacted angrily. I guess he assumed I’d never volunteered or had only selfish reasons for doing so. In truth, I’ve volunteered a lot over many years. Two of my paid office positions came from volunteering. As part of both jobs, I supervised volunteers and interns—work I loved. A few years ago, I volunteered to organize other volunteers. To prepare, I read a stack of studies and managerial how-tos.

There are many reasons people give their time. Pure altruism isn’t one I’ve encountered, at least among spiritually mature souls. They know that however selfless their expressed motivations, professional (skills and contacts) and health (physical, mental, and social) benefits accrue from their offering free aid to people and the planet. Some of what volunteers receive can be measured—and has been.

Their saintliness and co-creativity, their net giving, are for a higher force to quantify.

More intriguing in this realm—and what I was trying to uncover on social media—is the mysterious birth of ideas from volunteering. Joining others to solve a problem, when there is no promise of monetary reward, can set off light bulbs. Some of them brighten the lives of individuals or populations in need; others shed light on our own creative pursuits, including writing. The dark pressure of competition lifts to release thought. New programs, new artworks emerge.

We leave behind the stingy ego to cycle between giving and receiving.

We become “otherish,” a term Adam Grant introduces in his book Give & Take, if not altruistic. The more people give, the more they produce, he contends. When well developed and given with joy, their gifts generate positive change.

Givers Who Got—Ideas

Take Robert Egger, who once ran a nightclub. One night in 1989, he reluctantly boarded a van to help feed homeless people on the streets of the nation’s capital. He saw inefficiencies, dreamed up improvements, and started a food-recovery operation that morphed into DC Central Kitchen, a number of other programs, and a career as a writer and speaker. Twenty-five years later, he started LA Kitchen.

In The Gift, now a classic, Lewis Hyde tells the story of Walt Whitman, who found inspiration by nursing soldiers in a Civil War hospital. By transcribing into letters and transforming into poetry the experiences of wounded and dying servicemen, he used his genius for healing. He thrived, creatively and psychologically, while collaborating with others to alleviate suffering. Though he later returned to nature to find his muse, he spent his happiest moments in the wards, engaging the edginess of life—gratis.

Giving—to nature too—is intrinsic to our creative health, corporately and individually. The circular miracle of gifts given and ideas received happens everyday. Mick Ebeling, winner of the 2014 Muhammad Ali Humanitarian Award, shares his story in Not Impossible: The Art and Joy of Doing What Couldn’t Be Done. Read Bill Shore’s The Cathedral Within for more examples of giving through meaningful work.

Advice for Volunteers

  • Just as you might start exploring art by coloring with your children or nature by walking to work through a park, begin volunteering by performing simple acts of kindness. Do something for someone you know, then, for someone you don’t know, and, finally, for someone out of your comfort range.
  • Decide what you can give. To whom do you want to give—people, animals, or plants? How much time do you have? Adam Grant recommends two hours, “chunked,” one day each week. Where do you want to volunteer? Locally or farther away?
  • Make certain you choose a place that has a formal volunteer program and requires the skills you want to offer. Be sure it schedules opportunities for learning and socializing and respects volunteers’ time and input. Ask around, as you would about a prospective employer.
  • To start, pick an institution whose mandate has nothing to do with your day job. Experiment. Learn new skills. Later, you can do pro bono work for an organization in your field. Caution: Will your volunteering negatively affect the job or freelance market in your profession? If so, will you be giving? Also, you may want to avoid pro bono positions if you’re in your prime working years. You may find people question why you’re available or undervalue your contributions. Although interning may lead to employment when you’re young, volunteering rarely results in paid work when you’re older, according to sources no less prominent than Richard Bolles in What Color is Your Parachute?
  • Be wary of those on the take: Keep your boundaries. Break down your barriers. Listen. Hold your opinions lightly. Practice empathy.
  • Stay only if you enjoy it. Gage when you’ve given all you can. You won’t be able to give, and others won’t receive, if you work out of duty. You want to feel energized, not sapped. Ideas need to escape.
  • Try volunteering virtually—across the world!
  • In keeping with my last post on arts in development, let me suggest Ten Thousand Villages. Stores across the United States depend on volunteers. You’ll learn a lot about fair trade.

Here’s a quote to ponder:

The gift turned inward, unable to be given, becomes a heavy burden, even a kind of poison. It is as though the flow of life were backed up. . . . Bestowal creates that empty place into which new energy may flow. The alternative is petrifaction, writer’s block, ‘the flow of life backed up.’

(Lewis Hyde, The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World [New York: Vintage Books, 2007], 189)

***

What do you feel driven to give? Who will benefit? Does volunteering free ideas? Tell us quickly, before the sheer rush of creativity drives us from the subject of writer’s block forever . . .

And I run out of time to wish you a happy Volunteer Appreciation Month!

Career Marketer, Crafts Spur Development

In corporate circles, she was always on the fringes of the artisan sector. Maybe she heard her true calling when she was in China to help masons salvage antique stone from the gravel industry. Or maybe it came to her in Argentina, where she worked with craftsmen who carved furniture for the high-end market in New York. Whenever it hit her, Monika Steinberger decided she wanted to join the nonprofit world and dedicate her business savvy to artisans. She wanted to help them preserve their cultural heritage and make good incomes through the fairest possible trade.

