The following question and answer session is an exclusive interview conducted by the Chicago to DC POV with Trauma2Art founder Lauren Muscarella (pictured on the left) and Trauma2Art contributor Tara Shlimowitz (pictured on the right) via e-mail.
Chi2DC: What prompted you to start the site? I know that your work on your personal blog MamaQuest had a a major influence on your work with grief and helping others dealing with grief.
Lauren: After I started MamaQuest.org, I had an overwhelming number of people reach out to tell me that the blog inspired them to start a journal. Another thing that happened was people started telling me about their own experiences. Everyone has such a unique perspective and it was obvious that there needed to be an outlet and forum to encourage this type of discussion.
Chi2DC: What prompted you (Tara) to join the site as a contributing writer? I know that you had known Lauren from school but what other factors aligned and enabled you to start working on this project?
Tara: Each time Lauren updated her blog, she would post a new link to her gchat status. I'd click through and read her posts, always thinking that it was so bold of her to openly talk about her feelings to the world. I've never been the type to just offer up such personal information. My outlet has always been writing, but I keep it to myself. I told Lauren how much I admired what she was doing, and then told her about my own experience with losing my father. She encouraged me to share my writing on her blog, and I always nicely declined, though deep down I wanted to but just didn't have the courage. Her strength was so inspiring that it led me to publish my first story about my father since a poem I wrote shortly after his death (it was published in a student anthology when I was 10).
Chi2DC: What is it about Trauma to Art that you feel helps bereaved individuals find a community? Or is the "end result" not a community but rather something else entirely?
L: Community development is a huge part of Trauma to Art. I think community development should be a part of everyone's business plan whether it's a non-profit or for-profit business. At its very core, Trauma to Art gives people who have experienced loss a forum to share their story. What I found from writing MamaQuest, which is true of Trauma to Art as well, is that the act of expressing yourself is equally as helpful as reading someone else's story. In one single act you help yourself and others. As far as community development goes, the start of our in-person meet-up groups will bring people together who normally would never have connected. The construct that brings people together essentially is grief but the bigger picture is advocating for expression as a powerful tool to cope with any hardship. Like Joan Didion said, "I write so I can learn what I think."
T: I agree with Lauren. It's very powerful to express yourself artistically and then have the courage and strength to share it with someone, anyone. T2A creates a forum where it's ok to express how you're feeling. Society doesn't really encourage grief. Immediately after trauma there is a "grieving period," but after that, that's what therapists are for. People feel awkward to be around someone who is grieving or talking about their loss after the nebulous grieving period is "over." You're supposed to hold it all in so that others don't feel uncomfortable. Heaven forbid you continue to express yourself in the most human way possible. But T2A is helping to diminish that taboo by providing a safe space for continued self-expression. There's something very human and also illuminating in sharing your feelings with others. The more people who realize that, the more acceptable it will be, and T2A is leading the way.
Chi2DC: (Lauren) Talk to me about this fundraiser. It's the organization's first fundraiser ever. It is a joint event. What gave you the idea for the fundraiser and why did you pick D.C. for its location?
L: Instinct. Even though I live in Massachusetts now many of the site's contributors and supporters live in D.C. After seven years of working and living in DC as well as going to American University, I amassed quite the family. There are so many people whom I love in D.C. So after I received my incorporation papers for Trauma to Art I naturally wanted to down to D.C. to have an event. Carlos, the owner of Coppi's, seemed like a good person to call because his restaurant has an amazing energy and he has experienced a great loss himself. In November 2009 his sister Nori Amaya was murdered in her apartment in NW D.C. When I called he told me her story would be on America's Most Wanted the following week. It just seemed like the perfect time to combine our causes. Getting the word out about Nori's case and having as many people as possible see her AMW is very important to me. Like you mentioned it's a joint event with half of the funds going to Trauma to Art and half of the funds going to The Nori Amaya Foundation, which supports women's self-defense.
Chi2DC: Many Trauma to Art contributors, myself and Tara included, live in D.C. How many are there? Next to D.C., what other cities are involved in the project?
