Instructor uses expressive arts to help others overcome challenges
By Darren Lum
Instructor Gary Diggins stands on a colourful interlocking rubber floor mat, in a classroom at Haliburton School of Art + Design surrounded by musical instruments as he talks about the power of expressive arts practice.
“The expressive art practice is a way of helping a person sit with some of those big things in life and also reflecting on what narrative could take them to a different future,” said Diggins.
It includes using art, craft, writing, music and movement to enable self-expression, which helps with growth, development and healing.
Through the “maturation process,” Diggins said people experience challenges of loss and change.
“And those circumstances often ask us to not just try to figure things out from an analytical standpoint, but they involve much more of the deeper psyche of the human being. So we sit with powerful questions: Who are you at this stage in your life? How will you handle this loss? What brings meaning back into your life? So those [things] down through time for philosophers and therapists have been the big questions. I call that soul work.”
HSAD, which is Fleming College’s Haliburton campus, provides an eight-week post-graduate expressive arts program once a year during the spring. Diggins is an instructor in the program.
During his 30-year career he has used his knowledge and background to help people deal with challenges in life.
On May 17, he used his experience and knowledge for the Yuva Arts Project in Guelph. According to its website this project is “a cross-cultural collaborative initiative addressing issues related to displacement and disintegration faced by marginalized youth groups across the world. Using arts as a medium, we aim to provide a space for youth to explore solutions, so that they may overcome social challenges that they experience.”
Diggins said the two-week Yuva Arts Project was started by Tamara Menon, who is a professional singer from India and helps people in Mumbai’s red light area in Kamathipura. She saw first-hand how music has the power to change lives.
In 2018, Menon was a community music student at Wilfrid Laurier University in Kitchener-Waterloo.
The arts exchange will help three youth groups, 12 to 15, who are “children of commercially sexually exploited women from India, Canadian Indigenous youth and newcomer youth in Kitchener-Waterloo.”
“She never forgot about those kids in India, so her dream was, just as I made that journey, ‘How could I airlift some of those kids to come to Laurier University and engage with expressive arts therapists and also with their peers and those peers could look like Indigenous youth, First Nations and new Canadians to Canada, largely kids from Syria,” he said.
Diggins said his involvement with the Yuva Arts Project stems from his experience.
“I have a background of working in conflict zones already. In Africa, I’ve done work in Uganda with former child soldiers. In Rwanda, with genocide survivors. A trouble zone in Nigeria and a little bit of work in Angola ... It’s been used in community building, but it’s also been used to help people with trauma,” he said.
At 68, teaching is a way to mentor and allows him to give back, he said.
“At this stage in my own life that my calling cannot only be a practitioner, but as a mentor in terms of the expressive arts practice,” he said.
He said he can pass his knowledge and experience on to others, particularly professionals who can add to their repertoire of tools to help others.
There have been changes in the practice since he started in Toronto in 1980.
When he started the people he worked with often included people with disabilities, in palliative care, spinal injuries, and those who’d had injury to the language area of the brain.
“I think over the decades what’s evolved over the many expressive arts is to recognize that a wider population could be served,” he said.
His own journey began as a professional musician where he opened concerts for established acts such as Alice Cooper. Now he is practising in Guelph and mentoring the next generation of expressive arts practitioners.
“A lot happened quickly for me and I found myself performing in big arenas and stadiums. I got to understand that there is an entertainment industry. Even though I felt a calling to be a musician, I realized I didn’t feel drawn to a life as an entertainer,” he said.
At that point he deliberated about his career options, whether he would teach or find another way.
A year later, he realized he would go back to school for psychology and learn about forms of music therapy.
“That expressive arts path became more of my calling,” he said.
Diggins said that HSAD is the ideal backdrop for expressive arts, which can include natural elements, something his mentor, Bill Plotkin, believed.
“His premise is that practitioners, therapists and counsellors are often dealing with the human element without regard to the larger human community. His practice is about including the larger figures and forces of nature in the therapeutic process. So, if a person is feeling depressed, he might ask when’s the last time you took a walk in the woods? And just had a quiet reflection upon how nature goes through cycles of disintegration and integration. It’s really important for me, and I believe [for] the students, to have that reminder of the cycles of life and the larger factors of beauty that sense the organic life threads not only the animate forces around us, but us as human beings,” he said.