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UNC community uses art to process emotions, connect with others

UNC first-year Hailey Nguyen poses for a portrait with original artwork outside the Frank Porter Graham Student Union on Tuesday, Sept. 5, 2023. Visual art and other forms of creativity can be effective in processing emotions.

There are benefits to finding creative ways — such as writing, art, drawing or photography — to deal with the pain and fear caused by the events of Aug. 28, Garry Crites, the senior director of strategic programs at the ArtsCenter in Carrboro, said.

The BeAM Makerspace on campus and the ArtsCenter’s numerous creative programs are good places to start, Crites said. He suggested writing courses, improv classes and even tai chi at the ArtsCenter to help people center themselves after such a traumatic experience. 

Crites is also looking into creating art therapy programs at the ArtsCenter. He said he is currently in conversations with the executive director of the now-closed Art Therapy Institute in Carrboro.

According to Crites, art enables people to express the anxiety they feel.

"It's a very therapeutic thing," he said.

Many people at UNC have tried or recommended various art forms to cope with their feelings after the events of Aug. 28.

“Art is sensorial and corporeal, affirming our bodies’ existence," Yurika Tamura, an assistant professor of Asian and Middle Eastern studies, said in an email. "I believe that some emotions can be expressed only in a certain form of art.”

She believes that, for some people, materializing emotions that cannot be explained in language alone is a process of thinking. It can allow people to move through, and not away from, difficult times, she said.

UNC first-year Hailey Nguyen said she had trouble processing the events of Aug. 28, but that listening to music helped her deal with stress and pass the time. 

Nguyen said she has painted in the past to help her process test anxiety. She worked on a piece that captures a thunderstorm looming over a quiet city, she said.The top half is filled with thunder strikes and heavy, tumultuous clouds, contrasting the quiet city beneath. Nguyen said it made her feel better every time she worked on it. 

“I think it’s a good coping mechanism,” she said. “It’s pretty healthy and it’s something also that lasts and you can look back on it later on and be like, ‘Wow, I made this, and it helped me get through something that was really awful and that I shouldn’t have gone through.'” 

Ashley Anderson, a UNC assistant professor of political science who sheltered in place with almost 200 students on Aug. 28, said in an email that the event itself was difficult, but that the aftermath is perhaps even more difficult.

For Anderson, watching television shows can feel like a hug, and listening to music can be a way to tap into herself and her emotions without having to say them out loud, she said.

In light of the events of Aug. 28, Anderson said she has an especially deep appreciation for "Grey’s Anatomy." She felt more prepared to deal with an emergency situation because she watched the staff at Grey Sloan Memorial Hospital go through so many crisis situations, she said.

Trumpet Monk, a local musician who often performs music on Franklin Street, said music helps him obtain peace, especially after a day like Aug. 28.

He also sees music as a tool against violence. It connects people, speaks love and reminds them of the intrinsic goodness of humanity.  

Crites said art is a medium that brings people together in times when everything is going badly. This sense of community is especially pivotal to people with mental health conditions, he said.

“By tuning to an artist's community, being with others who share the same interest, it breaks down the isolation, which is a huge step for mental health," Crites said.

Art can also be a tool for social change, Crites said. He believes that it reflects the anger of the culture and also provides a stimulus for change. 

“It not only provides healing, but it provides something that you can do to change this world," he said. “And anything we can do in the smallest way makes the world a little bit more safe, a little bit more helpful, a little bit more hopeful.”


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