Interview with Christine Apa of Awaken Arts
by Kim Abels
“When we create together we heal together”
So many times when we go through really rough stages of our lives we often think we are alone. We think “Well, no one understands what I am going through.” How could they? We are all so different, in different bodies that experience a vast amount of events, and frequent traumas.
We sat down recently with the CEO & Founder for Awaken Arts, Christine Apa. We wanted to get a good sense of what the organization represents and how it became what it is today. To give you a brief idea- Awaken Arts is primarily driven to help at-risk youth express their stories through their chosen art, in situations where it was never available to them before. These students, ranging anywhere from 14-18 years old, have been through some traumatic life experiences and have now been placed in a Bootcamp setting. This is their only elective class. They have mentors who help develop a safe space for them to create and share, instead of keeping those feelings oppressed.
After meeting, a greeting between Christine and I is shared and she starts with saying, “I’m glad to always share knowledge and get more people to do good stuff.” This is a reoccurring theme with Christine and the organization itself. Working Together, Creating Together and Healing Together. So I’m curious as to how exactly this beautiful creation came into fruition. She then openly admits about her own personal experience of rape and trauma and the young age of 16. Being a teenager, not knowing how to open up to anyone and blaming herself for so long, it stayed dormant inside her for a long time. It wasn’t until very many years later, her professor in college gave her the tools she needed to tell her story. She was then able to slowly unravel her memoir through a visual arts project. Piece by piece she was able to give a mosaic of flashbacks without ever verbalizing the entire scenario. She explains how “This is really the first way I had really processed what had really happened to me.” After sharing the project with her class, many other students came up to her and shared similar stories and thanked her for her raw representation and being able to open up about it. In shock that she was not so alone, Christine thought “How much more powerful would it be to give them a space to share their own?”
Cut to years later and here we are with Awaken Arts, where it does just that. Her vision has become reality and it continues to help many young men and women come face to face with their own issues without being forced or told how. It allows a safe space for freedom and creativity. “One of our biggest beliefs is that when we create together, we heal together. That is the core of who we are,” Christine explains. At Awaken Arts these kids are not alone and can find ways to connect with each other, even though their problems might not always overlap. Over the years, so many students have been given access to tools to mold their stories together and change a negative situation into a positive one. A mixture of Art and Trauma that, like Lauryn Hill says “develops a negative into a positive picture,” almost literally. And there are so many areas of the Arts to cover.
“Well, the thing is, the beauty of the arts… is the different ways to access the art. And it benefits you in so many ways. For me, it’s dance.” As I raised my hand in agreement and we share a connecting laugh. I, myself, have always looked to the arts to express my feelings. It’s always been a part of my life. But for so many others it’s hard to find their niche and find something they can use as a tool for self-healing. Because the Arts comes in many forms it is easy to have these kids find something that they really connect to.
More so, we come to find that the journey is a continuous process and nothing can be fixed overnight. “That’s the thing. You’re always tackling your own idea of perception, in your own way.” Christine adds. “Just recently, I had a very adverse PTSD episode. Two of the girls, in this session had a very similar rape story to mine and it triggered me…. I thought I had already dealt with stuff and unfortunately there was still kind of one piece that I didn’t let go of and that I was still blaming myself for. And, you know, I worked with these girls and it’s a two-fold process: One is really processing the story. You know really going down deep and trying to get all these emotions out in a non-verbal way, if it’s dance, something like that. With written word, it’s still not verbal. It’s almost like an enclosed area and you can turn it into spoken word. I think it gives you a space to process. ‘Cuz you know, not everyone is a verbal processor, like I am. I can talk about my feelings all the time.” I then chimed in at this point, understanding the opposing perspective, explaining the tattoo along my spine which reads: “My tongue is the only muscle in my body that works harder than my heart.” This quote from Jesse Lacey depicts the struggle I partake in with verbal communication. Programs like Christine’s helps the youth with the same struggle to express and share those feelings through art. She continues with saying “That’s the beauty of it, it’s like you have this internal space where you can do this activity… it’s like you’re with people but you’re also kind of in your own head processing it. And it doesn’t necessarily have to be shared. But knowing that other people are there and you’re working in a group is one of the great benefits of our program… You can be really introspective and think about this trauma or this thing that has hurt you. There is also the joy of actually dancing, the joy of actually writing. And you know, I tell the kids you can do this. You can sit here and write a letter to your past self, during your hardest time, to give yourself encouragement or you can pretend you’re an expert on the subject and the subject is unicorns…and that’s just funny. You know, and there’s just joy attached to that. There’s that relaxation aspect and they engage it in so many ways.”