In the mid 2000s, Steinberger got lucky. Aid to Artisans (ATA), now part of Creative Learning, needed someone multilingual who could fly to Afghanistan, Egypt, and Haiti, where it had upcoming projects. It was in New England; she was in nearby New York. She knew people the world over who worked with their hands and creative professionals in the United States and Europe, who specialized in marketing, branding, advertising, and photography. A native of Austria, she spoke German, English, French, and Spanish. Most important, she was willing to travel in dicey times.

Into the Field

For eight years now, Steinberger has collaborated with craftspeople in the remotest and poorest regions of Latin America, the Caribbean, and Asia, including the Middle East. She enjoys her daily interactions—often via cellphone—the most. She can hear about, if not see, the impact of ATA projects on people’s lives and livelihoods. She can measure changes in family health, education, and overall well-being by collecting stories, sometimes statistics. “It’s been an extraordinary experience. I would almost do it for nothing,” she volunteered.

Haiti’s desperate poverty and environmental devastation really got under Steinberger’s skin. ATA fulfilled the livelihoods component of a three-year project supported by the International HIV/AIDS Alliance and the UK Big Lottery Fund. She and her Haitian colleagues held a workshop in Cap Haitien for women and men to help them design and produce bamboo bangles (see picture, above) for the local tourist market. The artisans spent one dollar on raw bamboo for each bangle they fashioned and sold the finished bracelets for five dollars each to passengers on Royal Caribbean Cruise ships docked at Labadie. The bangles were later a hit at winter and summer wholesale shows at the Javits Center in New York. Global Girlfriend, an online retailer of women-made gifts, ordered 500 with 2,500 to follow, for a total of $13,000—a fortune for the Haitian artisans. The project showed the immediate impact craft can have on an economy and environment. For every bamboo stem they harvested, the artisans had to plant two shoots. The grass grows rapidly, stabilizes eroded soil, and lends itself to craft.

Behind the Scenes

As in all ATA ventures, the first step in the Haitian project was to assess the local, expat, tourist, and international markets for demand. Funders, whether public or private, usually approach ATA with a craft medium or region of the developing world in mind. ATA then consults its vast network of craftspeople. “We never start from nothing,” Steinberger said. “We are there to bring information from the market to them.” ATA assists artisans in developing or upgrading their crafts and links them to buyers. Through workshops and in-country management, ATA imparts business acumen to craftspeople, always mindful not only of the markets, but also of the environment and relationships. Artisans, who are usually women, are part of communities. They have to support their families, even more than save the cultural patrimony of their countries. Matters of money and spirit have to jive.

But they do not always readily synch. In Chiapas, Mexico, Mayan women weavers did not trust each other with trade secrets, nor could they band together to buy raw materials at wholesale prices. If they could get a formal business license from the government—a cumbersome process even for ATA— they could expand. The interpersonal and practical realms collided until ATA/Mexico began organizing the weavers as a uniquely Mexican association. Most ATA projects continue as registered businesses or nongovernmental organizations with local staff. Some, like CREATA in Columbia, grow to partner with ATA.

Steinberger calls that success, but the project she’s working on is always closest to her heart. Right now, she’s busy in Yemen, where ATA is part of a five-year U.S. Agency for International Development agricultural project implemented by the Land O’Lakes Foundation. She just returned from evaluating Yemen’s craft market. The country’s cultural heritage—gingerbread architecture, silver jewelry, and painted windows—entranced her. She fixed on an active hand-weaving tradition that merits expansion: men weave skirts on simple ground looms for the local market. If the community agrees, Steinberger would like to engage a small group of women to produce similar cloth for the international market year round.

“Identification of the artisans is a crucial part of our work. We have to be careful not to do harm. We are empowering people by giving them access to income they didn’t have before. That changes a family and community,” Steinberger said. At harvest time, she will help men and women export artisanal honey, coffee, spices, fragrances, and herbal lotions by connecting them to buyers. She knows the products will sell.

Arts in Development, Then and Now

ATA’s approach to arts in development was once unique. Well-meaning donors still sometimes send consultants to countries without exploring the markets or sounding out local craftspeople. They might train women to produce pillowcases on sewing machines they donate to a community center with sporadic electricity. In two weeks, the foreign experts are gone. Pictures of smiling faces enliven thick reports. But there’s no follow-up. The women have wasted time they could have used making money and are left with a skill and machines they cannot use. No locals or foreigners need pillowcases. Traditional crafts lie fallow. Three months later, there’s no trace of the intervention. Nothing is sustainable—except the women’s newfound cynicism.

Such projects have not helped arts in development, which, as a field, endures skepticism from practitioners who favor huge agricultural or infrastructure interventions with statistically measurable results. “Scaling up” is the buzzword of the moment, according to Steinberger. The international development community wants to fund projects that have the greatest impact on the largest number of people, even if they take decades to show results. Funders prefer to underwrite livelihood projects that help hundreds of women in the garment industry produce thousands of inexpensive shirts for Western consumers. Although craft is often a country’s second biggest employer after agriculture and has a more immediate, sustainable effect on a population, it’s hard to scale up without sacrificing quality, incomes, health, environment, and the intangible cultural heritage it embodies.

