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Art Saves Lives

Photo of an art instillation I did in 1999 titled, Missing.

Today I want to talk about art. To begin we need to ask the age-old question: What is art anyway? What function does it serve, and when it comes right down to it... why do we even need it?

How many people would consider themselves to be an artist, be it musician, dancer, painter, filmmaker or writer?

Do you think you would be just fine without any kind of art in your life? Perhaps it’s an extra that you can do without?

I have spent my life asking these questions. My love and fascination with art brought me to some very extreme situations and places both mentally and physically. I came to understand that art can be many things and it can play many roles in a persons life, in cultures, and in politics. Although my background is in visual and contemporary art, I don’t want to limit the definition for the purpose of this blog entry. Perhaps you define art as, dance, theatre, music, film, writing or a combination of several of those. Along my journey, I discovered that art had many faces. After working in galleries and institutions I found that the fine art world can be a very cold, alienating, elitist, and exclusionary place. Striving to be the next Andy Warhol or Picasso can make for a grueling life. On the other hand, art can bring people together and build communities, give people purpose, and even save lives. But how can art save lives? Let me tell you a tiny bit of how I have seen this happen time and time again… and experienced it first-hand.

Before Croatia became the set location for Game of Thrones and everyone’s favorite European vacation destination, it was part of the former Yugoslavia. During the early 90's Croatia went to war to gain its independence. I am the child of Croatian immigrants. Croatian was my first language, and with 17 first cousins on my father’s side alone... Croatia is very much my family homeland. My mother was orphaned during the last war in the region. As the war in the 1990’s erupted, witnessing my parents pain as they watched the news each night with coverage of the war and listening to the calls coming in from our many effected, displaced and front line relatives left me feeling depressed and helpless. So much so, that I graduated high school a semester early and decided that I was going to go to Croatia to help. An 18-year-old punk/goth me went off to a war-torn country armed with nothing but some art supplies that were donated by my friends and teachers from my high school and youthful naive optimism. When I got to Zagreb, I found the Susokret Centre where I became part of a team of therapists and teachers working with refugee woman and children from Bosnia. They had lost everything and witnessed horrors that nobody ever should. I taught them art, and English. But mostly we played, and hugged and sang and held a safe space where they could begin healing.

4 years later I returned to the region, only this time I went to Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia Hercegovina. I was working on my thesis on War Art and was inspired by the things I had heard that artist in Sarajevo had done during the siege. I know it’s hard to imagine… but there was no Facebook then, and the internet was just a place for conspiracy theorists and nerds. To do my research, I had to go there and gather information the old-fashioned way: by talking to people and asking a lot of questions. The war had ravaged that city. They had spent close to 4 years under siege by Serbian forces. Close to 12,000 citizens killed, many others injured and thousands simply fled the city while they still could. But those that remained were of all backgrounds: Serb, Croat and Muslim. They wanted to keep their city united and multicultural, just as it had been for decades.

When I got to Sarajevo I was expecting more of what I had seen and experienced from other war zones in Croatia. I was expecting people who were depressed and ravaged by the years they had spent living in their basements, burning their books for warmth and having to go through sniper fire each day to get food and water. But those scars were nowhere to be found.

I spent a month living in the city interviewing artists, scholars, and residents about their experiences. They told me about how art installations were created throughout what was known as sniper alley from the debris left by the bombs and bullets. They held concerts, movie screenings and plays regularly in secret locations. Word about events would be spread at the watering holes and everyone had to be very careful with the information for fear that the Serbs would discover the location and bomb it.

People who had never attended a cultural event in their lives would put on their best cloths, makeup and lipstick, then risk their lives to attend a movie screening, art opening or concert. People would often tell me about how they would get to an event and could hardly fit in the room because of how many people showed up. Despite having no running water, or food, and dodging bullets and grenades along their way, I was told by one person after another that if they were killed on their way to or from one of these events, it would have been totally worth it. Each in their own way helped me to understand that art was their only means of escaping the horrors of their daily existence. It brought them together, gave them hope, and reminded them of their humanity. Art had become their spiritual weapon against the horrors of war. It was incredibly inspiring!

I finished University and was set on living my life as an artist. I was going to make art and change the world! Only it wasn’t that easy. I was working in galleries, was the assistant to a very established artist, and exhibited my work regularly. However, I still needed to work in restaurants to pay the bills. After years of living as an artist, I became jaded and extremely discouraged by the art community. I decided to get a "real job." That’s when I accidentally became a federal officer with the Canada Border Services Agency. It really was an accident... but that's a whole other blog entry. My career as an officer was very exciting. I spent close to 8 years dealing with criminals, diplomats, terrorists, and flew around the world escorting people with violent criminality back to their home countries. Super exciting, right?? Right. Until events during my last escorted removal left me with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and changed every aspect of my life as I knew it.

I went from being a total adrenalin junkie, living a massive life with my luggage packed and ready to go at all times, to not being able to drive, go into stores, or be in crowds. I could not stop crying for the first 4 months. Living with PTSD was excruciating. Every moment of every day I felt as though I was about to die. Trapped in a state of terrifying impending doom.

One of my best friends understood exactly what I was going through. Kerry Shaw, photographer and fellow alchemist - the one who’s beautiful photos grace my webpage. (Check out her stuff. Better yet, buy it!) She had suffered from PTSD as a teen for years. She swooped me up and brought me into a loving community of artists. The Fraser family. They made me feel safe. We would play, and sing, hug and cry… just like I did with the Bosnian refugee children. They would include me in projects which were often just elaborate adult ways to play. It was ok that I was broken. Together we could take the broken parts of each of us and create something fun, or beautiful even if it was temporary. But we could do it together. And slowly over the years they helped nurse me back to health by helping me rebuild my spiritual armor and reminding me that the world could be a safe and happy place.

I had come full circle. I went from teaching traumatized refugee children to play, create and let art be a stepping stone to their recovery, to having others kindly teach me the same lessons as I struggled to survive my PTSD almost two decades later.

You don’t have to be Salvador Dali, or Ei Wei Wei to be an artist. You don’t have to be Bosnian refugee, stuck in a war, suffering from PTSD or a homeless youth to find art therapeutic. Maybe you like to garden, or make fancy cupcakes. Maybe you are happiest when you’re dancing? Go out there and find what part of art makes you happy. Become friends with it, and make it your ally. Find others who enjoy similar things and form your army. You might not like every work of art or performance, or film that you see. And that’s ok. Art has many facets. Go out, find your niche, find your flock, and support others with their artistic endeavors. Make time to play, and create. You might be shocked at what beautiful and inspiring things you can come up with, and how much better the process made you feel. It might just save your life, like it did mine.

Thank you to all my friends who took me in when I was most broken. To those that played with me, made me feel safe, and restored my faith in humanity. Thank you for making me part of your art projects and inspiring me to come back to my own practice. I am so thankful. xx

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