How Art Helped Heal a City
In the wake of unthinkable tragedy, one CFA student proves that making art can deliver solace
By Lara Ehrlich | Photo by Conor Doherty
While serving in the Marines Infantry Sniper Unit in Iraq, Evan Gildersleeve combatted the long stretches of boredom punctuated by indescribable violence the best way he knew how: He sketched his fellow marines, the city of Ramadi, and the Iraqi people “to document what I saw, and my emotions,” he says. “In one hand, I had a sketchpad; in the other, an M240 machine gun.”
Upon returning to the States, shell-shocked and suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, “I turned to painting my sentiments, because it was a way to visualize what I was up against.”
His recovery took a bewildering turn after the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings, which echoed the violence he had experienced in Iraq and left him feeling adrift. “I have military skills, but I felt helpless because I couldn’t use them,” he says. Once again, he turned to the one skill he could use to help others, and to make sense of a world altered beyond recognition.
On a rainy spring afternoon, Gildersleeve and his wife, Petra, joined dozens of strangers at Boston University’s 808 Gallery to create art in honor of the first responders and bombing victims, including graduate student Lu Lingzi (GRS’13). This was the first “art marathon” event hosted by Still Running, a nonprofit effort founded by BU sophomore Taylor Mortell (’16) and alum Luca De Gaetano (’13). In the year following the tragedy, Still Running hosted a series of art marathons and community exhibitions, offering Boston citizens a conduit through which to help their wounded city heal and to give voice to the otherwise inexpressible.
An Art Marathon
Making art in response to tragedy was a natural impulse for Mortell. At 15, she had endured a traumatic brain injury and “having something to occupy my mind” had been instrumental to her recovery. “Art helped me feel productive, especially because I couldn’t do schoolwork. It felt good to be able to do something.”
A painting and sculpture major at CFA, Mortell creates contemplative oil portraits in earthy palettes, and the studio hours slip by as she surrenders to “the tactility and physicality of working the material. Making decisions about which colors to use and how to move the brush is a culmination of the mental concentration and the physical coordination of art-making. That’s when I am the most focused in mind and body.”
Mortell was inspired to launch Still Running, which is supported by grants from the BU Arts Initiative and Youth Service America, to give others the same opportunity to find focus and restoration through art. The idea resonated with her peers at BU, and she quickly attracted volunteers and advisers, including Hugh O’Donnell, professor of painting at CFA, and Jack McCarthy (GSM’02), an associate professor of organizational behavior at BU’s School of Management. McCarthy connected Mortell with local contacts that provided advertising support and financial assistance.
“Making decisions about which colors to use and how to move the brush is a culmination of the mental concentration and the physical coordination of art-making.”—Taylor Mortell
The art marathon events attracted a cross section of participants, including local artists like Gildersleeve, art students, community members, and curious passersby. “It was everybody,” Mortell says. “We got people ages 4 to 86; some said they didn’t know anything about making art,” but as they began to work, they realized something Mortell had discovered as a teen—the simple act of taking paint or crayon to a blank page can focus grief and deliver solace.
Painter Caitlin Serpico (’16), who donated several works to the project, says art helped her “release my feelings” about the tragedy. The glass depicted in her watercolor painting “shows signs of cracks and chips and yet it still retains water. I accompanied this image with a caption that states, ‘You may be cracked or chipped but that does not mean you cannot be filled.’”
In a piece by Massachusetts College of Art and Design student Alyssa Aviles, a brownstone rises from black and white charcoal into soft pastels, populated by swans freed from their Swan Boats. “I am struck by the way in which the city overcomes the harsh, white winter and blooms into magnificence,” Aviles says in her artist’s statement. “In the same way that Boston defeats the bitter cold, it has conquered a heartbreaking tragedy with resilience. I took images that to me represent Boston and created a scene that depicts a transition from a static, colorless space into a place that is triumphant with life and color.”
