Every quarter, Positive Activism seeks to discover a new activist and find out what what really makes them tick! This summer we were fortunate enough to speak with Emily Giles, an artist and activist working in Milwaukee WI. She works within the diverse communities in Milwaukee making connections with people through artwork in an attempt to benefit them on an individual, communal, and societal level.
Sarah: Hey, Emily, thanks so much for taking the time to talk to us about activism! we’re super excited for you to be our spring spotlight!
Emily: Excited to be considered! Thanks!
Sarah: How did your relationship with activism begin?
Emily: I think activism was always a direction my life was leading to since I was very young. Looking back onto my early years, I realize that I have always felt very deeply about everything in my life and I was always very curious and concerned about the world around me. As I began to have different experiences in my life, my own hardships, my direction towards activism sped up. I always had turned to artwork to heal and this gave me a lot of time to think about others who may be suffering in ways similar and different to my own, meaning in ways of mental health to things like dealing with poverty. When I started getting more dedicated to creating artwork I realized that I felt like I could use my skills to hopefully better the lives of others through art therapy and social action art therapy.
Sarah: Can you tell us more about social action art therapy? I’m sure our readers would be curious to know more.
Emily: Well social action art therapy is just one of the many ways that one can use art therapy. For myself, social action art therapy means using art therapy to bring about change in a social system of some sort, whether it be in a school, a community, or in a nation. The creation of artwork aims towards social change by either aiding in healing, bringing a community together, breaking down barriers and obstacles, and empowering individuals to make changes in not only themselves, but for the betterment of people they interact with in their day-to-day lives as well as future members of the community.
Social action art therapy could be an art therapist working with someone individually or in a group setting for positive social change, but could also be the art therapist using their own artwork to advocate, educate and bring to light, a political issue.
Sarah: Ah, very cool! When and where have you used this type of therapy?
Emily: I have done several projects that I would consider social action art therapy projects. Before I even thought of going to graduate school for art therapy, I was working at the Boys and Girls Club in Green Bay. I was the Fine Arts Coordinator for an after school program at an elementary school. This was the first time that I really was exposed to individuals suffering from poverty. As I was working with children and really getting to know them through the artwork they created, I realized how beautiful the children were inside and out and truly believed that the kids needed someone to advocate for them and give them a chance to feel like absolute rockstars. I began working towards having an art show for the children in the Green Bay community. I found a location where the children’s artwork would be able to hang for month. The Boys and Girls Club helped me throw an event for the children where they were able to be bussed to the location where there artwork was hanging. I remember them walking into the space, seeing their artwork on the wall, and just glowing. The kids were so proud of their work. One amazing thing about the night is that the space was public, so outside community members were asking the children about their artwork, telling them what great artists they were. I love thinking about this experience, I can remember the look on the children’s faces and it brings tears to my eyes every time, haha.
More recently, I was working on an event with an organization in Milwaukee called Arts@Large which was teamed with another organization called Serve2Unite which works in the Milwaukee Public School systems teaching children to react to acts of hate and oppression with I got to lead art projects with a high school class that worked to visually narrate poems that were written by victims of gender based violence including sex trafficking. This experience allowed me to help educate the high schoolers about an important social issue that is especially prevalent in our city, while teaching them how to empathize with others through art making. The high schoolers actually attended the event where their artwork was featured in a pop-up gallery. The women who wrote the poems were also at the event. It was an extremely powerful experience for me
Sarah: Do you have any issues that are near and dear to you, any issues that you personally strive to work for?
Emily: Yes, issues around gender and gender based violence is something that I am very interested in. My education and life experience allows me to see inequality and oppression that comes from the cultural stereotype that 1) there are only two genders and 2) that the masculine gender is often the one that is given more power. I have made art pieces about different aspects of gender to raise awareness and question different aspects of gender. The pieces I made with the high schoolers about sex trafficking are very near and dear to my heart because gender violence against women (and members of the LGBTQI population) is so prevalent. Sex trafficking occurs more often than we would like to think in the United States and the idea that women and girls could be sold for profit is making the sex trafficking industry worth almost as much as the drug trade
Sarah: Pretty scary stuff to think about. What role do you think your work plays in all of it?
Emily: I think that my work plays several different roles in it. The first being that doing projects such as the Untold Stories project with Arts@Large, brings to light the issue, or makes it apparent to those who may not have known that something so gruesome was happening. It makes community members aware of what is occurring.
It also plays a role in educating community members about a specific issues. The artwork itself gives a safe place for conversations to begin, and by asking questions about the meaning of the artwork, the community learns something about whatever issue the artwork may be about, in this case, sex trafficking and gender based violence.
Sarah: Community awareness is a huge part of the activism puzzle, yeah. How can someone care or fight for something if they don’t even know it’s an issue?
Emily: Right! One phrase I had never heard before I started my last project was that sex trafficking is a form of modern day slavery that has been hidden plain sight. By doing projects and creating artwork about sex trafficking or other issues, it is not hidden anymore. The artwork can play a very powerful role… for both creators and observers.
Sarah: You mentioned your education previously. Can I ask you about your educational background?
Emily: Of course! I went to the University of Wisconsin- Green Bay where I majored in both Art and Human Development and I minored in psychology. I am now currently at Mount Mary University in Milwaukee finishing up my degree in Art Therapy with an emphasis in counseling.
Sarah: What does your dream job look like?
Emily: My dream job looks like using art therapy in a community setting to empower adolescents and adults by providing opportunities, teaching art skills, providing and a place for healing. I would love to work both in the states as well as internationally with vulnerable populations. I should also mention that with my dream job and the work I with art therapy I am doing now, is that it is only sometimes that I am teaching skills and helping bring about change in the people that work with, but just as equally as often, the people I work with get a chance to teach me skills as a form of empowerment, and bring about a positive change in me, which is the best part of the work in my opinion.
Sarah: Do you have any advice for anyone reading this that might want to get involved?
Emily: Yes! My advice to anyone reading this that wants to be an art therapist, is to open your mind to what it means to be an artist and to what impact the creation artwork can have on an individual or on the community. Find a topic or a population that sparks your curiosity and interested and educate yourself. One major piece of advice that I am reminded of everyday in my line of work, is that you are enough and you are exactly who someone is looking for to help spark positive change in their lives. Lastly, as much as you want to go out and help as many people as possible, open yourself up to what you can learn from others and allow them to be enough just as they are as well.
I would also add, actually, that it is important to remember that you cannot help everyone and that you do not have the ability alone to change someone, change can only come from the person. Your relationship with the people around you and the safe environment you provide for them and the empathy and understanding you can offer them, will give the person the power to make the positive changes they need.
Sarah: Is there anything you’d like to add before we finish up?
Emily: I think the only thing left to say is that I hope people understand that art therapy is a lot more than those adult coloring books that are really popular these days haha! Working with an art therapist can provide a lot of good for individuals including relaxation and distraction, a way for individuals to expressive what they are going through in a creative outlet, allows for introspection, and can help individuals process and re-frame different life experiences. It is a therapy that does not depend on verbal communication, although those trained as art therapists are often able to work in talk therapy methods. Art therapy is an amazing tool for people to heal from whatever may be going on, and it can be fun!