One of those aspects is a project using a blank mask. The students and mentors are asked to create a representation of what is seen not only through their eyes but how they feel they are represented, as well. On the outside of their mask, they paint what they believe how others see them. On the inside, they paint how they see themselves. “It’s kind of one of our signature pieces. Talking about how they perceive themselves and how others perceive them,” Christine explains. “You can never not think about how other people see you. That’s a reality.” This reality we face so often in our everyday life and this project with the masks gives everyone a chance to come head on and identify with these opposing views. “But whether or not it affects how you relate to the world and how you see yourself is a totally different story. So our goal, for that second day, when we do the masks is really excepting yourself for where you are, highlighting the achievements that you’ve made and understanding that everybody is still growing. For me I’m 36 years old and I’m still growing up… and it’s different every time,” she adds, referring to the masks. This brings on a point to how everyone, not just the students gain a lot from the program.
Along with the kids, the mentors seem to grow and share their stories in a raw exchange of emotions through art. This allows the bond of the mentors and students to form and show a true connection between them. Christine tells us how the biggest comment she receives from the mentors is just how much more they feel they got from the program than the students themselves. They say how happy it has made them and even gave them a release to mirror their own traumas. “It’s been just this amazing extra. Again, I created it for the people that are dealing with trauma, the kids I created it for,” Christine pauses and adds,” Everybody needs the arts. And everybody has used or accessed the arts in their own way. Especially these mentors that believe in it so much that they don’t even see the parts where they really needed to do this for themselves, like doing the art projects themselves. We don’t ever ask the kids to ever do anything that we’re not willing to do ourselves. So we ask (the mentors) to get really raw with it and so they have been the beneficiaries of the program as well. It’s been really beautiful because we live in Los Angeles. There’s a lot of artists here that have been jaded by the community or just working and not getting anywhere, or just working getting somewhere but being kind of really stifled. Then working with kids that are getting or learning that first spark of love, of this art form that they’ve been toiling over for years and years and years and seeing that spark again for the first time in someone else, I think rejuvenates the mentors. It is just an amazing program for people that are just in a creative rut. There’s been so many songs made up for the kids, about the kids, by the kids that have inspired other people. It’s just been this opportunity for people to be like, “Hey! I can do this!” It’s just such a great environment to be in, being with these kids and hearing all their stories and also there is a lot of gratitude on either side.”
What I find on this journey, I take with Christine, is our ability to connect. Even though we are so different, our human nature allows us to find each other on common ground instead of separating our experiences. Again: Working together to find the ability to not only open up but to also let it all go.
As for the future for Awaken Arts another semester for them starts in the fall during the month of October. They will continue their mission to help feed and spark the creativity needed for a new group of students to express themselves. There has also been other sibling programs which branch out into the community. Leave your Mark is a 10 week visual arts program – primary focus to engage with the community with a mural project. An end product, to – leave your mark on the community. Operation Art is another which also helps veterans with PTSD express themselves through the arts. Christine closes us out with,
“When we do this stuff together there is healing, when we do this stuff together there is joy. That is the goal is being able to do that together and that fuels me every day. It’s like: If I can create more beauty in the world everyday then I’ve done my job and I can go to sleep soundly and wake up for another day and do it again.”
For more information about Awaken Arts, please visit www.awakenarts.org