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"Art making is often a communal response to injustice, as people gather together to begin a process of change," Ghubril says.

For Patti Ghubril, art is more than a hobby. It is, she says, “a way to process experiences and emotional responses that are often beyond the immediate grasp of words.”

As a Schweitzer Fellow, Ghubril has spent the past year partnering with the Pittsburgh Project to extend art’s therapeutic and empowering benefits to vulnerable women living in the North Side of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania—women who, she says, are “juggling an overwhelming myriad of issues, often with few resources.”

Thanks to Ghubril’s Schweitzer project, titled “Art & Soul,” many of these women now view art as a resource – a way to “find space and strength to begin working through serious problems.”

Read on for our interview with Ghubril, a Master of Arts in Art Therapy student at Seton Hill University – you’ll come away hopeful and inspired.

Why did you decide to develop your particular project?

The women Ghubril worked with designed and painted a mural based on Freedom Quilt patterns used during the Underground Railroad.

For the past twenty years, I have lived in an urban Pittsburgh neighborhood and worked closely with a local community development organization called the Pittsburgh Project. This community is wonderful in many ways, yet it is also burdened with more than its share of community violence, poverty and drug-related concerns. It has been my sense that many of the individuals and families living in this environment are caught in a cycle of pervasive stress and trauma.

I have been particularly concerned about the women in our community, many of whom are juggling an overwhelming myriad of issues, often with few resources. Their own health needs are often the last to be addressed, as their families typically come first.

Art making has been significant in my own life story, as a way to process experiences and emotional responses that are often beyond the immediate grasp of words. Additionally, art making is a common activity across all cultures, as a way of celebrating community ties and strengthening a sense of belonging. Art making is often a communal response to injustice, as people gather together to begin a process of change.

In recent years, I wondered how creative processes and art therapy might prove helpful to women living in this setting. Could an art space provide a safe place to lower the chronic stress threshold, so women could find space and strength to begin working through serious problems? Could the experimental nature of art making help women begin to see new solutions to complex concerns? Would this gathering of women, in a novel and consistent way, also strengthen a lasting network of social support among neighbors?  These were all the threads that I gathered together in designing my Schweitzer project, which I entitled “Art & Soul.”

Recently, I found a quote by Dr. Albert Schweitzer that speaks to this process. He said, “Reverence for life does not allow the scholar to live for his science alone, even if he is very useful to the community in doing so. It does not permit the artist to exist only for his art, even if he gives inspiration to many by its means…It demands from all that they should sacrifice a portion of their own lives for others.”

Using a strengths-based mental health model, I met with community women for eight weeks over the summer months. Together we explored themes related to resilience using a variety of artistic media. In August, women worked together to create a mural for the community. In the final component of “Art & Soul,” women met weekly this past fall to prepare art work to share with the community in a November celebration for their families and friends.

What do you hope will be the lasting impact of your project on the community it serves?

The completed mural.

The most visible lasting impact on the community is the collaborative public art project completed by the women of “Art & Soul” this past August. The women designed and painted a mural based on Freedom Quilt patterns used during the Underground Railroad. Each woman added her own symbols to the patterns and shared paint colors with her sisters.

This mural sits near the entrance to the community park and plans are underway for a second phase of development this coming summer, including quiet garden spaces for people to sit and reflect on their own journey. Here are a few of the comments made by the Art & Soul women about the mural making process:

  • The mural is a lasting legacy for the community.
  • I feel like a history teacher: I enjoyed sharing the quilt squares’ meaning with others.
  • This image is a good reminder for people in the community who are looking for freedom.
  • This was a significant event – it made me realize this is my community. I live here.

In terms of the women who were part of “Art & Soul,” my hope is that they can now define their own strengths and coping skills more clearly, imparting them greater confidence for overcoming the obstacles they still face. In addition, I hope they have a new set of tools for managing stress, for problem-solving and for accessing needed social support. Success in one small area of life can often lead to greater courage to take new risks.

