A creative act of destruction

Gracia Mwamba/Courtesy
Gracia Mwamba/Courtesy
Gracia Mwamba/Courtesy

This piece is part of a series on the intersection of mental health and art.

“My body is a poem I have forgotten.”

The easiest way to delegitimize a person’s experiences is to call them crazy. In an era that takes pride in being so forward and so progressive, there is still a stigma on mental health issues — issues that  often go unnamed and unexpressed for shame, for fear or for anger. These are times where despite our progress there is still a decided lack of understanding, vocalization and sympathy for those who suffer from mental issues. For those sufferers, then, perhaps the best way to amend that fear, that anger and shame is not through words at all. At least, not in the conventional sense.

Individuals who consider themselves artists or have some connection to the arts often participate in a form of emotional release that begins at the root of the stigma against mental illness. Where a single mental block forms the foundation of an entire wall, the hammer that breaks the surface is often as simple as a brush. For UC Berkeley freshman Gracia Mwamba, her tools for breaking that barrier range from a brush to her very voice as she paints and lyricizes the demons she is unable to express in plain conversation or introspection.

“My goal is not so much conveyance of a point as a ‘letting out.’ My piece, it evolved, became its own.”

– Gracie Mwamba

“I began with thick pastel techniques, translated into oil paints and on its own it evolved into a darker mood, an unconscious expression of emotion,” Mwamba said of one of her more recent personal projects. “It was a way of letting out what you cannot say in words.”

When asked exactly what she wanted to express in her pieces, Mwamba elucidated the important distinction between delivery and release in the use of her art as a medium.

“My goal is not so much conveyance of a point as a ‘letting out.’ My piece, it evolved, became its own,” Mwamba said. “People like to rely on the idea of the ‘left side’ of the brain, the analytical part, but the right side, the creative side, is just as powerful on its own. You just have to let it do its thing, let it out.”

While she uses a brush to paint out a gradient of moods and individual feelings, a tangible expression of her emotions, Mwamba uses artistic word as another angle to break further through the mental wall. Where the brush visualizes emotion through color and tangible flat streaks, spoken word triggers the mind and pulls the color off the canvas, throws it into the air and shoves it through not only emotional dams in her head, but also into the heads of the audience members present.

Gracia Mwamba/Courtesy

Gracia Mwamba/Courtesy

“In spoken word and poetry I express what I cannot say,” Mwamba said. “I can say I feel sad or feel depressed, but when I describe it in poetry, I’m describing the exact feelings.”

The inner release which she translates into paintings of different mediums and spoken word unify in that they form one consolidated artistic identity. While she strives to construct one facet of a dynamic persona, this ultimately leads to an entity which strategically attacks the brick wall as a pride of lions would its prey.

For Mwamba, these modes of expression have become a salvation, an escape, not a sure treatment but at the very least a balm for the challenges she faces, and she wants to be able to share that with others. She spoke of her plans to train to become a licensed art therapist, and the challenges therein.

“I got to pick art as my major without having to worry about another other pre-reqs or classes which was great,” Mwamba said. “It’s challenging, because they really want to see you master a specific art form, but it really helps you hone your craft.”

Mwamba is currently working to develop the therapy side of her newly found passion for rehabilitation through art. While she does not take much interest in the theoretical science behind therapy, she is finding it more and more necessary to expose herself to psychology in order to establish the golden ratio between the human psyche and its pressure points.

“The challenge is that (UC) Berkeley psych is research based with a 12-hour basic requirement, which I kind of hate,” Mwamba said. “But this is something really important, so it’s worth it.”

Mwamba’s current endeavors that have been driving her exposure into the world of art therapy include hosting writing and paint workshops as a part of her internship with Youth Speaks, an organization that aims to amplify the voices of young people through spoken word performance. Past furthering career pursuits, Mwamba feels these workshops are a way to meet people who share her love for art and have fun.

Further into the discussion arose the question about the differences between art therapy and the counselor based, traditional therapy offered by UC Berkeley.

“The difference between art therapy and therapy is that art reaches a part of you that therapy and talking just can’t,” Mwamba said.

Gracia Mwamba/Courtesy

Gracia Mwamba/Courtesy

Mwamba visualized it in terms of building blocks. She explained that there is a certain amount of destruction that occurs in visits to traditional psych-based therapists. The primary goal is to take the individual apart, break them down and analyze facets of what would be considered their relevant emotions and choices.

Mwamba’s approach to art therapy stems from not only a well-rounded approach to mental rehabilitation, but also attempts to evenly and adequately distribute resources that can be easily accessed to those who feel they are in an unstable state of mind. She elaborated this opinion with some reflections on the overall approach and resources surrounding mental health on campus.

“The mental health resources here are poor, to be honest,” Mwamba said. “In terms of long term, I have borderline personality disorder and Berkeley has nothing in terms of assistance for students needing long term care.”

She commented on the mediocrity of the Tang Center counselors in their ability to scrape the surface of the problem, but nothing more. While they can provide generic approaches to the problem, Mwamba feels that they do not effectively lead students to develop the abilities successfully handle the situation.

“There just aren’t the resources to help students who need to to learn how to thrive over simply survive,” Mwamba said. “The Tang Center counselors are good, but just aren’t enough. Otherwise, (UC) Berkeley doesn’t give a fuck about your mental health.”

When asked for advice for fellow students struggling with their own emotional and mental health, she advised taking a Tang Center a psych evaluation in order to enter into the Disabled Students’ Program, or DSP, to get more long-lasting help. She commented that in her opinion, the Tang Center counselors are not meant to be long term, and UC Berkeley simply doesn’t have the resources for long term care.

“Reaching out admits that you’re not perfect, and that that’s ok.”

– Gracie Mwamba

Mwamba seeks to reach out to kindred spirits, those who might share her passions and challenges here at UC Berkeley. She urges those who share in her struggle to reach out and make themselves visible in their escape, as someone is bound to eventually see and march right beside.

“Reaching out admits that you’re not perfect, and that that’s ok,” Mwamba said. “As a freshman, you have a concept of what a Berkeley student ‘should be,’ but you are you and you cannot hold yourself to some unreachable standard — so don’t try to.”

Contact Sandhya Kannan at [email protected] and Olivia Staser at [email protected].

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  • Erin Partridge

    Gracie Mwamba: Keep speaking up, keep making connections, keep creating…the art therapy field would be glad to have you someday! Please reach out to NorCATA, AATA, and the ATCB for information about obtaining a degree in art therapy.

  • ShadrachSmith

    Goya painted ugly stuff, lead poisoning they say.

  • HaroldAMaio

    —-there is still a stigma on mental
    health issues

    It is so easy to say that, as easy as “there
    is a stigma to rape” once was.

    How easily we comply. How little
    responsibility we take of our compliance.

    There are people who say there is, no
    one has to join them.

    (I am curious about another metaphor in your
    article ”disabled” student. How do you disable a student? )

    Harold A. Maio, retired mental health editor