While growing up, the idea of a geographical home was always elusive to me since I was constantly ping-ponging back and forth between hemispheres. My parents lived on different sides of the world, so I would often find myself often shuffling between countries to visit them. Yet no matter where I was, I could always ground myself in art. Art was a place where I could create anything, anywhere. On the plane, in the airport, visiting relatives, during recess.
It was also place where I was in control. A blank piece of paper, offering so many different possibilities. I could invent whole worlds on my piece of paper, canvas, or even napkin stolen from a restaurant. I could capture something I thought was beautiful, or trap something that scared me. I could give life to creatures impossible to our earthly world. Fairies, monsters, mermaids, witches…all of them emerging from my brush. The four corners of the page were my only limits, a barely contained cosmos. Art offered an escape from the mundane, from the things that confused me.
As a child, I painted like a power-hungry warlord. When I created something, it was mine, and mine alone. In my small existence, there were not many choices left to me. What I ate, what I wore, where I lived, what I learned at school, all of these were decided for me. Art was the one place where I got to call my own shots. I could make my skies blood red or true blue. I could paint women with wings, or purple-scaley dogs. Nothing was wrong. There were no rules. Art was a place to experiment, learn, and grow. My sheet of paper was my true classroom. I learned how colors could be blended into magical concoctions, how to capture light and shadow, how to turn a spill into an ocean . It was also something tangible that represented the deepest parts of my being. I could hold my thoughts, fears, and hopes in my hands. It transformed the immaterial to material.
However, at the time I didn’t have these thoughts. I just created. It was a natural impulse. No one told me “you should do art because it’s good for your brain.” Children have no concern for studies published, they just follow what feels right. They listen to their instincts. Luckily, I had parents that supported these ventures. They kept my ravenous beast of creativity fed with paper, paint, pencils, crayons, markers and more. While the rest of the world spun around me, I found balance in my art. To me, creating was a small, sturdy boat in a stormy sea. It was an oasis in a desert of change and chaos, a place I could always return to, weary and tired, to rest my head and feed my heart.
Naturally, as an adult, I sought to share my sanctuary with others. I started to work at a youth art therapy organization during university. I learned how terms like “amygdala and prefrontal cortex and trauma response” explained what I already knew unconsciously. I had experienced the curative quality of art, and it seemed only logical to share it with those who were suffering. Like a fervent missionary, I pledged to share the message of art. Your heart is broken? Do art. You’re stressed? Do art. You’re happy? Do art. You miss home? Do art. This became my mantra as I started working with the at-risk youth in my community: kids in group homes, shelters, and treatment centers. Kids who had been violated, abused, and neglected. Never before had I encountered such enormous soul-wrenching trauma and horror rendered onto such small beings. Six-year-olds had already witnessed unspeakable pain and perversions. I could not change what had happened to them. I could not even guarantee that their futures would be so much better. All I could do was offer them a present where they were in charge, where they were the authors of their lives.
There in that group home for one hour a week, they could forget the bitter sting of missing the parents they were ripped away from. Or the family they had left behind in Guatemala to travel to the land of supposed plenty. Bullies. Court Appointments. Other gut-turning blackness. They could leave it all behind, and, for one hour a week, they could focus on what they had in front of them. A blank canvas. A world that was safer and kinder. A world they could make as ugly or beautiful as they desired. A moment to be a divine creator. A world where magic truly existed.
Over a year ago, I decided to leave my geographic base in Arizona and move to Buenos Aires, an alien city. There, I taught English, worked with a study abroad agency, and later painted murals. However, there was still a void. Learning grammar didn’t impact my students the way art had. It didn’t offer them the same unadulterated self-expression. So, when the opportunity arose, I decided to accept a job in Ecuador, my country of birth, to teach art to high schoolers. While the demographic I currently teach, generally upper middle-class kids, is different than the at-risk youth I worked with in Arizona, I believe the results are the same. I come to them bearing my gifts of collage & watercolor, a humble offering to children who also endure the stresses of life. And the cycle continues.
Even now there’s a ping-ponging quality to my life. Things are often hazy and unpredictable. I find myself questioning what my next move is. Where to live? What to do? Who to visit? Possibilities overwhelm. Still, art brings me back, for it has been my only constant. With open arms, art beckons me home.
The author, Emma Wille, will be offering art workshops for youth this February at idiomART Studio. Students will explore new materials and mediums, as well as develop new means of self-expression, methods that will unbridle their creativity and open them to the same freedom in art Emma experienced as a child.