The Arts and Healing (Part 6 of 6)

Guest Blogger: Amber Cullen

This blog series has examined the many roles the arts have in healing. Today we hear from Amber Cullen, local changemaker who is looking forward to pursuing her graduate degree in Art Therapy.

Confessions of an Aspiring Art Therapist

Cullen next to a former installation in the gardens at the Akron Art Museum.

I’ve spent a good amount of time among indigenous communities, understanding the deep value of place, context, and story. One understands where you are by exploring where you’ve been. One understands your community by discovering how each portion relates to the others. I resonate with this in terms of communicating the answer to the question “Why pursue art therapy?”

You see, after completing my undergrad in Film Production, and after doing a year of community development service with Mission Year in Philadelphia, I returned to Akron —the land of the Erie and Seneca peoples—aware that I was passionate about stories, art, justice, and Creator. It was the classic “post-grad crisis” syndrome. I worked in a variety of roles in the nonprofit world, but didn’t quite feel like I had found “it” yet.

Of all the things I did, I found the most joy in journeying with people in their healing journeys. I soon learned in my work that not only was this essential, but so were the arts and creativity. The arts have always been an avenue of release; it has been a way that I’ve been able to work through difficult experiences and make meaning. Every community hub I worked or volunteered with in Akron, I brought art. And with the populations I worked alongside—those in reentry, those in impoverished communities, former refugees, women, people of color, immigrants—creating was something I found to be a refuge for those in the midst of many stressors and traumas. It provided people with a sense of control and peace. Art had power for healing. 

L to R: Marian Renee Concha-Saastamoinen (Pumpkin), Amber Cullen, and Amariea Murry sit at a table representing VIBE Collective at an Akron Civic Theater event.

I took a leap of faith and sought to become a full-time artist entrepreneur. I started doing volunteer cultural-organizing work through the birth of our grassroots artist network VIBE Collective LLC—investing in Northeast Ohio creatives in the margins and helping to connect institutions to our network, and our network with institutions.

As part of defining Akron’s Cultural Plan, Cullen and Nichole Epps coordinated and facilitated a talking circle with over 20 local artists to talk honestly about Akron’s arts scene. 

The need for VIBE in Akron and Northeast Ohio was deeply present and great, but I was unable to acquire the funding and tangible support I needed to move into the work full-time as Lead Facilitator. Likewise, I did a lot of contract community arts work through Amber Cullen Art LLC, but also found that nonprofits also weren’t adequate for building financial stability for a freelancer/contract artist. You had to apply for grants about two years in advance, and even then there was not a guarantee that funding would be received. I found myself volunteering more hours a week than I was paid, due to the structures around me.

I burnt out in about a year and a half, working multiple paid gigs and volunteering too much. I slowly came to the recognition that although there are systems in place (and currently being built) to support artists and younger leaders in Akron, it was not going to happen for me in the time I needed for my survival and flourishing. If I continued in this path of “the hustle,” I would be working myself into the ground, slowly killing myself. I needed a day job so that I might be able to rest. I’ve had a day job at a bank since the beginning of 2020, and it has been one of the best investments I’ve made in myself.

On my journey to burnout, art therapy kept circling back as a career option that incorporated all that I was seeking to do as an artist entrepreneur, but with the stability of a day job. I was drawn to the idea of working for a hospital or medical clinic, doing community mental health through arts and engaging in partnerships with nonprofits.This direction had the potential to alleviate the lack of sustainable funding structures I experienced as a freelance artist entrepreneur. 

Cullen facilitating a pop up ‘Art with Miss Amber’ station at the Exchange House.

So why art therapy? It’s twofold for me. One, it offers structural stability that I myself was unable to find in arts administration and community arts. Steady pay, but still the ability to do outreach because the funding source isn’t the community—a win-win. Second, it’s where my giftings of helping people and art align. The idea of holding space for people as they unravel their voice and their healing is the most sacred journey. Once I found out that there was only one graduate program for Art Therapy in the entire state of Ohio, and that it was only 40 minutes from me, the stars started to align. I visited Ursuline College’s campus, the Center for the Creative and Healing Arts and Sciences, and walked through hallways of color, clay, and peace. I nearly cried multiple times. I never thought I would go back to school in that way, but in that moment I knew I had to.

I’m currently on the slow journey to acquiring all the courses that I need in order to be able to apply for graduate school. Since naming that art therapy will be my journey, I have found a community here in Akron of aspiring art (and drama) therapists that are slowly chipping away at their schooling. I asked them the same question that was posed to me: “Why pursue becoming an art therapist?”

Wanting to become an art therapist actually stemmed from a long time ago when I wanted to be a drama therapist. I used to assist at a theatre center for kids on the autism spectrum (I was a theatre nerd through middle and high school). And I really loved the work and seeing the healing power of the arts in action. But eventually I started realizing that I wanted theatre to be my safe space, and not a professional avenue. So I started looking for other ways creative arts are used as therapy, and that’s when I discovered art therapy. So it basically all comes from knowing that the arts help people and wanting to be part of that.

-Bree Chambers

So I’m reading the book ‘My Grandmother’s Hands’ and I keep being struck by how much these body settling exercises resemble theatre warm-ups, and it’s very validating to me that all the times I’ve felt ‘I want to share this’ in rehearsal, that something really healing is happeningthat creating theatre is inherently therapeutic. But also because theatre exists in this vulnerable space, it can be very traumatic if not considered sacred – and if I’m going to continue doing it, I want to make sure I’m mindful of that delicate balance and striving to the best of my ability toward safe dangerous theatre.

– Tessa Gaffney

I have found art to be a great way to deal with stress and help me think differently about my life. That’s the art part. But also, for all my adult life I have been in helping jobs without a specific healing skill to offer. I want to get the education to marry these two gifts: art and helping. I don’t know what my work will look like, but I know I will find a path through the process. I feel like everything has led me here so far in my life.

-Nicole Flower

I don’t know where my journey will take me after graduate school. But as all of my art teachers and therapists have told me, and as Nicole emphasized—I’m going to enjoy the process.

Amber Cullen is an artist and facilitator based in Akron, Ohio. She is one of the founding members of VIBE Collective, a multi-disciplinary and multicultural network of grassroots change-making artists. Cullen is adamant about the power of community artists to be agents of transformation, and seeks to invest in #artrepreneurs in Northeast Ohio and beyond. Cullen is currently employed as a bank teller, and is working towards applying to grad school to be able to obtain a Masters in Art Therapy and Counseling. She hopes to serve as a community art therapist alongside marginalized populations navigating historical and generational trauma. Cullen can be reached at ambercullenart@gmail.com and VIBE Collective’s email is vibecollectiveneo@gmail.com.