Bryant Pond-based artist Arla Patch calls herself a "creativity midwife." Using her talents in photography, sculpture and other art forms, she helps participants in her workshops, classes, seminars and retreats find greater awareness and understanding of themselves. Art is the vehicle, hope and healing are often the journey's end. Her work has been the focus of her two award-winning books, she's been on television and in magazines, has led therapeutic workshops at the school Dr. Phil recommends for trouble girls, has presented all over the country, and hosts retreats at her home and facility in Bryant Pond. Next up: leading a two-day workshop for adults at L/A Arts in Lewiston at the end of October on casting and decorating a personal plaster mask. (FMI: laarts.org)
Tapping the restorative power of art.
Name: Arla Patch
Was that your given name? Any secrets or unusual circumstances behind your name? Yes, there is a story. My father's name was Arthur and my mother's name was Laure. They took the first two letters from each name and put them together to get ARLA. And Patch is my given name. I have two sisters who changed their names through marriage and my only brother was killed on a motorcycle, so I am happy to be able to keep "Patch" alive. Plus it means "the fool" in Old English and I like that.
Age: (If you want to divulge) Happy to say I was born in 1950, so I am 61. As I get older, I embrace the daily practice of staying as healthy as I can. Part of the awareness I received in my first book "A Body Story" was to understand the gift my body is and to take good care of it.
Residence: My home is the Grace Retreat Center. It is on Spruce Mountain overlooking the Presidential Range in Bryant Pond.
Was there a moment when you realized that art was where your life would lead? In kindergarten I couldn't figure out why everyone didn't "get" how to cut out the red hearts the way the teacher showed us. (There was a line at my desk). But it wasn't until my family was moving to Thailand for my senior year in high school that I decided at the last minute to apply early decision to Tyler School of Art, Temple University. Up to that moment, I thought I was going to be an English major. Some kind of "gut feeling" took over.
Someone who goes to your website (arlapatch.com) will not find lots of still lifes, landscapes, classic sculptures or portrait photos. Your work as an award-winning photographer, painter, sculptor and writer revolve almost exclusively around using art to help people heal physically or emotionally, or to better understand themselves and improve their lives. How did that direction come about? My early work involved the Earth in one way or another and I've always had a camera with me. And then in the '80s I rediscovered body casting when I began my own recovery from a traumatic family history. Through seeking healing for myself, I realized that the body and nature were two dynamic sources of creative expression for me. Ultimately, a deeper level of healing was available by combining nature and the body in my Nature Fusion Process. Over time, three modalities evolved, each involve using the body and the wisdom it holds. I would discover an art process for myself and then pass it on to others.
You've worked with cancer survivors, female prisoners and abused and troubled girls. Can you mention some of the most rewarding moments from that work? There have been many rewarding moments, it's hard to choose one. After working at a prison, I went back six months later to interview the women I had worked with. I wondered if the joy and transformation I had seen at the end of my week with them had worn off and had no lasting effect. I was delighted to discover that everyone I spoke with had experienced a permanent shift in how they viewed themselves.
One woman who felt she was totally uncreative took my workshop anyway. At the end of the week, she had surprised herself with how creatively she responded to the activities. This new view encouraged her to take advantage of a drawing class that was offered at the prison. Again she was pleasantly surprised at something she never would have tried before my workshop. She made the decision that when she got out of prison she was going to apply to art school and study design. She felt she had a direction for her life she had never imagined before. A direction she was excited about.
How does creating a plaster cast of your face or breasts or torso help you heal? It's a paradoxical thing . . . you go outside of yourself in order to come back more deeply to yourself. For example, if you've had a mastectomy, and you are trying to make peace with all that means, and you have a 3-D replica of your new torso that you can now carry around, hold, sand, paint and decorate, there is a powerful opportunity to experience all the feelings that your body has been carrying around and to gain greater empathy for yourself. Many times people see themselves more clearly in the casting, and regain a connection with themselves that might have been severed or not really been established in the first place. It also works when making a mask.
Similarly, with another of your techniques, how does having your body photographed in a way that makes it look like you are made of ferns or the ocean become a transformative experience? There is a simple equation for this process. When you have been abused or even just separated from the value of yourself in any way, it is hard to see yourself as beautiful or divine. But if you can see the divinity of nature, and then you fuse with nature, you are compelled to see the divinity in yourself. This process, like the others, is a way to re-frame how you perceive yourself.
There's some hard science behind the positive effects that art has on the healing process. Can you tell us more about that? With neuroimaging, we now know that when someone talks about their trauma, the frontal lobe shuts down. That is where the executive function, reasoning and language, take place. What lights up in the brain is the amygdala, the seat of emotional memories. By working with nonverbal, image-based material, many people can better access the buried emotional wounds that need to be expressed and metabolized in order to heal.
What have been your biggest inspirations? Eve Ensler is a playwright, performer, activist and sexual abuse survivor who took her trauma history as motivation to help others heal and transform their lives. She has done more to improve the lives of women on the planet than anyone I can think of. And I had the chance to meet her in 2002.
Losing my brother, Eric, when he was 19 and I was 22 inspired me to make the most of my life since his was cut so short.
You've written two books. You've had numerous showings of your works. You've presented all over the country, including earlier this year at the University of Delaware. What's next? In addition to my fall teaching and workshops, I'm also teaching a six-week course for LEAP at Lewiston High School. In that program, I'm meeting many Somali students and I'm hoping to show them they are more creative then they might have imagined. And L/A Arts has asked me to lead a mask-making workshop in Lewiston at Gallery 5 at the end of the month.
I've also volunteered to work for the Truth and Reconciliation Act just passed in May, to begin the healing process for our Maine native tribes regarding the abuses suffered. But I haven't heard yet if I am going to be able to be involved.
I have a new body of photography work in which I plan to take my landscape photography and cut and tear it apart and sew it back together again and create large mandalas. (Some of her photography is represented by VoxPhotographs of Porland.) And I have two more books I'm thinking about: one is about how to nurture creativity and the other might be where I would tell my own personal story of healing using all the forms of art that have helped me.