“I enjoyed seeing how making art helped people deal with what happened in their city,” says Mortell’s former high school art teacher, Meghan Dinsmore (’04, ’05), who participated in a number of the art-making events and, for her donation, illustrated the bold letters B-O-S-T-O-N with shoelaces and the city skyline. She found that “each member of the community who participated in Still Running had their own story to tell and dealt with their emotions in their own way.”
From Pasta to Paint
The arts tap into our psyches, providing a channel through which to express our emotions, says Nancy Lowenstein (SAR’87), clinical associate professor of occupational therapy at BU’s College of Health & Rehabilitation Sciences: Sargent College and a former art therapist. Crisis centers, hospitals, and rehabilitation facilities use art therapy to help patients heal from trauma; the process of selecting colors, shapes, and forms promotes healing. Different media helps people get at different emotions, Lowenstein says. Smashing clay might help one artist release tension and anger, while blending pastels might help another artist attain serenity. “People will find the media that works well for them, in terms of getting to those emotions and feelings.”
When Mortell was recovering from her brain injury, she worked in pasta. It may sound silly, she says with an embarrassed laugh, but cutting the spaghetti and arranging the pieces into flowers and robots was “soothing.” The process occupied her hands and alleviated her restlessness, until she was able to focus on more complex projects, like a self-portrait in tempera paint.
Artists also find that different tools help them express different emotions, as Gildersleeve discovered while creating his Military Experience in Oil Paintings series. “I used a palette knife to get out the feeling of what I experienced in Iraq,” he says. “It’s an aggressive tool that artists can use to attack the canvas, as opposed to making it refined and beautiful. It’s an emotional way to converse with the painting. A brush is a finer tool used for adding detail. It was a while before I was able to pick up a brush.”
“The artistic process helps people who feel helpless.”—Evan Gildersleeve
Lowenstein adds that the Still Running art marathon events were particularly effective not only because the participants were making art—but because they were making it together. “There are a lot of benefits to the pop-up art projects,” Lowenstein says. “When you’re in a group, you’re talking to people, sharing your experiences, and sharing your art. A lot of healing goes on.”
Though the art marathons were originally intended as sprints—just three weeks—they grew beyond Mortell’s expectations into a yearlong effort, with monthly community events hosted at locations throughout Boston. At each event, Gildersleeve says, “There were a lot of bright spirits and good energy, and it felt like we were able to do something. The artistic process helps people who feel helpless.”
Hope Lives On
Two weeks before the 2014 Boston Marathon, CFA hosted the final Still Running exhibition at the Boston Symphony Orchestra, where Dean Benjamín Juárez lauded the community artwork as “an expression of the feelings and emotions of those touched by what happened a year ago in Boston.” He presented Mortell with the 2014 Citizen Artist Award in recognition of her role as an advocate for art that serves as a positive force for enlightenment, change, and compassion. Mortell accepted the microphone to donate the Still Running artworks to first responders, members of the armed forces, marathon runners, the Boston police, and the family of Lu Lingzi.
Straight-shouldered in a suit with a Marine Corps eagle tie clip, Gildersleeve clapped for Mortell from the back corner of the room. His PTSD can be triggered by crowds. Still, when Mortell invited him to the podium, he navigated through the assembly to present his oil painting, Boston: Hope Lives On, to Superintendent-in-Chief William Gross of the Boston Police Department. The painting of a winged red cross surging up through blue and yellow swirls now hangs at the police headquarters.
“With each blast my heart perished, yet was saved by the selfless acts of the citizens of Boston that came to the aid of their fellow man,” Gildersleeve says in his artist’s statement. “Their selfless acts gave me hope. Disregarding their own well-being, they risked life and limb to save the hopes, dreams, and lives of all who watched.” Creating the painting allowed Gildersleeve to express his feelings about the tragedy, and donating it to Still Running allowed him to “end this helpless feeling inside.”
Additional reporting by Susan Seligson.
Homepage illustration by Nirlay Kundu.