Giving Thought: ‘Art Saves Lives’ is saying that rings true in our area

Tamara Tormohlen
Giving Thought

May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and there is no shortage of articles or conversations highlighting rising rates of depression and other mental health struggles among children and adults. As a mountain resort region, we are presented with additional challenges that compound these issues.

High health insurance premiums and lack of insurance create barriers for access to mental health services. Cultural and language barriers also create inequities. There is also a shortage of providers in our geographically isolated area, which has resulted in an overburdened system.

We are fortunate to have several organizations and groups in this region who are working to improve mental health outcomes for our community. Some of those are focused on traditional therapies and supports, but others are engaged in this important work through less obvious pathways, like the arts.

Amy Kimberly is the executive director of Carbondale Arts, one local organization supporting mental health through the arts. She says, “The saying ‘art saves lives’ stems from real-life examples of art literally bringing someone from the dark to the light, from suicide to life. … The arts allow one to have a voice or explore uncomfortable feelings or connect with others. The arts also provide a ‘safe’ place for many, especially youth, who find a path forward in life through the arts. Sometimes so much emphasis is put on athletics or grades or looks; the arts allow you to be who you are. The arts can address issues such as racism, inequality and inclusion in ways that bring light to these subjects and create opportunities to talk about these challenges in our world.”

The past few years of the pandemic both highlighted the need for connection and increased support for local art.

“We found more need and support during COVID times. The impact was huge. Sometimes in simple ways such as connecting through Zoom for art projects or handing out art kits at food distribution centers or listening to ideas from community members as their lives changed,” Kimberly said. “People supported local art more as well, which helped many stay afloat. Creativity is key in keeping people moving forward during times of crisis.”

While the pandemic might have brought mental health issues to mainstream conversations, this work is not new to Carbondale Arts. Kimberly explains, “We also provide programming for schools and the public in Expressive Arts programming. Our Rosybelle Bus is available to schools and organizations involved in crisis and grief as needed. We were at the Lake Christine Evacuation Centers bringing diversion, inspiration and joy to those displaced. We provide safe space at Mountain Fair with the Rainbow Lounge. We are ready to be there to fill color where there are voids.”

Basalt-based Art Base is another nonprofit arts organization working to improve mental health outcomes for our community. Executive Director Skye Skinner shared, “The Art Base provides twice-monthly Art Healing & Hope classes, with registered expressive arts therapist Sheri Gaynor.”

Skinner emphasized the broad impact art can have: “Art is a universal language and an essential tool and resource for the mental health of our society. Expressing oneself through art is strong medicine. At the Art Base, we have the privilege of witnessing the transformative power of art every day — whether through the eyes of a young child who is excited to pick up a free art kit, through the experience of a newly immigrated high school student taking their first-ever art class, through the eyes of someone processing trauma or grief by expressing feelings through an art journal, or through the first solo exhibition for an artist who is rising above physical handicap or mental illness.”

To deepen the impact of these efforts, both Carbondale Arts and Art Base partner with a wide range of community organizations.

“We also place a high priority on partnerships with organizations who share our commitment to providing a safe, creative, and inclusive space for artistic expression,” Skinner shared. “Some of those partners include Youth Recovery Center, Aspen Out, Ascendigo, Mountain Valley Developmental Services, Aspen Strong, Aspen Hope Center, Eagle County Senior Services, English In Action, Valley Settlement.”

When it comes to issues as critical and widespread as the mental health crisis, exploring all possible solutions and supports is essential for improving the outcomes of this community. Knowing there are organizations in the arts creating impact broadly provides hope and opportunity for improvement.

Tamara Tormohlen is executive director of the Aspen Community Foundation.