Sometimes Steinberger sees intercultural conflict while saving cultures. Artisans everywhere tend to be poor and very jealous of their turf. Aymara in Northern Chile told her they lost much of their international market in native alpaca products when Americans started raising the animals in the States. The Americans, in turn, had to lower their prices to compete with cheaper imports. “You have to measure your market impact and tailor your intervention accordingly,” she cautioned.

State of the Artisans

Partly as a result of the worldwide recession and partly because of lessons learned by practitioners of international development, ATA now competes for places in massive undertakings in tourism, environment, agriculture, health, and women’s empowerment. It cannot find funding for crafts-only projects as it did for over thirty years. Nevertheless, in the past two years, Steinberger has seen renewed emphasis on cultural preservation among funders. In March, ATA will start collaborating with the Smithsonian, its once-frequent partner, to protect pottery and nomadic crafts in Tibet. Steinberger is excited about using cultural mapping during the assessment.

When asked if she thought craft sales fed Americans’ insatiable consumerism, Steinberger pointed out that buyers everywhere help safeguard cultural traditions. Many big-box companies are now following the ATA approach, at least in part. Although large corporations have recognized the demand for crafts in Europe and the States, they want artisans to create them at high volume and low cost. The crafts and craftspeople do not prosper. Consumers need to pay more to preserve quality and support the artisans. Still, Steinberger commends the multinationals, some of them ATA partners, for establishing fair-trade sidelines.

“The key is to educate the consumer,” observed Steinberger. “Telling the story is really our reason for being. It’s an economic reality that something that’s handmade will be more expensive than something that’s mass produced. If you want to sell it, you have to explain that it’s an original work of craft that has been touched by the hands of a real live artisan in a particular place. It’s a losing proposition to take out the story. You take out the soul, meaning, and value. So it’s our daily work to make sure that the cultural content is known because in the end, that’s what makes craft sustainable. That’s what attracted me and still attracts me to the mission of ATA—making culture a building block of the economy.”

Like the Chinese builders who inspired her years ago, ATA’s Monika Steinberger helps protect old traditions. Like the Argentine craftsmen she once advised, she helps create new custom.

Still Blocked? Embrace Nature

Sometimes practicing an art indoors just isn’t enough to unblock your writing. You have to take your drawing, your singing—your mind—outdoors. Imitate branches blowing in the breeze till you dance yourself to a sane standstill. Defer to the air. Put aside the pad and pencil, the poem notes on the “comely beetle, fair of feet.” Defer to the ladybug. Capture nothing. Let your creativity, your intellect meld slowly, higher into nature. Become the wind, the tree, the insect. Find your relative nothingness. Marvel wordlessly in place, or gently walking.

Embrace nature. Cleanse your thoughts of word cholesterol. Unblock, simply.

Easier said than done, especially when you live downtown and labor in a drywall square before an un-nature-al machine. Perhaps you gave up your car years ago and cannot meet hiking clubs at trailheads miles away. Or you sensibly fear strolling alone and spirit-full through the woods. Maybe your neighbors have claimed all nearby urban garden plots five years out. You may dislike zoos and have limited space for houseplants. You’re definitely past it for playgrounds, green or otherwise.

What to do? How to engage nature’s curative silence?

Try as I might, I can’t come up with much of a method this time. No one can jam nature onto worksheets. It’s where it should be—beyond our ken. In its time, its way, it will knock words from the brains it gave us. Separate the good ones from the bad, with or without aid from the arts. We only have to make ourselves available. Outside.

But we can push it … just a bit.

Whether you set out with an easel, a songbook, or not, try some of the following activities to quiet yourself. Pick one from each category. They’re meant for the apartment-dwelling adult with access to a city park, if not a forest. They’re meditative alternatives to the family-oriented, more involved suggestions in the back of Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods, which inspired my interview with Robert Zarr.

Earth

  • Pick up a rock. Who lives underneath? Replace it thoughtfully.
  • What kind of rock did you pick up? Are there others like it around you?
  • What does the rock smell like? The soil coating it?
  • Go out late on a clear night. Can you find Venus?
  • Go out midday. What kind of clouds do you see?
  • Which way is the breeze blowing? Is it friendly or frightening?
  • Any precipitation? Take off your hood. How does it feel or taste?
  • If your park features a creek, skip a stone. Avoid braining the fish!
  • How does the light play under the trees or your legs, crossed on a park bench?
  • Can you find a mushroom, another fungus, lichen, or a yellow slime mold?

Plants

  • Pick a tree. Make it your favorite. Sit beneath it at different times. Look up.
  • Play with a stick, as you see children do. Who’s looking?
  • Visit a tree you planted as a tiny tot or testy teenager. How it has grown!
  • Identify trees by their bark or leaves. App away or bring a guide!
  • How many colors and shades can you find on blossoming trees come spring?
  • How many colors can you see in the leaf duff under your feet, summer and fall?
  • Feel moss. Which side of the tree is it growing on?
  • In midsummer, pick a wild onion, one standing tall apart from dogs. Taste it.
  • Find one wildflower, one “weed,” one ornamental, and one invasive species.
  • Who’s pollinating the flowers around you? Bees? Butterflies? Beetles?

