Last week I attended the third, annual event, The Creative Path
Arts in Healing Coalition Conference in Montclair, NJ sponsored by the Healing Arts department of the Morristown Medical Center. This is truly an amazing organization that is doing really important work, founded and run nearly singlehandedly by licensed art therapist, Maria Lupo. The conference was a free, full day gathering that highlighted the importance of the arts in the healing of the body and mind through a multidisciplinary approach. It featured guest speakers, including Lupo, who brought their knowledge and experience of the way the arts change not only the process of healing, but the cost of healing as it pertains to hospital and facility expenditures. As it turns out, the arts help people heal faster, for less. All you right-brainers join me in a collective, duh, right?
As far as conferences go, the room was completely filled with some of the most enthusiastic supporters of the arts–teachers, artists of all disciplines, psychologists, counselors and parents–but I really believe this gathering could have been so much more. All the speakers were experienced experts in their field with so many stories they could have shared but not one strayed very far from the podium where they had planted their laptop. I am constantly surprised and disappointed at how many presenters in this world continue to produce dry, bullet-pointed, statistic-filled Power Points and then use their precious stage time to read their slides verbatim rather than TEDifying their material and speaking from their hearts and souls. (Sigh.)
I also cringe when an entire day is spent having speakers talking at an audience rather than getting them involved in making something together, doing something together or including them in a conversation about the topic. At one point a person in the audience actually asked the speaker to suggest a layperson’s book on art therapy philosophies and the response she was given was that, basically, you needed a master’s degree and a license in art therapy to understand or even approach this kind of healing work. Boo. Way to shut people out. I wanted to shout out some of the most inspiring titles I know that can move people in this direction and that have a laser-sharp focus on the arts: Life Is A Verb and Creative Is A Verb (both by Patti Digh), The Awemanac (by Jill Badonsky), Cultivating Your Creative Life (by Alena Hennessy), and Raw Art Journaling (by Quinn McDonald), just to name a few.
One of the speakers was B. Madeleine Goldfarb, MA, an expert on autism and the director of the Noah’s Ark Institute. Her presentation illustrated the way the arts had enhanced her work with these individuals. With spectrum related disorders that are currently reported to be as high as one in forty-nine children, there is great need for services that cater to this population and she urged those of us in the audience to begin or continue developing programming that would provide ways for people with autism to experience the benefits that come from the arts. She was funny and passionate but she showed us a lot of graphs and maps and was admittedly a really fast talker so I don’t feel like I got everything I could have from her, but her time was a lead into the best moment of this entire event and one of the most delightful and inspiring presentations I have seen in a long time. And this is what I really wanted to tell you about today.
This is Justin Canha. He is an accomplished artist, cartoonist and filmmaker. He is a gifted and funny presenter. He is an art teacher’s assistant in an elementary school. He is a professional cake decorator at a gourmet bakery in Bloomfield, NJ. He loves art and will tell you that over and over again. And, he has autism. In 2011, Justin’s journey from childhood to adulthood was featured in a wonderful NY Times Article: “Autistic and Seeking a Place in an Adult World.” Since this article came out, he, his art and his story have traveled the world and the media, as well as have earned him real income from the sale of his work. To get a flavor of what this young man is like, click on the many video and audio links throughout the Times article and then check out the short documentary film, Sidecar, by Ben Stamper, which explores Canha’s fascinating relationship with a young art student named Lyndsley.
Justin presented us with slides of his delightful images while reading the captions below them which had been prepared for him. Once the slide show was finished, however, Justin took the wireless microphone and confidently walked the stage where he went off script answering questions from the audience who sat smiling, completely engaged with this quirky, young, authentic soul. He was frank and candid about his thoughts and opinions, saying things like, “I like working with children but they can be spoiled,” and “Here’s my book, who wants to get it?” When he didn’t know how to answer something, he just said, “I don’t know” or, “Well, maybe I do…” Drawing and making art, says Canha, helps him to calm down and keeps his brainstorms and dreams open. I love that. I want open brainstorms and dreams, too!
His conversation with the audience was punctuated by “Gesundheit” whenever someone in the crowd sneezed and he very even-handedly called on raised hands with a sharp but friendly, “What?!” whenever someone was called on. He showed us the sandpaper he compulsively uses to sharpen his mechanical pencil after each two drawing strokes and the eraser that he loves because it is just the right size for the marks that his favorite pencil makes. He rattled off all of his favorite animals to draw (cats, deer, foxes, tigers, walruses, wolves and zebras) and then guided us in a drawing tutorial that taught us all how to make… what else… a whale in about seven simple steps. He encouraged us to like him on Facebook and plugged his personal site. He was awesome.
When Canha was done, the conference was done. As I left, I started thinking about last week, when I wrote about the inner critic. I was thinking how free Justin seemed from that bully voice in his head, how true he was to his artist’s self, how unabashedly real he was with the audience and never once went into the woo-woo jargon and dialogue so common to artists who are asked to speak publicly about their work and art in general. With Justin, what you see is what you get. He doesn’t feel the need to puff himself up or make you feel better about liking him. You just like him. It was an interesting way to end a day full of professionals tooting their own horn–not that I begrudge them for doing so because certainly we all do this and, of course, for the most part we should. But it was refreshing and inspiring to see that kind of unedited honesty and chutzpah. Especially in an artist. It was real life proof that we are always better when we are our authentic selves. And the irony that it was the autistic person with compromised social awareness who connected more with the crowd is not lost on this audience member.
Thank you, Justin. Your little talk taught me heaps about how to give a good presentation and, best of all, is going to help me to remember to keep my brainstorms and dreams open.
TRY THIS WEEK: Tell it like it is.