Finding Truth in Art
By Lorna Oppedisano | Photography by Alice G. Patterson
Jennifer Nadler, founder of The Center for Creative Arts & Healing, motivational speaker and sexual abuse awareness advocate, will be the first to admit she doesn’t consider herself an artist. That aside, art is a huge piece of her life.
Soon after Jenn began her career in Central New York as a middle school teacher, she started having panic attacks, feeling depressed and not sleeping well. She didn’t understand it at the time, but the students had become triggers for Jenn, who had been sexually assaulted throughout the seventh and eighth grade. Eventually, she resigned from her teaching position and went to an inpatient facility in Texas for a month.
Then came the time to return home and leave the safe world she felt had been created around her. The thought terrified Jenn.
Upon returning north, she aimed to maintain that feeling of security. Along with a psychiatrist and psychologist, Jenn found a support group specifically for female survivors of childhood sexual abuse. Each week, group members bonded over current struggles and celebrations, and the peer facilitator used art projects, an approach Jenn had become familiar with at the inpatient facility.
“It accesses things in a different way and helps you process things in a different way,” Jenn explained. “Some of our memories or our feelings are unable to be put into words.”
As she continued her journey, Jenn began to give presentations about her experiences. In late 2017, Jenn began offering her own support groups and individual sessions using art at her newly-opened business, The Center for Creative Arts & Healing. The center has evolved to help anyone wishing to incorporate art into their lives.
“We’re all born into the world with a clean slate. And then, some sooner than others, we are exposed to pain,” Jenn said, explaining the importance of examining the source of someone else’s seemingly destructive decisions. “So, I feel like we can all benefit from this kind of process. We’ve all got something we’re dealing with.”
The power of a truth
After a long hiatus — during which Jenn and her husband started their family — Jenn returned to teaching, this time in higher education, taking part-time positions at Le Moyne College and Onondaga Community College.
The renewed venture introduced her to PowerPoint. One day, while listening to her favorite music, Jenn began to envision images. She was moved to create a personal PowerPoint presentation. She made the beginning and end, not knowing exactly what it was she was crafting. Piece by piece, she determined what should go in the middle.
When she mentioned the newly-forming creation to her psychologist, he suggested it might be part of her process.
“It feels like something more,” Jenn said, “but I can’t tell you what.”
A friend who taught a victimology class at Le Moyne College agreed to let Jenn give the presentation to the class. Though she was terrified, Jenn admits, the reaction of the students was incredible.
“It was definitely hard,” Jenn said, “but there was something about it that felt a little freeing.”
Branching out to other local colleges, Jenn continued speaking. Thinking back, she remembered having anxiety before each presentation. It’s like being in a performance, she explained, except it isn’t a story scripted by someone else. It’s your own life.
She wondered if the audience might judge her or see her differently when the presentation ended. But the more she shared her truth, as Jenn calls it, the more she embraced her power.
“There was great power in stepping into my truth and owning it, and not being ashamed of it anymore,” Jenn said, “and really getting comfortable with the fact that there are always going to be people that judge other people, and I have to let that go.”
Jenn continued sharing her presentation, and she was eventually accepted to speak at a national conference. It’s spiraled from there, she said. Now, she travels nationally and internationally to share her truth. This April — both sexual assault awareness and child abuse awareness months — she’ll be speaking in Buffalo, Maryland, Chicago, California, Washington, Kuwait and Bahrain.
“I love meeting new people, witnessing even just a piece of their truth. I’ve made some really cool connections,” Jenn said. “It’s just been another layer of that onion of healing for me.”
After presentations, audience members often stayed and talked with Jenn about their own lives and experiences. Each speaking engagement presented opportunities for Jenn to make an impact on and connect with other survivors. The idea that her truth might stir something in another person and change their life excited her.
Sometimes, she’d exchange emails with those people later. However, since she often traveled to speak, those connections weren’t always long-lasting.
Jenn wanted to change that.
Last year, when she celebrated her 40th birthday, she asked herself, “What are your goals moving forward and what can you do about trying to get there?”
One of the goals — a pipe dream, she called it — was to open some sort of center where she could use the methods that helped her heal to aid other survivors of childhood sexual assault. After reflecting on her goals, Jenn decided to take the leap. She searched Craigslist and found the space at 327 W. Fayette St. in Armory Square.
Similar to her experience with art, Jenn hadn’t thought of herself as a businesswoman — but here she was, a business owner. After she secured the space, she began thinking about budgeting, marketing, advertising and other aspect of running a business. While the new venture made her nervous, the nerves motivated her.
“I was petrified when I started speaking, and now [the business is] a new thing to be terrified about,” she said with a laugh. “But it’s good. I think a little fear is good for all of us.”
Jenn started with what she knew, by offering group and individual sessions to female survivors of sexual abuse and assault. Then, she began getting calls from people who had suffered from other types of abuse or neglect.
“Is that OK?” they asked her.
Jenn had to take a step back and evaluate what she wanted the center to offer. The new pieces wouldn’t necessarily fit into the shoebox she’d created, Jenn said.
She reached out to the woman who’d run the support group that helped her when she returned to the area. Jenn learned her moderator had actually began by incorporating art into women’s groups. Then, someone had suggested she offer those groups for sexual assault survivors.
It was then that Jenn realized this was a universal need.
“Oh gosh,” she remembered thinking, “you can use this process for anything that you’re going through.”
How art helps
Jenn now offers both group and individual sessions at The Center for Creative Arts & Healing to anyone who needs them.
Each session begins with a check-in, to determine the best course of action for the remainder of the time.
“Getting to talk about what’s on your mind and your heart is where I like to start,” Jenn explained.
Then, some sort of meditation sets the stage for the art portion of the session. The art activity differs from person to person and group to group. Sometimes, there’s a focus. Other times, it’s open-ended. Last, there’s time to reflect. If it’s a group setting, individuals can get feedback from other participants if they choose.
While the group aspect was beneficial to her, she knows that not everyone wants to discuss their lives in front of others, let alone receive feedback from them.
“Without even saying a word, you’re exposing yourself,” Jenn explained.
Though Jenn plans to travel for most of April, she does have openings at the center for both group and individual sessions. Connect with her at creativeartsandheal.wixsite.com/center.
She’s also hoping to do a monthly crafting workshop in the future, open to anyone interested in joining.
“Just even making something with your hands can be soothing and calming,” Jenn said. “It’s not even that you necessarily have to come with some issue that you’re looking to explore. Maybe you’re just coming to calm your soul, make something, relax.” SWM
To connect with Jenn, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call/text (315) 552-0617.