Animals

  • Look up at the trees. Count nests in the winter. Find burrows in the ground.
  • Go out early. Listen for birds. Who’s making the music?
  • Find a feather. Look at its amazing structure. Who wore it?
  • Watch a squirrel bury nuts or find a stash. What a unique form of intelligence!
  • If two squirrels are chasing each other, ask yourself why. Wait for an answer.
  • Do you see animal tracks? A raccoon’s? Who else has been about?
  • Where do garden spiders build their webs? Is an owner just out of view?
  • What lives in the cracks in the pavement? How many anthills can you find?
  • Who lands on the back of your hand? How does it feel or look?
  • At the end of summer, listen for katydids and crickets. Which is which?

After you fool around a while, sit or lie down on the ground, in the dirt. After all, copywriting and nature are messy processes.

Wait. Listen. Let time pass. Why ever not? Find yourself under nature’s spell. Embrace it.

Then, go inside. Sit before your computer. Touch the keys. Make music with them. You’ll be amazed at your new verbal powers, your hidden “nature.”

***

Add an outdoor activity below or on Twitter. You’ll often find us under #environment.

And, yes, scientists have documented nature’s positive effects on grownups’ health. That’s subject matter for a future post.

Pediatrician, Parks Improve Child Health

Whenever he can, Dr. Robert Zarr takes a lunchtime stroll to a nearby park to commune with his favorite tree, watch children play with sticks and acorns—to practice what he preaches. Zarr is a pediatrician at Unity Healthcare, a clinic in northwest Washington, DC, and one of the brains behind the DC Park Prescription Program (DC Park Rx). Inspired by the writings of Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods, he and a growing number of colleagues prescribe nature to inner-city children who live with obesity, asthma, anxiety, and depression. From personal and professional experience, Zarr knows that just twenty minutes spent in green space can improve health. He’s also convinced that children treated with parks will become adults who steward the environment.

Success Stories

On a hot, humid day typical of summer in the U.S. capital, I joined Zarr on a bench in Meridian Hill Park to talk about his cutting-edge work in environmental health, or environmental healing. As he noshed on a healthy dish of okra, he told the story of a little girl now five or six years old. Her parents brought her to him because they were concerned about her inability to sit still at home and her frequent temper tantrums. Unlike many doctors, he didn’t prescribe a pill or lab test, and he didn’t refer them to a psychiatrist. Instead, he asked how she spent her weekends. They confessed she remained indoors the whole time. He explained that she might feel better after unstructured play in the woods. Would they be willing to take her to Rock Creek Park? Let her roam and listen to birds for two hours on Saturday and two hours on Sunday? They agreed. During the follow-up visit, he deliberately didn’t ask them what happened. Toward the end of the appointment, they volunteered that the park prescription had worked. She was getting into far less trouble, could focus, and sleep much better. She was a different person.

Zarr is full of moving anecdotes. He worked with one young woman who was concerned about her weight. Together, they changed her long route to school on public transportation. She agreed to walk the last leg of the trip. Then, they added time in a park to her schedule. Her weight plummeted, and her confidence rose so much that she pursued soccer camp in the summer. She told her story on National Public Radio.

Why Park Prescriptions?

A park prescription can lead to frequent, evermore complicated encounters with nature. A child who picks up a stick with great trepidation the first time in the forest builds a tree house several months later. Over time, Zarr contends, a generation now deprived of the outdoors will no longer suffer from Louv’s nature-deficit disorder.

Right now, one in three American children are overweight or obese. Seven million have asthma, and close to six million have Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. Approximately, 3,600 young people are diagnosed each year with type-2 diabetes. Over recent decades, children have lost 25 percent of playtime and 50 percent of unstructured outdoor activity. “We’re now very much a sedentary culture. Children aren’t moving. There’s been a culture shift from moving to sitting,” Zarr said.

DC Park Rx

That’s why he got moving. DC Park Rx is a community initiative of health providers and foundations, the National Park Service, DC Department of Health, U.S. Department of Health and Social Services, National Environmental Education Foundation, American Academy of Pediatrics, and George Washington University, where Zarr teaches public health. Across the United States, there are other programs, all part of the National Park Service’s Healthy Parks, Healthy People. It drew inspiration from a similar program in Australia, where healthcare providers actually donate a percentage of their earnings to preserve and maintain green space. The DC Park Rx database went up in July 2013; it now lists 380 District parks. Zarr and his colleagues have written over 500 prescriptions on bilingual English and Spanish prescription pads.

Last year, he finished a study of approximately 400 children for whom he prescribed one or more parks for three months. On average, the patients spent twenty-two more minutes a day and six more days a year outdoors and in physical activity than other children. Next year, Zarr hopes to show that nature prescriptions lead to statistically significant decreases in overall weight, body mass index, blood pressure, and diabetic measurements like hemoglobin levels. He’d also like to document fewer visits to emergency rooms and less use of medicines by asthma and mental health patients.

For Nature and People

But does nature benefit from Park Rx and comparable programs? The question can touch a nerve in conservationists, Zarr admitted. After all, organizations like the Nature Conservancy and Green Peace struggle to lessen the human impact on the environment to protect other species and their habitats.

“This would be a fascinating time to take health advocates and environmental activists and put them in the same room to come up with a consensus about how we can create a healthier population and planet,” Zarr said. “I’m of the opinion we can do both.”

He has had good support from local and national park services. “Park Rx doesn’t exist only to decrease the burden of chronic disease,” he said. “It’s intricately linked to conservation efforts. If we don’t get kids to appreciate a tree, we’re in big trouble.” Today, most environmentalists worldwide are over fifty and white; they don’t reflect the future. Zarr, not quite fifty and fluent in Spanish, would like to be part of a paradigm change. He feels a sense of urgency.

