Audrey Love

Two La Grande nonprofits have partnered to offer artistic expression as an alternative outlet for healing and addressing trauma. Through September 2019, Art Center East will provide biweekly art classes for clients of Shelter From the Storm, an organization that supports individuals impacted by domestic abuse, dating violence, sexual assault or stalking.

The idea arose through conversations between ACE Executive Directors Mika Morton and Darcy Dolge and Shelter From the Storm Executive Director Mindy Mowery as another avenue to provide healing to the Shelter’s clients.

“I think the part that stuck out for us was it could be (an) alternative therapy, something we haven’t (yet) done,” Mowery said of the project. “This allowed us to collaborate in a bigger way, to really bring a change for those who have been impacted by abuse, and I think that meant a lot to all of us.”

Mowery sought funding through the Victims of Crime Act, a grant program via the Oregon Department of Justice designed to enhance services to crime victims and survivors. Through an 18-month Support Services and Training grant, the Shelter was awarded $7,000 to cover all supplies, services and fees needed for the art program.

“As nonprofits and arts, we’re serving communities,” Dolge said of the two organizations. “It’s really important to make sure we collaborate so we can all serve.”

Six professional artists, known as “teaching artists,” lead the classes, some of whom have either dealt with personal trauma themselves or have some degree of therapy-related training. In addition, Shelter From the Storm provides an on-site advocate during each class for participants to utilize as needed, as well as child care and transportation.

“We want to provide an atmosphere where they don’t have to worry about anything,” Mowery said. “(They) can’t take care of anybody else if (they’re) not taking care of (them)selves.”

Launched in early August, the classes expose participants to an array of artistic mediums, from collage, acrylic painting and ceramics to beading, fiber arts/knitting and more.

“We have knowledgeable instructors who are teaching a medium they love (and) doing it because they really care, and they put a lot of passion and effort into (it),” Dolge said. “The artwork itself is a tool to have the freedom to express, learn about themselves, or just be in a quiet space. They’re not here to create an end product, they’re just here to create.”

Teaching artist Stephanie Boudreau echoes that sentiment in the kind of “loose art” she prefers to teach.

“That’s an important piece for this kind of work — just being able to get thoughts onto paper, without it being (too) formal or constricting,” she said. “The idea is just to create without being too attached to the outcome, to be able to express yourself and maybe move through some emotions or feelings without creating tension.”

Both organizations stress the program’s intention isn’t to “fix people,” but rather centers around providing clients a safe, judgment-free space to exist and an outlet for processing and perhaps confronting their traumas and emotions.

“I think each of us deal and are healing in a different way, whether you’re dealing with trauma or not,” Dolge said. “Art allows you to be your own, authentic self for awhile. I think a lot of (participants) aren’t able to have a lot of space for that, so it’s a time where they can reflect, escape, learn something new.”

Theresa Henderson, another teaching artist at ACE, adds they’re “teaching a healthy practice, rather than a therapy.”

“We’re giving them the experience of art for self-expression, a safe space to create and process,” she said, “guidance and room to explore and process on a personal level, and for some, an enjoyable escape that can make all the difference.”

Though the program is only in its first month, Tasha Marshall, advocacy support coordinator at the Shelter, is already noticing positive repercussions.

“I can definitely see a difference. The art is a metaphor for life — (maybe) you messed up on the (artwork), but that’s okay, because in life everyone makes mistakes and you can (still) turn it into something beautiful,” she said. “I think (that kind of atmosphere) has made clients feel like they can open up and talk about what they’re going through during the class.”

Shelter From the Storm plans to evaluate the program around the six-month mark to determine its progress and if there is a need for any changes or adjustments. With projected success, the organization also hopes to expand the program and ensure its sustainability after the grant period ends.

“I’m absolutely optimistic (about the program),” Dolge said. “I think anytime art is in (someone’s) life, it makes an improvement. It may bring up trauma, or help them process trauma differently, so it actually may change and transform them in their growth process.”

For more information or to participate in the program, contact either organization directly.