Hate crimes, pandemic, systemic racism. For many, the overwhelming shock of the past year is hard to put into words. Maybe words are just not adequate to the task.
In Creative Resilience Dialogues, presented twice a month on Zoom by the Northampton Center for the Arts, art activist Chelvanaya Gabriel creates a space for anyone feeling overwhelmed, beaten down, or angry.
“You’re stepping into resilience just by showing up,” Gabriel said over Zoom from their home/office in South Hadley.
The workshops focus on nonverbal expression, building community, and liberation from oppression. Each has a theme — “Holding Space for Grief and Loss” on April 11, and “Rewriting the Script: The Stories We Tell Ourselves & Ways to Reframe Them” on April 25.
“You have five minutes to make an art piece with no words. That’s your only rule, no words,” Gabriel said. “You have five minutes because I don’t want you to overthink it.”
The workshop is not about thinking.
“This is a way for us to tap into the body, tap into our whole selves, as opposed to having an intellectual discussion that distances people from each other,” Gabriel said. “If you dialogue beyond words first … it brings people closer together.”
Singer-songwriter Diana Alvarez attended a recent workshop and found herself in a breakout room with two people she had never met.
“I said, ‘Why don’t you do something visually and I’ll sing in response,’ and the [third] person did sound,” said Alvarez, who has collaborated with Gabriel in the past. “You can get to the heart of the work so quickly.”
Gabriel wears many hats. As a lab manager, building manager, and greenhouse supervisor for the sciences at Hampshire College, they have fostered intergroup dialogues and worked on the school’s commitment to anti-racism. They practice mindfulness. Many of these skills come to play in their workshops.
Painting is relatively new. The 2016 election drove them to it.
“I needed space to process the emotions that were coming up. The pain, the grief, the loss, the anger,” Gabriel said.
They gave themselves a daily goal.
“Just put some paint on a surface. I don’t care what it looks like,” they said. “That way, you get away from the judgment. You have a moment to yourself.”
It helped. Then a friend prodded Gabriel to take their paintings to the Queer Makers Market.
“People came up to me saying that they could see things in my art,” they said.
“I realized — this isn’t just for me.”
Painting went from being a solace to being a calling. The artist rented a studio in Holyoke, started exhibiting work, and applied for grants.
“I stepped into it as a professional thing for my community. For me first, but also recognizing that the individual is the communal,” Gabriel said. “It’s a more Afro-Indigenous concept of the individual.”
The Northampton Center for the Arts is presenting an exhibition of Gabriel’s abstract paintings, “Pattern Interruptions II,” structured to start conversations. Signs ask questions such as “What do you create?” and “What is your self-care?” Viewers can answer in words or pictures on sticky notes.
Dialogue, it seems, is Gabriel’s art as much as painting is. The Metropolitan Area Planning Council recently awarded them a grant to run Creative Resilience COVID-19 story circles with Holyoke’s Puerto Rican/Afro-Caribbean communities.
Times like these may feel awful, but they can lead to growth.
“We learn about ourselves in moments like this. We learn about what we need from ourselves. We learn about what we need from our communities,” Gabriel said.
All the workshops are structured for safety.
“Initially it looks like a normal thing: Tell us your name,” Gabriel said. “But I really invite folks, ‘Tell me what you want us to call you in this space’ — pronouns, to begin with. And then I ask, ‘What identities are you bringing into the space today?’”
That can be a sensitive question in a group of strangers.
“I want us to think beyond the axes-of-oppression-and-privilege kinds of answers,” Gabriel said. “Maybe they’re caregiving a family member or dealing with some hard stuff.”
“Naya’s creating a space for healing in a world where we’re aching for healing,” Alvarez said.
Healing may begin with giving wordless form to internal clamor or fog and sharing it in a breakout room. Then it ripples outward.
“We imagine a way of being that is more healthy and more conducive to being just, to being liberated, and to folks taking care of each other on a larger scale,” Gabriel said. “We need it to spread like a virus.”
CREATIVE RESILIENCE DIALOGUES WITH CHELVANAYA GABRIEL
At Northampton Center for the Arts, online every second and fourth Sunday through May, 1-3 p.m. Admission is on a sliding scale, $10-$40. www.nohoarts.org/art-classes/category/creative-resilience-dialogues-with-chelvanaya-gabriel-online
PATTERN INTERRUPTIONS II
At Northampton Center for the Arts, 33 Hawley St., Northampton, through April 21. www.nohoarts.org/events/category/exhibit-pattern-interruptions-ii