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Creativity During COVID: How Three Young Adults Are Using the Arts to Cope and Learn Resilience

JULY 16, 2020


Free Arts for Abused Children of Arizona is a nonprofit agency that transforms children’s trauma to resilience through the arts. In 2013 Free Arts started an Alumni program which has grown to include over 25 active alumni. In the Alumni program teens and young adults who have participated in previous Free Arts programs, build skills and community by engaging in art activities, leadership training, and apprenticeships. Most Free Arts Alumni have transitioned out of congregate care (group homes, shelters, or treatment centers) and are living on their own or with family members. During COVID-19, Free Arts has been checking in on Alumni weekly, delivering art supplies, and hosting connection calls where alumni can share their art, feelings, struggles, and triumphs with one another. One thing that has stood out during these calls is how resilient the alumni have been and how they are using their creativity to express themselves and cope during this difficult time.

Free Arts recently interviewed a few alumni to understand more deeply what their COVID experiences have been like and how they are using art to cope. These are their stories and responses.

Meet Free Arts Alumni

Autumn first participated in Free Arts when she was 18 years old and joined Theater Camp where she and 30 other teens used music, dance, theater, poetry and visual arts to creatively share stories from their lives with an audience of more than 800 people. Autumn is a gifted visual artist and works from home for Hulu. 

Gordy discovered his love of theater and dance seven years ago through participating in Free Arts programs. Since then he has performed in more than a dozen plays and musicals.  He graduated from high school last year and has continued his journey acting, dancing and teaching with local arts agencies.

Rica had been a Free Arts participant and alumni for two years. She is a gifted writer and will be attending college at Arizona State University this fall to pursue a degree in creative writing. She is a 2020 Nina Mason Pullium Legacy Scholar. 

What has your experience during COVID been like?

CreativityAutumn: It has been really stressful. Especially since my mom and brother don't live with me anymore and they have had COVID. Also since I got a new job as a delivery driver it is scary to think I could possibly bring COVID home with me and not even realize it until it's too late.

Gordy: My experience during Covid has been rough because I haven’t been able to do much theatre over the past three months. Theatre is important to me because I feel most myself on stage.  I love the feelings of the lights on my face at the beginning of each show and the long term friendships that get created from theatre.

Rica: The instatement of isolation and social distancing did not change much of my regular schedule. The sudden, severe restriction of leaving the house harkened back to a childhood I have only recently managed to step away from, so I have been emotionally indisposed, as best as I can explain it. I have been lucky enough, though, to find myself with the support of both the family that took me in after aging out of foster care and the friends I made at Free Arts to keep my enthusiasm about the future.

What have you been doing?

Autumn: I started out working from home which was hard to stay focused with so much going on around me. I actually became pretty depressed having to deal with calming others down and knowing how to fix their issues. Meanwhile I have no idea what to do with my family's issues, let alone my own. I've been trying to get my feelings out on paper the best I can to alleviate some of this stress and pressure which it has made me feel much better.

Rica: I have been finishing high school so that I can attend college in the fall. I read and write when my attention span allows it, though I usually end up aimlessly daydreaming over the page instead. I also started a massive cross stitch project of embroidering the entire front of a shirt into a galaxy.

What’s been hard?

Autumn: It's been hard not being able to see my family, though my boyfriend has really been motivating me through it every day as I try to do for him, as well as my family. I call my mom and brother almost every day if not every other day to check in and make sure they are okay.

Gordy: It’s been tough not seeing the people that I trust the most, the friends I’ve made doing theater.  We’ve stayed connected by doing Zoom calls and planning for a production of Shakespeare in Love that we will perform once things open up again.

Rica: I had so many events and opportunities lined up at the beginning of the year; I was excited to catapult through the months and land in university in the fall. It has since turned into a dull trudge through days that bleed together, with everything enjoyable now pushed out to a vaguely indefinite date. It was disheartening that when I finally was looking forward to having a social life and stepping out on my own, everything came to a screeching halt.

What have you been thinking about/learning?

CreativityAutumn: I've been thinking about my family outside and inside my home, getting back to school, trying to make it pay check to pay check saving as much as I can, how my friends are making it through COVID, and when we can finally be rid of this global disease. Along with the riots and the reoccurring racism that not only affects me as a mixed woman but many people that I know and those I don’t know who are struggling with the same mistreatment.  

Gordy: I’ve been learning how to calm myself down when I get really emotional about the state of the world. I’ve learned how to reach out to my friends during these times, even just for a casual conversation. I’ve also been learning how to sew better.

Rica: These times have absolutely taught me patience. Watching the supposed end date continually be set further and further out, I have turned my expectations inward and took my boredom into my own hands, which has shown me the lengths I will go to entertain myself. I have also learned another notch of flexibility. Over the years, I have been working to loosen my iron grip on how I want things to go, and the uncertainty of the times have taught me that it doesn’t quite matter how I get there, as long as I do.

How have you been coping? 

Autumn: I cope by relaxing, watching Ghibli movies, occasionally having a drink, and expressing myself through my art which always makes me feel better.

Rica: It has certainly helped to remind myself that things aren’t cancelled; they’re just postponed. I didn’t lose any opportunities, and this is just a sort of limbo period. It has helped to continue to drum up my own excitement, to remember that I have a lot of big things coming up.

What connection have you had with mentors (formal or informal mentors in your life)?

Autumn: I still have contact with my mentors from Free Arts through Facebook and I also have their numbers saved in my phone just in case.

Rica: The family I stay with has worked to keep me from retreating back into my shell. They convinced me to join them for a week in Pinetop to get me out of a funk I was in about school. Free Arts also substituted their weekly studio hours with weekly Zoom calls in order for alumni and our mentors to stay in touch, and that has been a great support.

What art have you been creating during COVID time? 

Autumn: I have been working on the Free Arts Alumni prompts that are posted on our Alumni Facebook page and a lot of little side projects including boxes for all my art supplies, personal pictures dedicated to my current mental status and family members, as well as whoever else requests art from me. Creating art has always made me feel at peace even for just a moment. Art is the innermost expression of the way I feel and think, and the general way I see the world from not only mine, but also other's point of view.

Gordy: I’ve been painting and exploring more watercolor techniques and have started painting landscapes. When I’m painting, I feel a bit more relaxed.  I also started a podcast about my life! I decided to make a podcast because I wanted to find a way to tell my story on a bigger platform.

Rica: I have been cross stitching a bunch, and I have plans for a lot of smaller projects for Christmas gifts. I have definitely found the appeal of smaller works, both in embroidery and writing. I’m usually in things for the long haul, but with everything now part of a waiting game, there is a clear benefit to readily available gratification. Plus, shorter pieces tend to be more fun to just pop out. 

What would you like to share with other young adults about art-making or mentors?

Autumn: Art doesn't always have to be great but never throw it away or rip it up. Keep everything you make because you might want to go back to it and make it even better or go over it and make something completely new instead. 

Gordy: Art making is important.  For me, it makes me feel relaxed and in the moment, and that’s important for my mental health. 

Rica: While artmaking can have a deep meaning behind it, it doesn’t always have to. Sometimes it’s just fun and relaxing.

See some of Autumn’s artwork here:

Listen to Gordy’s podcast here:

Read some of Rica’s poetry here:

To see videos of other Free Arts Alumni sharing their stories and artwork follow this playlist on You Tube:

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