Writer  /  Frieda Dowler
Photographer  /  Chris Williams

When life-altering circumstances occur in the form of abuse, illness, grief or extreme stress, the soul will express it even if the pain is too deep and words are not adequate. It may come in the form of anxiety, depression, fear and anger. The feelings associated with these circumstances might be impossible to verbalize, but learning to communicate feelings through the language of art can bring hope for emotional healing.

Peace for the Heart
Lisa Durst, a certified facilitator of Art4Healing programs through her nonprofit organization, Peace of heART, knows firsthand what it’s like to suffer from life-altering circumstances. Shortly after graduating from Ball State University with a bachelor’s degree in Graphic Arts Management and a minor in Marketing and Advertising, she was a passenger in a head-on car collision that resulted in a fatality in the other car.

Lisa remembered everything about the accident, replaying it in her head continually. During her recovery process from a concussion, bruised heart, cracked ribs, compound fracture to her leg and multiple lacerations, she also suffered from the invisible injuries of anxiety and Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome.

Almost 20 years later, she is dedicated to helping others process their life-altering experiences through art with the language of color. Usually, her programs are two hours once a week for four weeks but can be customized to individual needs. During the sessions, a series of questions evoke responses using paints, sponges and cotton swabs. Fine art is not expected; rather, abstract art and learning to express the emotions held captive by the soul allows a release that brings peace.

In some ways, this is similar to art therapy in which therapists guide individuals in their expression but different in that Art4Healing programs facilitate self-expression where the participant is in charge of their own exploration. Art therapy is a legal field of practice and can cost up to $180 per hour as compared to the programs that Lisa facilitates which are $25-$30 per session depending on the duration of the program.

The Journey
Lisa pursued her career in graphic arts after the physical recovery from her accident which led to positions with advertising and public relations agencies in Indianapolis and Carmel. The high stress of those positions compounded the invisible injuries of her accident which led her to take painting classes and volunteer at Riley Hospital for Children with VSA (Very Special Arts) where she was moved by the effects that art had on her as well as the children.

She enrolled in Herron School of Art and then the University of Indianapolis, earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Visual Arts Education. After moving from Indianapolis back to her hometown of Franklin in 2002, she began teaching at Isom Elementary School and then Clark-Pleasant Intermediate School where she has been teaching art since 2005. She began with a little less than 300 in her classes and currently teaches 995 children.

Moved by compassion for the kids in her classes who face circumstances of divorce, homelessness, family illnesses, abuse, military assignments and even death of friends or family members, she decided to enroll in the Art4Healing program in California. She was the first in Indiana to receive certification in this method in 2012 to work with children, adults and veterans. Since then, she volunteers after school with children who enroll in the program funded through her nonprofit.

She has become an advocate for these kids who can’t focus on schoolwork because they are trying to navigate their difficult circumstances. Sometimes these children are acting out their emotions, appearing as problem children when in actuality, expressing themselves rationally may not be possible.

Lisa’s goal is to help them express themselves creatively rather than destructively, and her work often involves other therapists or mental health professionals. A project she has created as a means of expression is the “wreck it” journal where they’re encouraged to vent their emotions on pages in a book that may have the instructions of “Stomp on This” or “Poke Holes Here.”

Lisa’s art studio between Franklin and Bargersville in a country setting is another place where she facilitates programs. She also travels to locations. Her studio is home to her nonprofit organization, Peace of heART, formed in 2014. In response to one of her students, Emma Stumpf, diagnosed with inoperable brain cancer at the age of seven, Lisa began a major undertaking for her fledgling organization.

For five years, Emma has been battling valiantly. Lisa asked Emma what her dream was. Emma replied “an art cart for kids at Riley Hospital” because art expression had become so meaningful to her, and she wanted to share that with other kids.

Lisa resonated with that and went to work to make this little girl’s dream come true. Through initial rejection of her original idea from hospital authorities due to health regulations, she devised sanitary art bags filled with art supplies – 300 of them purchased through fundraisers selling works of art, clay pendants.

The art bags are distributed to the children at the hospital who are facing difficult circumstances. Emma was named 2015 Riley Champion, and since the start of this project, three carts and over 1,500 art kits have been delivered to kids at the hospital.

Her work with children and with Emma earned her the coveted ARTI Award for the Arts Educator of the Year in 2014 from the Indianapolis Arts Council bringing recognition to her work. Lisa hopes that someone will step in to fill her shoes with Emma’s Art Cart/Kits at Riley Hospital for Children, releasing her to build additional community relationships.

The Future
Peace of heART programs facilitates the creative process while encouraging emotional healing in order to allow participants to learn the language of art as a means of expression. The goal is to create a safe environment where participants can journey inward and have the confidence to process feelings and emotions. The guided exercises are designed to elicit emotional responses helping to release stress, grief, anger and shame, something that would benefit many.

Lisa wants to become a resource for a variety of community organizations: schools, foster children and families and juvenile detention centers. She hopes to partner with hospitals, healthcare agencies and therapists to integrate Art4Healing programs and provide professional development for healthcare professionals. Lisa believes the community at large can greatly benefit by these programs. Without government funding for these programs, she is also responsible for finding funding.

Her organization is on the brink of growth beyond its current capabilities. Although she has had funds and helping hands along the way, her current needs, as with any growing nonprofit, are finances and volunteers. Her continuing efforts in the community need others who believe in the value of these methods. Fortunately, a team from Leadership Johnson County has stepped in to help.

Leadership Johnson County is a 10-month program designed to train and strengthens 21st century leadership through knowledge, networking and involvement in a community project. A group headed by Emily Marten from Franklin College chose Peace of heART as their community project and is volunteering to help with some of the needs. The mission of the group is to deliver an art-based program to at-risk youth in Johnson County by bringing awareness to agencies about her programs. They have already been instrumental in initiating programs with the Detention Center for detainees and the Children’s Bureau for foster children. Soon they will initiate a fundraising effort on Facebook through “a heart for kids,” the name of their group.

Lisa is currently in the process of documenting the success of her after-school programs with grant writing. Through written responses from participants, not one claimed they didn’t benefit from her program. Rather, most expressed satisfaction through the process. When asked how, a favorite response was from a seventh grader who totally got it: “You paint your feelings.”

By bringing these kinds of art programs to individuals, it helps them to understand and process feelings that they might not otherwise acknowledge except in detrimental ways. As with any other method, it may not bring total emotional healing for all participants, but the peace it brings in the process is undeniable.

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