It is recognised in the area of child therapy that creative arts is an effective method to assist children’s expression of feelings, thoughts and memories in a healing and restorative process (Malchiodi, 2001; St. Thomas & Johnson, 2007). The arts are seen to offer a more effective and less threatening means than talking therapies in helping children to express, process and integrate their experience of trauma and natural disasters (Gross & Hayne, 1998; Malchiodi, 2001; St. Thomas & Johnson, 2007). Julien Gross and Harlene Hayne’s (1998) study indicates that drawing increases children’s ability to give verbal expression to their experiences. The process of art facilitating communication and emotional expression after the experience of trauma has been explained in child therapy literature as: creating a non-threatening and non-confronting environment; promoting memory retrieval and processing; and allowing children to give visual and verbal expression to what is often referred to as ‘unspeakable’ events (Gross & Hayne, 1998; Malchiodi, 2001). Valerie Appleton (2001, p. 6) maintains that as trauma ‘is stored by the memory as imagery’, creative arts will assist in the expression and processing of the experiences of trauma.
Community development literature describes collective learning and transformation that occurs in creative community development and recovery processes (Aprill & Townsell, 2007; Lowe, 2000; Puleo, 2014; Scher, 2007). With the creative arts being used more widely in the area of community development the benefits of these programs are increasingly being recorded. These benefits are summarised as: creating a safe environment; a record of history; increased connectedness, interaction and support; identification of shared concerns and meaning; fostering individual and community reflection and transformation; and facilitating social change (Aprill & Townsell, 2007; Lowe, 2000; Scher, 2007).
Not unlike the field of art therapy, the arts-led community development and recovery literature suggests the use of arts for expression produces a restorative and healing process at an individual level. However, it also contends a collective recovery process will evolve in a community arts-led program (Cunningham, 2007; Puleo, 2014). Haroon Ahmed and Naim Siddiqi (2006) distinguish art therapy from arts led recovery as having different emphasis on process and product. The art work produced in therapy is commonly used as a means to interpret and assess problems, development, ability, personality and adjustment (Gross & Hayne, 1998; Malchiodi, 2001). Whereas in arts-led recovery, the central aim in working with people after a disaster is to foster the expression and communication of experiences which can have a restorative and healing effect for individuals, families, groups and communities (Ahmed & Siddiqi, 2006). Similar to community arts development, this approach places the individual and communities as experts in the process in explaining their art and giving personal and communal meaning to their experience (Ahmed & Siddiqi, 2006; Mutch & Gawith, 2014).
In a time of unprecedented incidences of natural and human-made disasters, there is growing evidence of arts-led community recovery programs being employed as a means to build community capacity and resilience. While research and evaluation has been conducted in a number of arts-led recovery programs conducted overseas, further engaged research and evaluation is required to capture the contextual characteristics and outcomes of the numerous art-led recovery responses in Australia. Thomas Puleo (2014) and Claudia Bernardi (2010) identify the arts-led recovery as facilitating the recovery of memory, providing a historical record and testimony, promoting the expression of traumatic experiences, and assisting the individual and community to integrate the past, present and future for the creation of a shared meaning and new reality, that might initiate social action for social change. The literature recognises that the process of arts-led recovery returns a sense of control undermined by trauma, where creative expression and representation allow individuals and communities to help order and integrate painful memories and experiences so they can then be shared (Smilan, 2009). Ahmed and Siddiqu (2006) and Cunningham (2007) have witnessed the ripple effect of people involved in community arts projects sharing their art with peers and family which facilitates self-expression and collective meaning making, the reduction in isolation, and building connections in the community.
A number of authors (Chilcote, 2011; Mutch & Gawith, 2014; Prinstein, La Greca, Vernberg, & Silverman, 1996) recognise the impact of natural disasters on families, schools and community which in turn affects their ability to meet children’s emotional processing needs at this time. Parents’ and caregivers’ common response to trauma is to protect children and family from further distress which can lead to a reluctance and lack of confidence in their ability to explore emotional expression with their children (Mutch & Gawith, 2014). Parents or caregivers are likely to adapt the strategy of returning to routine and roles in response to trauma (Mutch & Gawith, 2014). This is often expressed as a desire for things to return to ‘normal’. Additionally, schools that have been directly affected by disasters may similarly adopt this strategy out of necessity to meet the physical needs of students, and return children to classroom tasks to meet curriculum demands and timeframes (Mutch & Gawith, 2014). While returning to routine and roles is recognised as an effective strategy in trauma recovery, there is consensus that it is not a strategy to be used in isolation or at the expense of children not being supported in their emotional processing of disasters and being active participants and contributors to their community’s recovery (Mutch & Gawith, 2014; Prinstein et al., 1996). Cathy Smilan (2009) identifies that the classroom provides a supportive space for children to express and emotionally process trauma events and that partnerships between schools, creative arts organisations and counselling can offer an empowering creative recovery response in this context.