Fortunately, he doesn’t encounter much skepticism or lack of compliance in the families he serves. Individuals of all socio-economic backgrounds warm to Park Rx. After all, given the opportunity to eat well and spend time in nature, most people jump at the chance. Any barriers that exist are systemic, Zarr believes. Children spend too much time inside schools preparing for standardized tests and too little in recess and physical activity. Parents work two to three jobs. Zarr knows mothers who spend forty dollars on train fare to get their children to the clinic. They find cabs cheaper. Because of climate change, it’s often too hot or too cold outside. Yet architects still design buildings without windows or green roofs, without indoor or outdoor landscaping.

“People are in desperate situations. We need to ask ourselves as a population if our routines are healthy for the planet and us,” Zarr advised. “What constitutes happiness and well-being is the nature of what we’re talking about—pardon the pun.”

How Park Rx Works

The Trust for Public Land scored over fifty of the nation’s urban areas on access to parks. The Washington, DC, metro area came in sixth. A number of District parks are adjacent to recreation centers with pools, stationary bicycles, and yearlong programs. So users can pursue regular or “green” exercise. Enter a zip code into the Park Rx database and out pops at least one park or green space within a five-mile radius. Usually, people can walk to its gates. If not, they can take the recommended bus or Metro line. Although database volunteers don’t research crime stats, they do subjectively rate parks on safety and cleanliness at different times of the day. They also note who visits the parks. Park Rx encourages people to go as families and use parks in different ways—to develop a sense of ownership.

For some people, particularly those coming out of violence here or, say, Central America, connecting with park rangers and families like theirs can alleviate fears. Park officials must be committed to greeting everyone, including those who might have had traumatic experiences in forested areas. “It’s a doctor’s job to be culturally aware of their patients—where they come from, their backgrounds, experiences, and routines—to make educated decisions about the right time and place to prescribe nature,” Zarr said. “The onus is on the doctor to establish a relationship with the person they’re counseling. For the health-provider community, Park Rx is a tool.” A good one the public can access.

Other Tools, Future Plans

At Unity, there are two other tools for doctors and patients, including the Fruit and Vegetable Prescription Program and Ways to Enhance Children’s Activity and Nutrition (appropriately abbreviated We Can!), a National Institutes of Health program. Children and adults spend the first half of classes indoors to get their vitals measured and learn about healthy eating. Then, they go to Meridian Hill Park for aerobics.

When asked what he had in the works, Zarr said he would soon find out if he had funding from the DC Department of Health to finish and revamp the database. He wants to make it more user friendly for providers and individuals, so they can search for activities like jogging, swimming, horseback riding, and qualities like shade and cleanliness. He’d like to have the time patients spend in parks come back via their smartphones to their electronic medical records. He’d also like to design an app and find out what patients learn about nature.

But even the near future is a dream—or so the starlings were shouting from the trees. The man who had walked laps before us for an hour had gone inside. “It’s very, very hot, and I’m almost getting dizzy,” Zarr suddenly said. Whether his infectious enthusiasm or the weather had overheated me, I had to agree. The day’s park prescription had run its course. I looked forward to another.

Writer’s Block? Practice Arts

We all suffer from publish-or-perish these days. We’re often anxious, traumatized, blocked. We can’t write a word and for good reason: There are millions of blogs for billions of readers. Posts, e-books, white papers, and barely edited, barely professional popup journals pop up overnight, full of stuff. Maybe, we think, reading just one more thing will relax us enough to write just one more thing to add to the noise. We sit nervously in front of our laptops. Avalanches of paper magazines, newspapers, and reports can’t smother smartphones that croak, bark, or boing until we read messages from who knows whom thousands of miles away. Every onslaught of words requires at least passing attention—doesn’t it? We respond. Again, we compete for milliseconds of attention and talk, text, or tweet past each other, not with each other. We’re angry. We can’t find our notes; we’ve lost our train of thought. The blank screen remains blank. A Great White Nothing shines in front of our eyes.

Forget all the colorful books that tempt us into the next room!

Everyday expository writing is like Edwardian service for words. It’s hard work, nothing pretty. It’s no place for verses in fancy frills. Although press releases—the chauffeurs—have to prance and strut, well-presented pages in butlers’ blacks and whites satisfy their masters most often. We, the employers of words, want the assignment done, not great art.

But in the commotion, while blocked, we confuse passable, even creative copywriting or academic writing with artistic writing. After all, when we read poetry and fiction, we encounter writing as art. Writing, we know, can be no less art than “art,” music, dance, and drama.

So we become more fearful. Nothing we type sounds good enough or makes sense. We need a solution—and fast.

Solution to Writer’s Block

Could drawing a picture on Saturday help us put words to work come Monday? Could practicing a long-neglected art for no more than an hour once a week loosen our fingertips?  I think so, and I’ve developed an arts discipline, my own arts-in-health or healing program, that helps me far more than reaching for potato chips—or my smartphone. It may unblock you, too. You may also find your self, or selves, embarking on an internal, revealing adventure that will cost little or no money.  You won’t even have to buy an e-book!

