Sunday, April 17, 2011

Finding Sanctuary

Where I Live, ©2000, H. Hunter, 15" x 18", Acrylic, Caran d'ache on paper

Where do you find sanctuary?

I began to ask myself this question after a Trauma Informed Art Therapy Course I took last week in San Francisco.

When working with trauma victims, creating a sense of safety, or in other words, a sanctuary, becomes your top priority.

But how to do that? How to find safety in the midst of physical and/or emotional pain?

There are tried and true art therapy activities, but I wanted to go a bit deeper. The word "sanctuary" made me think of the Jewish practice of Shabbat. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, a 20th century theologian, wrote about Shabbat as "a cathedral in time"--a "place" in time rather than space in which a person could could learn to rest.

In other words, sanctuary could be a state of mind rather than an actual place. I began to ask people how they find sanctuary. Some of their answers:

"Sanctuary is being with my family, watching Dad make spaghetti and then sitting around the table eating it together." 
"Sanctuary is when my whole family is home and I can close the blinds and we are together and the rest of the world is outside."
"Sanctuary is running." 
"Sanctuary is my new kitten."

I took advantage of the art groups I facilitated and asked people to make collages of their sanctuaries and the guardians of these places. What emerged surprised me:

A gorilla with wise eyes staring out of the picture surrounded by bits of colorful pieces of quilts.
The eye of a tiger surrounded by spring green fronds of leaves.
The plain of a desert with two yucca plants in bloom.
A home built on the foundation of chocolate chip cookies.

In almost all the images, nature played a central role. It didn't seem to matter whether someone had ready access to nature, it was the time spent imagining and creating the image of a place that evoked a sense of restfulness.

It seems that with the ever increasing pace and pressures of modern life, this kind of sanctuary is more important than ever--a pause we take that allows us to touch base with something more primal and tangible. I'm curious how many of you use art as a refuge?  If not, how do you find sanctuary?


  1. I read a quote recently - I wish I had kept it. It was about Karma repair - get to a place where you can sleep and sleep. Find good food and eat. I think there was a 3rd step I can't quite recall.

    Rest, nourishment, and a long bath....restorative indeed.

    once that is accomplished, as you said being home and in contact with nature is very healing.

    Then art to process.

  2. Fascinating post. Even on a very basic level nature restores. I'd not thought of it, but perhaps that is why I'm drawn to painting trees. Food for thought - and thanks for that!

  3. Exquisitely written Hannah. I must send you a yoga/meditation practice I wrote a few years ago on Orei Miklat- Cities of Refuge...I think you will appreciate it.

    Chag sameach dear one...may your journey be one of deep peace.

  4. "A pause we take that allows us to touch base with something more primal..." I like that. I find sanctuary in art and nature, my family and my home.

  5. Thank you for this thoughtful writing. I too relate to nature as a nurturing place. I'm currently creating an installation for an exhibition called "A Place of Her Own" and my place is where ever I am and moving within that environment. The installation will have a community labyrinth for meditative movement, and videos of walking at the beach, forest, and desert.

  6. Hi Hannah.

    This is a beautifully crafted post and I love your image of Sanctuary.

    As a survivor and thriver, following severe violent sexual assault...I value the idea of being a 'portable unit' knowing that I carry my sanctuary with me like a turtle in her shell...not pulled in and closed off unless required...otherwise ambling about taking in the scene.

    Art/Life sanctuaries abound...and must be part of the natural world for me.

    happy Earth Day '-)

  7. Leslie--rest, nourishment and a long hot bath--that is often my own recipe! And thank you Laura, your words on finding a refuge within ourselves are an internal antidote.

    Patty--I love that you made that connection!

    Thank you Robyn...I'm happy you stopped by:)

    Judy--Please let me know when your installation will be on view and I will post it here. It sounds like a wonderful sanctuary to visit.

  8. Hannah,
    I loved this very thoughtful and touching post. I often indulge in food, lose myself in a fictional world through books, walk or just listen to music - very loud - if I need to find sanctuary in something. I have a friend who started painting after separating from her husband - art was an outlet for her hurt and anger but it became so much more to her after that. Thanks for this post.

