Health & Fitness

Art exhibit an exercise in trauma therapy

Jennifer O’Neill Pickering’s “Young Woman with a Red Bird” is among the works in the “PTSD Nation” exhibit at CSUS.
Jennifer O’Neill Pickering’s “Young Woman with a Red Bird” is among the works in the “PTSD Nation” exhibit at CSUS. PTSD Nation

When art curator Diana Bilovsky presents her most recent exhibit, she wears a gold-star pin on her lapel. It reads, “I’m a hero. I live with PTSD.”

She gave similar tokens to the 32 artists who contributed to “PTSD Nation: Art and Poetry From Survivors of War, Gun Violence, and Domestic Abuse,” on display at California State University, Sacramento. The pins are a nod to the courage participants mustered to create their submissions – visceral, heart-wrenching and inspiring depictions of individual struggle, pieced together to tell a story about post-traumatic stress disorder.

PTSD, which the National Institutes of Health says affects about 7.7 million Americans each year, is a mental health condition caused by a deeply terrifying or traumatic event, or series of events. People experiencing PTSD may suffer from a wide range of symptoms, including flashbacks, bad dreams, guilt, depression, tense or angry behavior, isolation and problems with memory. While symptoms can subside over time, for many they are lifelong.

Bilovsky, 67, who still shows symptoms of PTSD she acquired from child abuse, domestic violence and stalking, said the exhibit has helped her and fellow survivors heal. The Los Angeles native, who has a background in community organizing, moved to Sacramento a few years ago. She had no curating experience but tried her hand at it in 2012 with the debut of “Creating Freedom: The Art and Poetry of Domestic Violence Survivors” at the California Museum.

This time, on a mission to bring awareness to what she calls a stigmatized and under-treated condition, Bilovsky approached PTSD victims from around the country who had experienced war, gun violence or domestic abuse and asked them to submit a piece of art or poetry in one of four categories: causes, symptoms, triggers and retraumas, and healing.

“All these artists had to go back into the pain of their trauma – they had to re-experience the trauma to do this art,” she said. “To have it turned around and be honored for the fact that you lived with abuse and trauma and you’re being called a hero for that … that makes a different space for people.”

Placards accompanying the 46 submissions start with the prompt, “I want the public to know …” and include a paragraph about the motivation behind the work.

While most participants did not consider themselves artists before their involvement, the pieces are diverse and visually striking. A “before and after” painting of a brain on PTSD tells the story of a mother whose daughter was killed in the 2012 mass shooting at an Aurora, Colo., movie theater. A collage of photos and news clippings from the Sacramento Valley Veterans, one of the exhibit’s four co-sponsors, describes the retraumatization experienced by some soldiers during parades and fireworks displays.

“I decided that art hits you viscerally, and that’s what I need,” Bilovsky said. “I need people to get this in their gut, because that’s how we get it. It’s a full body thrust for us, and I want people to know that.”

Bilovsky first pitched the two-year traveling exhibit, which she is funding, to the local university, where it will stay through Dec. 13, before traveling to Naperville, Ill., San Jose State University and the University of Oregon. The other sponsors are Wellspring Women’s Center, the California Chapters of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence and the Sacramento Poetry Center.

Julia Marshall, who returned to the United States in 2011 after seven years of Army service, which included tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, said she started working on her mixed-media piece in 2007 and picked it up again when she returned from combat. She added dog tags to commemorate a fellow soldier who committed suicide after his service.

The 34-year-old Sacramento resident said she’s had trouble transitioning back to civilian life, describing an “urgency and forcefulness” she had to learn in service that eroded some of her people skills, including trust. She said she saw a lot she could relate to in the stories of other survivors.

“The night of the opening just confirmed for me that what I’m experiencing is so human,” she said. “It doesn’t take away from my pain, but helps to share it around a little bit more. … It felt like a conversation that was a long time coming for me.”

Opening night was harder to handle for Susan, who asked The Bee not to use her last name as a survivor of stalking and domestic violence. Looking at the art all at once was overwhelming, she said. Her own piece, drawn out like a Candy Land board game with arrows pointing from one space to the next, recounted all the places she moved around to while trying to escape her abusive husband.

“It was extremely painful trying to piece that together,” she said. “I couldn’t even bring myself to finish the piece. … Diana said that’s how it is for us sometimes, trying to assemble our lives and function on a daily basis.”

Though treatment for PTSD typically involves a combination of therapy and medication, Rebecca Cameron, professor of psychology at CSUS, said confronting trauma through art in a controlled and careful way can be beneficial for some PTSD sufferers. She said having social support is particularly important.

Susan said country line-dancing helps her stay positive.

Amanda Wilcox said she and her husband have found that gun-violence advocacy has helped them cope with the death of their 19-year-old daughter, Laura Wilcox, killed in a 2001 shooting rampage as she was filling a holiday shift at a Nevada County mental health office.

“From this exhibit, the hope is that people who haven’t experienced PTSD have a greater understanding for and patience with those who have it,” she said. “There is some stigma about it, people not wanting to go there or think about it. It’s really important to remove those barriers and help people recover, to whatever extent they can recover.”

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PTSD Nation: Art and Poetry from Survivors of War, Gun Violence, and Domestic Abuse

What: A traveling exhibit of works by artists who have suffered post-traumatic stress disorder

Where: University Library, California State University, Sacramento. 2000 State University Drive East, Sacramento

When: 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Tuesdays through Saturdays through Dec. 13

Information: Find PTSD Nation Art & Poetry on Facebook.