Sitting in my twelfth grade English class, I was apprehensive about the next assignment that may follow the prior grueling several weeks. Our class had just studied Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and, frankly, everyone had had enough of the class in the midst of senioritis. Our teacher, Mr. Ricard, recognized this breakdown and decided to take a day to let us do what we wished. The assignment, which made a significant impact in my life, was his “Imaginary Journey.” It was a relaxing, yet mind opening experience that most people brushed off without even a second thought. However, I made it my own and felt a metamorphosis in my writing as it seeped into other interests in my life as well.
Mr. Ricard began the day by having us remove all items from our desks. He encouraged us to relax while we listened intently to his words as he turned off all the lights. His exercise was an oral story that we would imagine as our own. We put our heads down and relaxed all our muscles. Our minds were quieted as much as possible as he spoke. Each of us imagined ourselves walking through a misty, warm, sunny forest. At the end of the woods, there was a meadow, a stream running through its center, a bridge across the middle. As I approached the bridge, a figure greeted me, handed me a box. I opened open the box, pulled out the object inside. Once each of us imagined our object, Mr. Ricard turned on the lights and had us write down as much as we could about what we saw before sharing our experience with those around us.
My imaginary journey took me to an earlier time period, when I was 18 years old. I was wearing a white, long-sleeved sundress with a blue ribbon tied around the middle. I had on muddy, brown boots tied messily all the way up above my ankles. My golden hair was long and unkempt.
As I walked along a path in the dewy morning air as daylight streamed through the trees, I passed a blue bird struggling to make its way back up to its home. The meadow opened up at the end of the path, beamed with a glorious yellow glow that seared my brow with infinite pleasure. As I walked down the hill to the only man-made structure in sight, my eyes moved gracefully across every expanse of the heavenly nature surrounding me. I grazed the tall brush with curious fingers as I ambled down towards the center of Mother Earth’s natural crater. A soldier in a military uniform, a blue and gray Revolutionary brand, awaited me on the bridge. The buttons on his jacket beamed like the sun as he turned to face me, pale blue box in hand, tied with a white ribbon. His face was blurry. He was tall and stood as if he’d carried the burden of others on his shoulders. He was strong and made me feel unwaveringly safe. When he held out the package, I untied the ribbon and opened the box. It contained a white dress. Without removing the garment from the box, I slid the lid back on, smiled, and walked away.
Through Mr. Ricard’s assignment, I became aware of how much I loved taking a visual image and enhancing it with words. I have always been in love with art; but, I never realized just how much words and images could affect another. Having discovered this connection between pictures and words, I found my niche. I realized how to change the most ordinary idea into an insightful visual image through words. For example, one can say, “The cat walked over to its owners when they had food.” But that is not a picture worthy to be imagined. Instead I would say, “The ravenous feline slinked its way towards his master in an elegantly sly manner, with the precautionary agility of a fully grown lion awaiting to pounce on his prey.”
My story blossomed from the “Imaginary Journey” over the course of a few years into more than fifty pages focused on the American Revolution’s Battle of Camden, and is an excellent creative outlet for me when I need one. After such an intense and rewarding experience, I have written several other stories, some just as long in length and others which I have only begun.
Writing has opened up a variety of doors that allow me to experiment creatively. I took my stories and turned them into artwork and vice versa for the rest of my senior year. High school was not the best of times for me—as it was for many—and finding this hobby was a way for me to feel as if I had a purpose. This feeling is what led me to art therapy, which, as a college student, is now my career goal. I discovered that art and words work together to help resolve problems and find a sense of relief.
Within my work I use specific prompts that allow emotion and creativity to be an outlet for deeper thought. In my first undergraduate piece for Fine Arts class, I was instructed to use plain black paper to depict a silhouette of my biggest fear, or a fear I had to face in the past. It is here that I chose to reveal to my classmates my diagnosis of a heart condition: neuro-cardio syncope. Before my diagnosis, I experienced acid reflux, chest pain, decreased blood circulation, dizziness, and finally, loss of consciousness. Although my symptoms were minor in comparison to what they could have been, I was shaken by the thought of my condition getting in the way of living my life as a carefree sixteen-year-old athlete. At a time when all I wanted to be was normal and to fit in, I was passing out in the back of my history class and monitoring my blood pressure three times a day.
