On Monday, December 17, 2012, with the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, still dominating national headlines, the head of Newtown’s Cultural Arts Commission reached out to First Selectman Pat Llodra to see what she could do.
“Pat was being flooded with calls from all over the country, and a lot of them were from artists wanting to help,” says Jennifer Johnston, chair of the Healing Newtown Arts Action Team. “She asked me if maybe I could field some of the calls. I said, ‘Sure,’ and gave her my home number. I work from my home office. It took me fifteen minutes to get home, and by the time I got there, my machine was full. I’d gotten 25 calls.
“I also agreed we’d take on the archiving of the donated works, and by the end of the week, we had 200 submissions.” With the support of the Cultural Alliance of Western Connecticut and the Connecticut Office of the Arts, the Healing Newtown Arts Action Team took shape and hit the ground running.
Since long before the tragedy, Newtown has had a vital arts community. The Society of Creative Arts of Newtown is over forty years old; there are dance and theatre companies, and there’s The Newtowner, an arts and literary magazine which has had no trouble filling its pages with local cultural coverage and submissions since its inception in 2010. But what has developed since – a mighty river of creative energy, at least some of which is gathered under the banner HealingNewtown – is nothing short of awe-inspiring.
Two months to the day after the shootings, hundreds gathered in the former Ace Hardware store for the grand opening party of the HealingNewtown Arts Space. There were jugglers and musicians and hands-on workshops; the walls were lined with works sent to Newtown by artists from everywhere. “This is a magnificent way to continue the process of bringing people together,” said Connecticut governor Daniel Malloy, joining Johnston and Llodra at the podium.
The space opened on February 14, 2013, but HealingNewtown had already been coordinating events of all sorts for several weeks – music and dance celebrations, a beading workshop, transcendental meditation and yoga instruction, to name just a few – and archiving the thousands of works of art that have been received.
Newtown artist Glen River had already been capturing Newtown scenes as part of his Portraits of Place series for several years before tragedy struck. “When something happens in your community, you bring your approach, your own lens to it. As an artist, that’s the coping mechanism I came equipped with. Something this emotional and volatile, I couldn’t do much at first. You go in cycles, work a little, get overwhelmed by the grief; go through cycles of that. You want to just stop thinking about it and you can’t.”
In a sense, River is instinctively doing for himself what art therapists do for trauma survivors. “You don’t have to strain to say the right thing; the medium can speak for you and act as a support for your experience,” writes Douglas Mitchell, MFTI, in a July-2012 article on the website GoodTherapy.org. “Some emotions may be better expressed through art than through verbal language anyway. While you may not be able to put what you feel into words, viewing your work in front of you is something else entirely – something that can lead to your healing.”
Art therapy has been a recognized modality since 1970. Over the past decade, an increasing body of research supports its efficacy in treating Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in everyone from children to combat veterans. Formal art therapy is one piece of HealingNewtown’s programming; the American Arts Therapy Connecticut Task Force is educating parents and teachers in the method.
But beyond anything formally named as therapy, organizers are busy just making sure the community has ample opportunity to paint, write, sing, dance, throw clay and partake others’ work. “Art in itself is therapy. It can’t help but be,” says Johnston, herself a ballet instructor. “It’s the most basic way to express yourself. Our kids need outlets. Doing art is probably about the best thing for them right now.”
The vast range of modalities in play is reflected in HealingNewtown’s schedule. There are “doodle journaling” workshops with a noted graphic artist and a workshop on “Fiction Writing for the Text and Tweet Generation” for teens, poetry writing for adults, and painting and clay workshops for children. Music and dance components include everything from the Sandy Hook Choir’s performance with Jennifer Hudson at the Super Bowl to family dance parties with the Pootatuck Ramblers.
“We weren’t sure at first what kind of turn-out we’d get,” says Johnston, “but everything has been filled to capacity. There have been more overwhelming moments and experiences in this than I can possibly count. Love is our over-arching theme. The forms of expression have been countless.”
“You get to a point where you want to reward life, not death,” says River, who has donated a painting, plans to offer workshops, and has helped with the installation of the opening exhibit. “Being part of the community, there is this sense that you owe something to the victims – respect for the great beauty they had in life, rather than focusing on what you feel you’ve lost. A woman said to me that the shooter had killed not only those people, but the beauty of the town. I’m not at all sure that’s right.”
Social worker Jackie DeFlumeri is one of HealingNewtown’s volunteer coordinators who is in charge of organizing the piles of art that have been pouring in. “We’ve always known Newtown had a good arts community,” she says, “but the way individuals and organizations have come together on this is awe-inspiring. Putting together any sort of opening at all in a month would be quite a feat, but this… I got involved because I just had to do something. It’s been such a painful process. To see beautiful work flowing from every corner of the world, it really does help.
“That space has been in use every single day for some kind of event; plus, it’s right next to the grocery store, so people can and do just pop in and look around. Last weekend they held a beautiful birthday party there for Charlotte Bacon, one of the children killed. She would have been turning seven.
“Generally, though, we don’t want it to be a memorial site, per se. We don’t want kids to walk in and see portraits of their friends. We put up abstracts, animals; all kinds of beauty.
“We all, I think, are still having good days and bad days. You don’t want to be too jovial and loud in the supermarket. You don’t know, there might be someone in that same aisle who’s suffering. You can sense the sadness. But this is a great town, always has been; and a wonderful place to raise kids.”
“It’s not often that you see a group forced into a process like this,” says River. “People feel a greater need to express themselves, perhaps, and they’re finding the words, the pictures, the events to do it. If somebody wants to drive all the way from Texas to bring a teddy bear or a pie, that’s their art.
“I think there must be a key, somehow, to understand what combination of factors come together to form the kind of perfect storm that results in someone acting out so horrifically. We all go through frustrations that can lead to a sort of non-specific anger, but most of us find healthier outlets. I think artists realize that they can create their own rules and validate themselves through their work, and maybe it’s when people are too reliant on external validation that’s not forthcoming that the depression and anger can overwhelm them.
“Artists know that making art is a healing experience. Once you get involved in a creative process, choosing colors or words or notes, it helps you to organize your feelings and your response. Then, from that calmer center, you can begin connecting to externals.”
The externals have been challenging, given the noisy national debate about gun control and the somewhat more muted but still contentious discussion of mental health. Unlike many communities, Newtown has had a clinic offering free health care, including mental health, since 2002. The clinic, Kevin’s Community Center, was established by Dr. Z. Michael Taweh and his wife in memory of their son. Members of the community have and share a diverse range of opinions on the various controversies, but the loudest chord being struck is expressed in a simple statement which appeared on a banner at the Super Bowl: “We are Newtown; we choose love.”
“I’m not entirely sure where that one even got started,” says Johnston, “but love is our connecting theme in all of this. Debates? I haven’t even been following all that. [I] barely notice it. I’m too busy doing the work, focusing on this community, on healing. And I would hope that what we’re doing in this community can translate to other communities. There are a lot of initiatives under way, efforts to spread random acts of kindness and bravery.”
“I’m working on portraits of the victims,” says River. “Nobody is ready for that yet; I know that. Maybe they won’t be in this generation. But that’s art.”