Artist researches healing power of art

Victoria University PhD graduate Anne Riggs has seen how the power of art can uncover and start to heal the trauma and hurt buried inside society's most vulnerable.

Her recently published thesis, The Creative Space – Art and Wellbeing in the Shadow of Trauma, Grief and Loss, is a culmination of her 25 years work as a studio and community artist.

From her Highett home and art studio, Riggs has combined the community art with an interest in trauma, sorrow and loss to produce her thesis – a creative blend of art and psychology.

"Art can help us understand, acknowledge – and perhaps better accept – sorrow and loss, by providing the space to find clarity and express deep feelings," she said.

Riggs' doctoral research grew from her Master's of Fine Arts degree which focused on World War I and its long-term consequences on the emotions of soldiers and their families. In 2004, that study grew into an exhibition for the Shrine of Remembrance, 'Ritual, Light and Land, An Artist's Journey through the Western Front.'

Since then, she has collaborated in art projects with abused women, the mentally and chronically ill, and the disabled, showing them how mosaic, plaster and clay can help confront long-buried feelings.

"Their beautiful work is testament to their capacity for love and work. Not only did they share their experiences with me, they also did so in the hope that their participation would contribute to a better life for others who share a similar experience."

More recently, Riggs was involved in art projects for young women in Thailand's tribal regions who receive only a rudimentary primary education, and are routinely trafficked into the sex industry.

"We worked with schools to improve the self-belief of these young women because many had the idea they were hopeless," she said. "We helped them realise that their body is to be respected and lived in, and not just for sex."

Riggs said that although her own experiences of grief and loss are relatively few, she has always felt a deep and constant urge to examine and reveal the nexus of trauma, art, and healing.

"The outcomes from these projects are much deeper than I had anticipated," she said. "People who have been on the brink of suicide or heavily involved in drug-abuse have used art to address the muddle in their heads and create a space that allows love to emerge."

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