When my diagnosis was confirmed—a connection loss between my heart and brain—I was able to manage my condition and also continue doing the things I loved. Before my diagnosis, however, I was quite nervous that it was something much more serious. In my depiction of this fear I used the outline of flames searing through a rib cage and a bleeding, bursting heart creating a pool of blood on the floor. In the process of creating this work, I learned a lot about who I am and what I have been through that makes me unique. I have had to overcome an obstacle, but not let it limit my abilities. In the years following my diagnosis I proved to be an asset to my school athletic teams and was granted a medical waiver into the United States Army ROTC program, despite my condition. My artwork reflected the pain I went through and helped me therapeutically work out my emotions that I had not fully accepted and made me see just how far I had come.
My work has also been used to depict the emotions of others. This may not be therapeutic for those involved but it has taught me to study the emotions of others and what they may be going through. In particular, I drew a series for a project reflecting hardships. I chose three older black-and-white photographs of mothers caring for children while their countries were at war. The series is entitled “Mothers Fleeing War.”
Figure 3: “Mothers Fleeing War” series, charcoal pencil
My belief in healing through art and words was strengthened by working as an apprentice for Hero Design Company. I met with children dealing with hardships at hospitals, recovery centers, and the like. My team allowed these children who had gotten used to being poked by needles and wearing masks just to play with their siblings to open up about the things they’re good at, proud of, and believe in—in spite of how bad they may feel, or if their blood cell count is still too low to go home just yet. I took their stories and turned them into their own personal insignias, displayed on custom-made capes. I also wrote letters to them explaining their strengths. Seeing them light up when they were recognized as the heroes they are gave me even more inspiration to work with art and with writing.
A little girl I’d met while working for Hero Design Company surprised me. When I first met Haley she came down the stairs in her nightgown clutching tight the hand of her mother. This five-year-old girl wore a mask around her mouth and blue, latex gloves that went all the way up to her elbows. She looked so tiny and weak that it was hard to imagine her as being a normal kid. At first I hoped she would not come to my table because I was not sure if I’d be able to work with her without feeling uncomfortable; for, I had not worked with anyone like her before. The more I got to know her story, I became aware that Haley was, and still is, one of the strongest people I have ever met. She has Diamond Blackfan Anemia, a rare disease that depletes the number of red blood cells in the body. Haley was diagnosed at five months old and has been through treatment multiple times. She has had to move states away from her home, family, and friends in order to stay alive.
As Haley told me about her interests and her strengths, the one thing that stood out most was the love she had for her sister, Zoe. Her family was strong, and supported their “Haley Bug” more in her short five years of life than I have supported anyone in my twenty. Haley’s cape was shaped like a target, a depiction of the movie Brave, since she loved Merida for her strength, a trait also apparent in her. The three rings represent the members of her immediate family and how they embrace and support her throughout her healing process. The center dot stands for Haley, shaped like those found on a lady bug, which is her favorite animal. The colors blue, pink, yellow, and green are the same as her favorite animated character, Doc McStuffin. Haley loves this character, and the show because she wishes to become a doctor when she grows up so she can help children like herself.
A few weeks after showing the cape to Haley, her sister, Zoe, came in to get one of her own. Zoe was just as strong and admirable as her sister. Haley’s description of her sister accurate. She explained, “She is pretty. Like her heart.” Zoe opened up to me. She told me the best day she has ever had in her seven years on this earth was when she saved her sister’s life. It was then that I learned Zoe was Haley’s blood marrow donor. The respect and love they had for each other was inspiring, especially to me being the youngest of six girls. I had not fully realized all the little things that my siblings had done for me until I got to meet these little girls. To express the connection they had with each other, I created a horse head for the little self-proclaimed cowgirl, with the mane swirling into the rings of Haley’s target. Since Haley lived every day with a part of Zoe in her body, it was important to have a part of Haley represented on Zoe’s cape. It was another amazing experience seeing how a story could be transformed into a visual art and representing someone’s life in a way that goes beyond words. It also shows me how art therapy can combine my interests of stories, healing, and art into one.
Way back in Mr. Ricard’s class, I took the opportunity to expand my literary experience much further than just the word “relax.” My “Imaginary Journey” brought me to a place where I can connect with my own sense of self-worth, my art, and my love of history. This experience also led me to the revelation that I can help others. I became aware that as a writer and artist I can influence other areas of interest and draw power from these connections. Experiences like these can improve much more than our writing if we let them; these events also provide an opportunity to connect with our writing and creativity in a new and meaningful way.
Erica Mysinger initially wrote this essay for an Intermediate Composition course with Professor Gary Vaughn during the fall of her junior year at the University of Cincinnati. The following spring, the piece won second place in the English Composition category of the University’s s Annual Writing Competition. Erica will graduate this spring with a major in Psychology and a minor in Fine Arts. She will also commission as a Second Lieutenant in the United States Army out of UC’s Army ROTC program. It is her goal to further her schooling to become an art therapist, most likely working with military children and veterans.