It’s a Wednesday morning at the Primavera Emergency Men’s Shelter in Tucson, Arizona (USA) and a dozen homeless men are sitting in a circle, waiting to begin ArtMoves, an embodied movement and visual art class.
“Although that’s not what they think they’re going to do,” says Open Floor teacher Lynn Fleischman with a grin. Lynn runs an outreach program ArtMoves with Co-Founder Pat Dolan. Collectively, they have studied and taught visual art for decades, and conscious dance/movement for more than 10 years. Influenced by their Open Floor Teacher Training and additional outreach training with Sylvie Minot’s Syzygy Dance Project, they have offered art and movement classes for men, women, and children experiencing homelessness, veterans with serious mental illness, refugee children, and low-income seniors in assisted living facilities.
About the group of men at the Men’s Shelter, Lynn says, “If we told them they were going to dance and draw, they’d probably run a mile!” She laughs. “So the case managers tell them it’s a “meeting” and they show up expecting a group therapy kind of thing.”
For the next 75 minutes, the men first move their bodies to upbeat, funky tunes and then draw or paint. By the end of the session, some of them come up to Lynn and Pat and sheepishly share how much they enjoyed themselves. She explains that many of these men suffer from mental and physical health issues, and all of them are dealing with trauma in one form or another. “They’re coming off the streets so safety and anonymity are really important for them,” she says. “Most of them are very shut down so we have to ease in slowly.”
They use a circle of chairs for the movement part of the session. The circle helps to contain the group and the chairs “literally have their backs…so nobody can sneak up from behind.” In one particularly powerful breakthrough session, they asked the men to make a repetitive movement they had used in a job they had done in the past. “They really got into it,” she says. “Here was something they knew how to do…There was pride in showing others and telling what the job had been.”
Then, in the art part of the session, they drew tools.” This exercise gave the men an opportunity to remember and acknowledge that they had had a productive role in society. “It gave them access to their personal stories and a way to share who they were. When you can create a movement that’s all yours and a drawing that’s unlike anybody else’s, that’s an expression of creative self-agency. This experience can then transfer to other realms in their lives.”