Just read on …

First, this is about doing, or practicing, the arts. It’s not about consuming them. So, no, you may not go to that lecture on Easter egg painting in—I dunno—Revolutionary War Antarctica.  Much as you may find inspiration in arts and cultural programming, right now, it’s a distraction, a means of procrastination. This is not an intellectual, cognitive pursuit. Cogitate, watch, read, and you’ll veg. You can’t unblock vegged in place.

Second, get rid of expectations. We ain’t talkin’ high art. You might stink at it. This is not about instant fame, fast cash, or even sharing. Do you exercise to become a pro? Pray to become a saint? I hope not. Can we all get our poetry published in The New Yorker? Compose a hit song?  Sadly, no. But we can rid ourselves of writer’s block (which even the famous endure). If, along the way, we discover some truth about ourselves, have some fun, well, jolly. Those are definitely secondary aims of the method herein.

Third, what I’m proposing isn’t therapy. I’m not an art therapist, dance therapist, drama therapist, poetry therapist, culinary arts therapist (a new one to be sure), or expressive arts therapist. Our arts histories and feelings are important, no doubt. A blocked sculptor, a blocked chef could live within you. But right now, we want to scrape only the tops of our psyches—alone. We have writing assignments to do!

So what is the discipline?  How do you start?

Practice Arts

Develop your own curriculum. Which arts appeal to your true self, dare I say, the child within?  List them. I chose drawing, voice/singing, movement/dance, and poetry. Devote up to one hour a day, one day a week to each one. If you pass into the zone, and the hours fly, that’s grand. But don’t pay for a class. Odds are, the how-tos will block you even more.

Instead, make a pile (not an avalanche) to stand for each art you’ve chosen. Fill them with colored pencils or DVDs from your previous attempts to follow your inner Renoir or Barishnikov. Then put them in order, according to the schedule you’ve developed. You can move them around if, say, dance day interferes too much with visits to the gym. Consider designing tent cards for your stacks. If you have a large house, devote a corner or room to each art.

Now for the worksheets …  Get ready to loosen …

On each of three sheets, list your arts and give yourself no more than three lines to write on. There’s no time to waste in unblocking your work-for-hire writing—and exploring long-lost or never-explored arts. Later, you can write more in your journal. Now, you need to get dirty, make noise, bump into furniture, do weird things with words.  Oh, never mind …

Call the first sheet First Steps. For each art, scribble down no more than two activities that excite you. No to-do lists here! We’re interested in process, not goals—except for removing writer’s block. Here are two examples from my First Steps worksheet:

Drawing—Play around with different drawing materials by making abstract designs on different papers. Make simple mandalas.

Voice/Singing—Practice how to breathe from the diaphragm. Do simple voice exercises with a CD.

After a week of “classes,” label a second sheet Interrelatedness. Have you noticed any relationships between the arts you’ve chosen? Here is one example from my Interrelatedness worksheet:

Voice/Singing and Movement/Dance and Poetry—There are many forms of breathing. Breathing for singing differs from breathing for yoga. Yoga breathing and Pilates breathing are not the same. Shallow, strained breathing results in poor singing, poor speaking, poor movement, poor dance. Appropriate breathing improves them. Singing and movement elevate mood, inspire thought. Better thinking leads to better copywriting, better poetry.

At the end of the second week, when feeling less blocked—maybe even inspired—take out a third piece of paper and title it Revelations. What have you learned about the arts you’ve chosen? Have they revealed a new direction you’d like to take in your writing, in life? Here are several things I realized:

  • An arts habit fills me with gratitude and quiet joy.
  • Dabbling in the arts, if not excelling in them, is good for my mood and work, including writing.
  • If you promote the arts, as I do, you need to practice them.
  • “Doing,” not just “consuming,” the arts is a necessity. Like exercise and nutrition, the arts are intrinsic to good health.
  • Practicing a few arts regularly can reveal new directions in work and life. It can help you prioritize.

When you’ve completed the process once, start again with a second-steps worksheet. Quick, before you get stuck perfecting the first steps!  Complete the cycle at least twice over a couple of months. How many writing assignments have you finished? Have they come more easily since you started having fun with the arts? Do you prefer one of the arts you’ve chosen? Does one unblock you better than another? Do you want to make one of them into a hobby?

As for me, I plan to continue exploring all four of “my” arts. They and spending time in nature, which I’ll explore in subsequent posts, have helped me hone my calling.

Now … you’ll excuse me as I dance over to my phone, which is singing Pavaroti under my latest mandala and and first poem in sestina. Wow! A new customer wants me to write a brochure. She wants something like the one I wrote for her competitor. The copy flowed really well. Hmm …  Wonder why?

Art Therapist, Arpilleras Heal Trauma

If Lisa Garlock were to sew an arpillera (story quilt) of her life, it would necessarily be busy. In the upper left, she might start with a scene from her youth overseas, when she wanted to be a scientist. Still on the top half, she might incorporate a print illustrating her education as an artist at the Rochester Institute of Technology and a small painting of her graduate work in art therapy at Nazareth College. In the center, she might place a mandala to represent her recovery from years of osteoarthritis in her hands, which hampered her artistically as it strengthened her spiritually. And in the lower panel, bordered by her vibrant handmade beads, she might show herself leading George Washington University art therapy students to India, where in Chennai, they guide women in telling their tales of gender-based violence using arpilleras. After she finished, Garlock might tack a pocket onto the back to hold a written narrative.