  9. Greetings dear Hanna,

    For me sanctuary is found first in ones state of physical body and from there it evolves in the mind. With that said, it is equally important, at least for me to have a place of ones own where one shuts out the outside, but sometimes this is not enough and we need a tangible spot, a shrine.

    For me a place of sanctuary is found in the garden where I can be one with the earth, with Mother nature and the source of life. As for a tangible spot, I have a table but yet have to construct my shrine, a displaying a few pieces of items that have deep personal meaning.

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us,

  10. such a powerful process and post Hannah!! Thank you for sharing your beautiful Sanctuary. So rich and alive with symbolism, color and beauty.
    Art, and the process of making it, have always been my place of sanctuary and healing. Since childhood it is the only place I have consistently found feelings of security, peace, and a connection to the Divine. Next would be nature for me as well, and it is ever present in my art. blessings to you, xo K

  11. Missed reading your posts while I was traveling, caching up with them now.
    Beautiful painting!! I actually often find myself asking that question... My Sanctuary is when I am cooking... something about it so calming!

  12. Donna--I like the metaphor of the turtle--or honu as the Hawaiians say--it is a wise being that carries her sanctuary with her.

  13. A deeply insightful and beautiful posting. Sanctuary is getting more difficult to find, geographically speaking. Do you find that some people need more sanctuary time than others? I definitely need my quiet time, away from the noisy world, but that scares some of my friends who need constant stimulation or distraction.

    I have a space for an altar in a corner of my bedroom with a chair, candles and a jar of totems waiting, watching peacefully, in a Native American made piece of pottery filled with cornmeal. I've called on them many times throughout the years to guide me, protect me, show me the way.

    In a world filled with continual activity, technology and so many, many words, sometimes I just need to unplug from it all, even if it's only for a five minute rest with my eyes closed.

    Walking into those huge European cathedrals, with the intricately decorated tile floors and solid stone pillars, the golden light flickering through stained glass windows and the exquisite silence when no one else, but me, is inside brings a magical calmness to me. It's like G-d is communing directly.

    Looking, really looking, at how a flower is made, at tiny crawling creatures and how their wings/legs are attached, a spider spinning a web, being with a friend who really takes the time to listen to what you are saying, a memory that makes me smile from a long gone loved one, all little bits of sanctuary to me.

    Some years ago, a child kept tugging at his mother's hand, she was too busy to listen (on her cell phone), he just wanted to show her an ant carrying a small stick. I got on the ground with him and we watched everything of interest, at that level. His mother never stopped talking. What a missed opportunity---that child taught me so much in the space of a few minutes.

    ~ Madeline

  14. Grace--thank you for your thoughts. Art provides sanctuary for many I think. Like your friend after her separation, my sister is finding a place to mend by quilting.

    Egmont--I like the progression you offer--from the body--> shrine--> garden/nature, eg, working from the inside out. I find much comfort from a shelf in my studio that I've set up as a kind of altar--somewhere I can draw strength and inspiration.

    Karin--I find the crazier my work in the hospital is, the more I need to simply be in the studio to smooth out the wrinkles. And the longer I can be there, the deeper my sense of connection to G-d.

    Joyita--I love it! I can imagine you sifting, stirring and sauteing a many colored dish!

  15. While making art is where I truly feel like I am in my zone, safe and content, I also feel a deep peace when I am anywhere near the ocean. There is something about the breeze there that feels like it is cleansing the parts of me that may be stuck. I always feel better after a trip to the beach. Thanks for another thought provoking post Hannah!

  16. Maddy--Thank you for taking the time to create such a gorgeous list; altars, stained glass in cathedrals, the geometry of flowers and childrens' curiosity--you've helped me to regain balance.

    Dianne, You've reminded me of another one of my favorite places. The saline spray in the breeze actually helps to clear the lungs for asthma and CF patients!