VA Northeast Ohio Healthcare System Chaplain Nancy Lueschen has been providing spiritual healing programs within the Louis Stokes Cleveland VA Medical Center for almost 6 years and has been steadily discovering new ways to help female veterans.
One of the most recent programs has been focused on helping to unlock new avenues to healing invisible wounds left by IPV (intimate partner violence) and MST (military sexual trauma) through the use of the creative arts. Last year, she worked with a small group of female veterans to create a composite mural, which can now be seen in the entrance hallway at the Women’s Health Annex.
One of the Veterans who collaborated in creating the latest mural is Lisa Edwards. Nancy and Lisa discussed the innovative project in the hallway next to the beautiful, if cryptic, artwork—completed in shades of blue.
Lisa shared, “You don’t [initially] think about this project as being therapeutic. Remember, we all just did a piece of it, so we’re just working on it from our point of view. But during the course doing of the project, you find that you have to do something extra; you have got to work with your inner broken self. You have to work through things with yourself to finish it.”
Nancy added, “This was a pilot group project – and so most of the women I was familiar with – but this was then a way for them to use their skillsets, to share with each other in a safe environment. Art is very unassuming, and it accesses the unconscious without you knowing about it. Doing this in a group, it gives you a new unit—a new platoon—so you’re showing up not only for yourself, but you’re showing up for them, too.”
“None of them knew the full image when they received their piece and their guidance. There’s nervousness with that, but then also each session had a new prompt—to unleash creativity. So you maybe had to paint with a sponge, or a Q-Tip, or create with your non-dominant hand. This took it out of their comfort zone. Every day was a challenge. And at the close each time, we connected back to mind-body skills. What did that feel like, and where did you feel it?” Nancy paused.
Lisa jumped in, “You’re trying to make it all come together, but [also] put each of our own touches on it. It’s [growing] emotional tolerance – before this when working in groups, I’d just break down…but this kind of strengthened me. It toughened me up, being close to these feelings. “
Lisa continued, “And that helped because, for me having PTSD, before I got here [and participated] I could not tell you how I felt.” She becomes emotional as she shared, “I just couldn’t go that deep…” She paused and then resumed, in control, “it hurt so bad. I didn’t feel like I was in my own skin. Now, after this, I’m more present in myself, and I can tell you how I’m feeling!” She smiles and glances at Nancy. “And now, when I calm down, I can even tell you why I felt that way! I’ve never been able to do that.”
Veterans worked on their artistic pieces independently and then collaborated virtually on some tasks. None of the Veterans knew the appearance of the full image that was emerging while they were working. While each worked on only their own panels, they had individual choices they could make related to some colors, textures, and media to use in the creation. Once completed, the individual panels were photographed by Medical Media and assembled into a single digital file. This reassembled full mural image was shared with the participants.
Nancy explained that the work is filled with symbolism—some created through the initial overall outline, and some through the individual choices of each participant creating each of their panels. “Spiritually, the image of water is seen as renewing, cleansing, and nurturing. Water is, after all, vital to sustaining life. The overall mural represents how diversity of the components coalesce within the unity of the final image and adds to its beauty. The participants each found individual spiritual meaning throughout the program, in working individually as well as through their collaboration to begin to create a completed picture.”
There is something deeply profound in the healing that Nancy has seen result from this use of artistic expression, in a group setting, to find a way to connect the dots within their own past experiences and current emotional responses. Additionally, there is a clarity and confidence that can be seen on Lisa’s face as she talks. Lisa says she never imagined that participating in this ‘art’ project would lead to the healing she has experienced. “I’m not crumbling anymore. Things may not be the way they used to be, or the way I might have wanted them to be, but I’m making it! I can sit with myself, and all my emotions, and I’m making it—and I’ve never been able to do that before!”
This expressive art-spirituality collaborative mural was the effort of a Chaplain Service Group activity named Collaborative Mural Art in 2022 that will soon be offered again by the Louis Stokes Cleveland VA Medical Center Chaplain Service for FY 2024. Contact Nancy Lueschen with questions: Nancy.Lueschen@va.gov.