Through arpilleras, Garlock practices art therapy, a field of arts in health. But she wasn’t always interested in mental health. To fund her life as a young artist, she taught printmaking, waitressed, and worked in a gallery. Then, she took a job as an employment counselor to youth and adults. She loved counseling but missed art. One day, she attended a workshop on reducing recidivism in prisoners. On her way home, art therapy popped into her mind.

“The self-focus and almost isolation of being an artist wasn’t enough for me and often isn’t enough for other art therapists,” Garlock said. “I asked,  what can I do socially with art? Also, as an artist I always felt bad about using so many different materials. But art therapists need to know a lot of media. Art and therapy were a perfect match for me.”

Art Therapy and Arpilleras

For the rest of us, art and therapy can be scary. We might not have drawn or gotten knee-deep in glitter or finger paint since we were children. And most of us don’t take time or have money for analysis, self-driven or professionally led. We think we have to withhold every emotion, conquer all tragedy, and produce only perfect art. But we might find art therapy intriguing and fabric surprisingly friendly. It’s tactile and forgiving. Sewing can be soothing. Women, who so often make their families’ clothes, find great solace in quilting. When working in groups, they connect. They share stories of poverty, war, illness, and gender-based violence. Their stress lifts. The fabric holds their tears—to paraphrase Chilean artist Roberta Bacic, as Garlock did.

Arpillera means burlap in Spanish. To their creators and art therapists, arpilleras de adorno are colorful appliqués that heal and endure. They were born of the first September 11, the one in Chile in 1973, when the military overthrew the government and declared martial law. Dissenters, mostly men, were questioned, and many were imprisoned and tortured. Others simply vanished. The Catholic Church intervened to help women produce arpilleras to generate income. In their story quilts, they combined paid work, political resistance, and their own version of talk therapy. To memorialize the “disappeared,” they stitched in three-dimensional figures of loved ones dressed in bits of left-behind clothing. Through the women’s artistry, word spread beyond Chile of the horrors of the dictatorship.

Arpilleras, as art or art therapy, flourish throughout Latin America and in Bosnia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Laos, Northern Ireland, the United States, and Zimbabwe. The AIDS Memorial Quilt is but one example. But they didn’t enter Garlock’s world until a few years ago, even though she had minored in textile arts. The Latin American crafts gallery, where she had worked years before, exhibited Chilean arpilleras and Guatemalan traditional clothing, which decades of conflict (1960–1996) had virtually wiped out. She became fascinated by the narrative quilts of African American women of Gee’s Bend and Esther Krinitz, a seamstress who wanted her children to touch her personal history forty years after she had escaped from the Nazis. Garlock admired the patterns, colors, and the women’s resiliency, how—together or alone—they had sewn up their lives.

Arpilleras in Prison

She went back to prison. She held her first arpilleras group for women in transition. She confessed she found her task frustrating: “Most had been told they shouldn’t dwell on the bad things, but if you haven’t processed trauma, then it’s going to be hard to stay focused on the positive and move forward,” Garlock said.

They needed to find jobs and housing, stay clean, and reconnect with family. Most had no sewing background and were unfamiliar with art therapy. They could hardly see the connection between art and their health as returning citizens. Some joined the group to learn sewing; others were severely traumatized. Many were unaware of traumatic experiences in their pasts. One stitched quietly, unengaged, and couldn’t finish her arpillera by the time the group disbanded. Another spoke only with Garlock. Drawing in pastels was enough to satisfy one woman, while another put great care into creating the border of her arpillera but couldn’t decide what to put inside. Yet another, who couldn’t physically sew, used sticky tape to connect fabric images to the background of her quilt. She managed to tell a complete story— some of it fantasy, some of it real—remained in the present, and enjoyed the process.

“Art does intimidate a lot of people. It’s a different language, so it takes time to teach the skills. There can be a lot of storytelling going on in a group but not a lot of sewing,” Garlock said.

Rachel Cohen, Garlock’s colleague in Switzerland and founder of Common Threads, introduced mindfulness practices and arpilleras to trained artists and therapists in Ecuador. They, in turn, worked with women who had survived gender-based violence in a frontier town. Although they came from a culture of sewing, most had never worked with fabric. Three or four women in the two twelve-week programs recorded trauma; the others stitched idyllic scenes. Recently, the women exhibited their work in Quito. Cohen and Garlock want to document the results quantitatively.

Current Endeavors, Future Plans

For four summers, Garlock has supervised George Washington University art therapy students on two-week trips to India, where they have worked in schools, hospitals, and a shelter. Last season, Garlock’s students collected bags of beautiful fabric scraps from local tailors. At first, the women in the shelter didn’t want to use the castoffs. But by the last day, they preferred them. An Indian art therapist now uses recycled material in her arpilleras therapy.

This year, Garlock plans to offer a class on sewing arpilleras to her art therapy students at George Washington, and in September in Geneva, she and Cohen hope to hold the first international conference on narrative textiles.

When asked to cite her most heart-warming experiences, Garlock mentioned her work with students and the invitation to show her arpillera, School Field Trip (see photo, above), at the Parque de la Memoria in Buenos Aires. It tells Silvia’s story. One day, leading up to the Argentine Dirty War (1976–1983), Silvia went on a school field trip. As she and her classmates returned to the bus, riot police descended on nearby protestors. Things got ugly. Silvia went into exile, alone, and later became an architect, a nun, and then a social worker. In Garlock’s quilt, wind tears off tiny garments from a clothesline. They disappear, just as so many people did. The little banner is a ribbon from a rally held years later to commemorate the lost. It bears the name of one victim, whose life nobody—not even an artist and art therapist like Garlock—can weave back together.