L: Trauma to Art just started in November so it's growing every month. There is one other contributor in D.C., Amanda Heptinstall. She wrote an amazing piece about losing her best friend to suicide as a teen. Her story is so powerful. I feel honored to have worked with her on it. You can read it here In addition to what you see on the site, there are several other people in the D.C., throughout the U.S. and even in the U.K. who are currently working on pieces for Trauma to Art. A lot of people contact me about participating. I encourage everyone who contacts me, but I don't put deadlines on them. They come when they come. Everyone has their own individual creative process.
Chi2DC: Have you met any interesting people or heard any particular stories since joining up with Trauma to Art?
L: Yes! You! Since starting Trauma to Art I have become this available listeners. People approach me, email me, call me and share their stories. I feel so honored and grateful to play this role whenever I can. I don't feel its my place to tell those stories. I'm not sure I could do them justice. I encourage anyone who is curious to go onto http://trauma2art.com to read what is currently there. Tara's writing is great. Your writing is great. I'm inspired by everyone who has submitted a piece. The people who connect with me provide me with the fuel and inspiration to build Trauma to Art.
Chi2DC: If you could share any words of encouragement with someone going through a state of grief, whether that's the loss of a friend, family member, pet, etc., what's the one sentiment you would want to share with them the most?
L: I don't know if this is considered encouragement but I usually tell people the following: Accept that you'll make mistakes, commit to figuring out how to cope, love and respect the people who love you, be patient and over time you'll gain clarity. I tell people that writing and creating worked for me but I don't and will not push my ideas on anyone. People need to find out what works for them and if it happens to be Trauma to Art than I will be supportive and encouraging. The site and its writers, me included, are simply available resources.
T: My experience made me such a pessimist. I stopped believing in a lot of things. I was young, so I guess it just made me realize the harsh realities of life sooner than most people do. It's very difficult to lose someone close to you. Very difficult. But a loss should awaken you to those you still have around you. Kurt Vonnegut wrote that the "purpose of human life, no matter who is controlling it, is to love whoever is around to be loved." Take a step back and look at the people in your life who are most important to you. Love them. Appreciate them. And tell them that. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain.
Chi2DC: Trauma to Art has received a lot of attention in the grief community. Do you have any plans to take the site "up a notch" or to keep expanding its content?
L: The grief community has certainly made me feel welcome. The people in this industry are positive, supportive and inspiring for sure. As far as the site goes, like anything anyone works one, it needs to be evolving and updated constantly. I will be making some improvements to the site in the next few months. My biggest priority is making the information easy to find and the site easy to use. There is no need to overcomplicate it. It's a work in progress. As far as expanding the content, I will continue to work to raise awareness for the site. Like I mentioned, many people are currently working on projects and I don't push anyone to meet a specific deadline. I like to let nature takes its course.
Chi2DC: What is your ultimate goal for Trauma to Art as an organization?
T: I'd really like to see T2A take off. Where are the angel investors out there? I'd love for Lauren to get some funds to promote the organization, attract more contributors and eventually start community outreach/projects/programs. I'm helping Lauren in any way she asks -- editing, researching -- since this type of start-up requires lots of volunteer manpower. T2A has already done a lot for me, by showing me that I have the strength to be open about my experience. Since T2A unlocked that inside of me, I am happy to help in any way I can.
L: I have so many aspirations for Trauma to Art. To explain I have to back up about 13 years. This story was always in the back of my mind when I was working to bring the idea of Trauma to Art into fruition. My mother was diagnosed with breast cancer when I was 5 so the idea was pretty commonplace to me. As a kid I almost assumed everyone had a mum with cancer. When I was about 13, the mother of a girl I knew passed away from cancer. The girl was a few years older than me and she got into a lot of trouble after it happened. She started using drugs and hanging around with a bad crowd. I can't even explain how much this worried my mother. She talked to me about it at the time and made me promise her this would never be me no matter what happened. I was lucky enough to have an amazing support system of people around me and so that never was me but if the Trauma to Art community can prevent that from happening by providing an outlet than I think we would all feel very proud and accomplished. That story is one of the reasons Trauma to Art will publish an annual yearbook to distribute to schools for free. Everyone is welcome at Trauma to Art because I think a well-rounded age disparity is essential for any learning environment but young people are the ones to focus on, in my opinion.
For more information regarding Trauma2Art and how to get involved, please visit www.trauma2art.com.