I hope that the spirit of creative experimentation that was part of our time together will lead the women to ask more regularly, “I wonder what would happen if I took this step?” One way to sum up these hopes is that I hope each of the women of “Art & Soul” felt empowered in some new way and that each one will carry hope as she moves forward.

At a community level, a dialogue has begun at my host site, the Pittsburgh Project, among staff and community members, about next steps for this work in the neighborhood. At this writing, it is too early to say what direction these conversations will take. However, one of the women involved in “Art & Soul” has been named the leader of a new community counsel. This is a role that, as she tells it, she would have never volunteered for in the past. For her, “Art & Soul” planted the seeds of desire to see more positive change in her community. She also found a hidden leader within herself.

What do you think is the most pressing health-related issue of our time, and how do you think it should be addressed?

Certainly, there are many pressing health concerns today. Since my area of focus is community mental health, I am more aware, through the course of this project, that there are great disparities in the mental healthcare options available in our nation. Neighborhoods with great resources often have a far greater range of mental health and wellness options than do communities like mine.

Recently I read an APA journal article suggesting that the diagnosis of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is greatly under-diagnosed in community mental health. If that is so, then highly traumatized people are simply not being adequately cared for. Even if people do seek treatment, if the places they turn to are not accessible and respectful, they will not return. Excellent mental health care is also a basic human right.

In my experience with “Art & Soul,” people generally need to develop a sense of safety and trust in a new space, before their deeper issues are addressed. In my opinion, we need creative alternatives that lower this understandable resistance to seeking care.

Welcoming places can remove the stigma of seeking mental health resources by having ‘first room’ options focusing on wellness. Programs for nutrition education (perhaps a visiting chef) and exercise, yoga and ‘stress management’ options can all bring people in the door for legitimate non-pathologizing issues. Clinical mental health services would be ready options for those seeking them in the ‘second room’ – with the space thoughtfully designed to allow for privacy for counselors and counselees.

This model would necessitate a team approach to care across health disciplines (much like the Schweitzer Fellows model).

A culture collage done in a session with the "Art & Soul" women.

What has been the most surprising element of your experience as a Schweitzer Fellow so far?

I have been surprised by how much I look forward to time with the other Fellows in my Pittsburgh cohort. It has been a powerful experience to sit around a table each month and learn from one another. Though I have been involved in community work for many years, this is my first experience working intentionally across educational disciplines with a unified purpose. The collective power of these many perspectives is a multi-faceted vision of what care in underserved communities can and should look like!

Recently, one of the other Pittsburgh Fellows came to my site for a scheduled visit. She is a medical student working with pregnant women in a health center across town. As we compared stories and shared our vision, my hope was again renewed in the power that exists in weaving this fabric for positive change together.

What does being a Schweitzer Fellow mean to you?

I am regularly inspired by the work of the other Pittsburgh Fellows. Being a Schweitzer Fellow means that I am now joined to a network of people with common passions and common vision, who will help me remain accountable and hopeful in my future work.

I will look back on this year with deep gratitude at the space and encouragement that was given me to practice becoming a Leader in Service. The freedom to try out new ideas with the support of a great safety net is not common in life. In this sense, my work with women in my Schweitzer project was modeled on what I was also experiencing as a Fellow. It is an empowering and compassionate model.

It seems fitting to have Dr. Albert Schweitzer have the last word here, “The greatest thing is to give thanks for everything. He who has learned this knows what it means to live. He has penetrated the whole mystery of life: giving thanks for everything.”

Pati Ghubril is a Schweitzer Fellow in Pittsburgh, PA. Click here to read more about the Pittsburgh Schweitzer Fellows Program and the Fellows like Ghubril it supports in creating and carrying out yearlong direct service projects. To make a gift to The Albert Schweitzer Fellowship in honor of Ghubril’s efforts to empower vulnerable women through art, click here.

Each week, Beyond Boulders delivers a new installment of “Five Questions for a Fellow” – an interview series with Schweitzer Fellows across the country and in Gabon, Africa who are leading the movement to eliminate health disparities. For an archive of previous “Five Questions for a Fellow” interviews, click here.