 

Jargon and Spam Pollute Word Reefs

Thanksgiving is almost here. So the poultry purveyor at my local market wrote to say that he would “defiantly have turkeys.” What a relief! Sadly, obviously, words aren’t his “strong suite.” Nor are they the special talent or concern of most people anymore. No one seems to care that words, like corals, are suffering and can no longer live happily together, whether in twosomes or tomes.

Clauses, sentences, paragraphs, books—the reefs words inhabit—are under attack. In hard copy and online, word pollution is rampant. Bad grammar, misspellings, adjective-noun hybrids, and verbosity threaten the habitats of language. Wherever words hang out, ill-chosen punctuation and emoticons festoon them, like cassette tape on a colony of the Crochet Coral Reef. Even the World Wide Web, the Great Barrier Reef of the new world of words, struggles under our creative runoff and virtual trash.

Two of my pet word pollutants are jargon and spam. The first masquerades as healthy language in print and online; the second floods email and comment balloons.

Jargon, lingo peculiar to a profession or group, obfuscates meaning by puffing it up. Think excessive levels of nutrients from fertilizer fouling pristine bays. Spam (never mind the spiced, potted meat) is irrelevant or inappropriate language on the internet. Envision sewage flowing into rivers and oceans.

Have you looked for work lately? Here’s the sort of listing that makes editors and writers run, not apply:

JargonCorp, a next-generation, growth-oriented company with a fast-paced, deadline-oriented environment, seeks to improve its coordination and facilitation of cause-marketing initiatives and activations and develop multi-channel communications campaigns with brand awareness. We are looking for a dynamic self-starter with cutting-edge insights to join our team of blue-sky, out-of-the box thinkers with end-user perspectives. You will develop a narrative arc for episodic information sharing, as well as tactical strategies and technical implementation to leverage enhanced cross-platform functionality.

What? Are you going to read more of the “role profile” and “accountabilities”? Do you care that they care about “E&D” or want to ensure their “list hygiene”? Goodness, these words are unhappy and individually diseased!

They are only one step away from the web’s effluent, spam. Hundreds of passages like the following opened my site to a hacker and almost killed it before its first birthday:

Penelope [sneaker brand] dvd website cranberries [a medicine for men Americans sent to Afghanistan] trucks stuffing crayons …

Heavens! Not a single comma!

Google buried Sebold Communications half alive. But miracles happen …

And speaking of Thanksgiving, here’s a shout-out to Brian Jessee of Jessee Productions. Since September, he has, dare I say, “securitized” and helped optimize seboldcommunications.com for Google and Bing. Thanks for cleaning up my spot on the reef (errrr, web), Brian!

Crochet Coral Reef Sends Woolen Warning

Before me lay a room-high mound of warm-woolen fuzzies and lanolin-puffing fringees in blues and greens, reds and golds, white-beiges and browns. Mesmerized, my inner child waited for Dr. Seuss’s Cat in the Hat to pop out to tell the story of the Crochet Coral Reef, an international project started in 2005 by the Los Angeles–based Institute for Figuring. Its founders, Margaret and Christine Wertheim, knew that the Great Barrier Reef of their native Australia was in bad shape. They called for help.  Artists responded.  Together, they crocheted a reef that grew faster than corals ever did, even before climate change.

I saw the reef in 2011 at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. The show brightened an otherwise dim hall near museum cases about living corals. The juxtaposition drove home the relevance of the arts to environmental issues and inspired me to learn more about corals, global warming, and ocean pollution. I had just the reaction the reef’s creators and museum’s curators planned. In fact, based on my visit, I decided to blog on where health, environment, and the arts meet, my tagline.

Crochet is a “feminine art.” So when the reef set out for Washington, DC, four homeless women of N Street Village joined 200 local crocheters to spawn baby corals for the 4,000-piece reef. Women combating poverty and ill health came to the aid of embattled corals through art. With their hooks, they crocheted model hyperbolas, the shapes corals take that have fascinated mathematicians for centuries. While the curvy, yet straight linear forms grew so did the bonds between threatened human artists and corals, between land and sea creatures.

As the women and exhibit goers learned, excess atmospheric carbon, water pollution, destructive fishing, coastal development, coral mining, and careless tourism have already killed 20 percent of the world’s reefs. Coral reefs are the largest biological structures on Earth; the Great Barrier Reef is visible from outer space. But reefs grow slowly. Most are 5,000 to 10,000 years old. They harbor 25 percent of all marine life and provide food, income, coastal protection, and the ingredients of life-saving medicines for millions of people. With the rise in temperatures and release of carbon, oceans are becoming acidic enough to kill reefs. One colony of the Crochet Coral Reef is white and beige to represent bleached, skeletonized corals. Another is full of human detritus—beer tabs, plastic bags, and cassette tape.

Depressing as the state of the world’s corals is, the Crochet Coral Reef is probably the most effective and delightful means of delivering an environmental message imaginable. If only the Cat in the Hat’s VOOM would emerge from all the colorful yarn to clean up the mess we, the Little Cats, have made of the ancient reefs!