There’s a little classroom and an art studio on the west side of Nashville that is doing a lot to bring healing to a hurting community.
Nearly four years ago, Eileen Wallach, 59, lost her husband, Rick Dewey, to suicide in August of 2011.
The next year, in March of 2012, she started Your Heart on Art, a 501c(3) non-profit organization that focuses on using art as a therapy technique to promote emotional healing for those living with grief, fear, pain, or stress.
A licensed social worker, Eileen has helped heal many wounds and helped form bonds and communities of people who share a traumatic experience.
“It’s like journaling using color,” she said. “We help people use the creative expressions of life to articulate what they can’t say.
Eileen explained that she is not an art therapist and does not do art therapy. Instead, she said she uses art as one of her therapies to help heal people. When a group comes in she doesn’t critique or analyze.
“We’re not diagnosing people, we’re giving them the opportunities to get rid of the committees in their head, feel from what’s inside, and put it out there artistically,” she said. “Once you create that, you look at it and all of a sudden you’re able to find those words to articulate what you just purged.”
Your Heart on Art doesn’t use paintbrushes. Weird? Maybe not.
“If you don’t know how to paint, and you want to learn how to express yourself when you walk into an art studio and someone gives you a paint brush that’s going to raise that anxiety and make you sweat,” Eileen said.
A typical class is three hours. Eileen simply uses descriptive passages to invoke imagery and with minimal instructions allows the class to paint what they feel. After each exercise the class is given the opportunity to share their thoughts or feelings about their art.
“We pretty much work with any traumatic life-altering event,” she said. “You might have lost your keys this morning and become totally stressed out, that’s a life-altering events. You might have had an interview that you missed because you lost your keys.”
Eileen does a lot of bereavement classes or classes working with grief. She said there are different kinds of grief like the pain of having your identity stolen or the pain of losing a child.
“If we’re doing a domestic violence class everyone in the class has been touched by domestic violence,” she said. “We don’t mix and match because we want people to be able to relate to each other. It’s another great way for people to form bonds with people who understand what you’re going through.”
Your Heart on Art also uses creative expressions like drawing, drumming and vibrations program, dance, movement and poetry.
Eileen said no one heals the same way and that her use of art for therapy is not a replacement for traditional talk-therapy but a complement or another option.
Eileen is a born and raised New Yorker, born in Brooklyn and growing up on Long Island.
In 1970, her father moved their family to Tasmania, Australia.
“My father was very philanthropic. He believed that if you make a lot of money there’s only so much you need and the rest should go to those in need,” she said.
At the time, Eileen’s father worked with the Australian government in adding powdered protein to third-world country’s food sources.
From Australia to West Africa, Eileen and her family traveled back and forth working with tribe’s people to help them sustain fisheries.She said her father always believed money should go to people in a way to educate them and let them be self-sustainable on their own, and she is very much like him.
She dropped out of high school before moving to Australia and when she arrived back in the United States she acquired her GED at 17-years-old and entered a junior college in the mountains of Pennsylvania.
After junior college, she moved to Tampa, Florida and graduated from the University of Tampa in 1979 and eventually got her Masters in social work in 2006 from University of Tennessee.
In the eighties, Eileen came to Nashville to become the recreational services director for the Jewish Community Center. After a few years she left to start her own private investigating company called, Con-Be-Gone.
“Then 9/11 hit. I’m a social servant so private investigating was not where I needed to be. Someone offered to buy the company and sold the company.”
She said from there, she decided she wanted to do something that made other people feel good. She decided to take clown classes and follow the footsteps of Patch Adams, an idol.
“I went to clown school and clown college. It was my life,” she said.
She taught people how to use humor and laughter to optimize a healthier lifestyle, but when her husband passed she said things were different.
“When Rick died it was very hard to fake putting on a clown outfit and being that happy go-lucky person again,” she said. “I went from one extreme to the other.”
“I had been away for ten days, and I had seen some change in Rick, but I figured we all go through that in our lives,” she said.
Eileen, who still resides in Cheatham County, said she arrived home on a Sunday and her husband and her mother went out to dinner that night. The next morning, she got up to make coffee and as she walked back into their bedroom, her husband had shot himself.
Rick was the superintendent of the two penthouses in the Icon luxury apartment building in The Gulch. After that, he started his own building company and then the floods came.
“I’m sure that’s when a lot of the depression started because he was paying his guys a lot of money and didn’t want to charge people that lost their homes. He was very much like me,” she said.
“Tennessee is fifth in the nation for suicides. That’s so much pain in our state,” she said. “We all have whatever in our lives and who are we to judge. We are here to extend that hand and say, ‘I don’t know if I can help you, but you can have a piece of my heart.’ And that’s what I do. I give people a piece of my heart.”
Last year in an art display called In the Raw, Your Heart on Art constructed three art panels that were 6 foot long by three feet wide made by 50 suicide survivors. It was hung by raw rope with raw statements provided by each survivor.
This year, in an art display called Inside the Darkness, those touched by suicide use paint, tissue paper, and cut out words from magazines to show the difference between what is seen on the outside and felt on the inside.
“I love what I do, but I’m starving,” she said openly. “I have not taken a salary since we’ve opened because every dollar that we make pays for the rent and all the art supplies.”
Eileen said she lives off donations, and tries to get sponsorships, which can be difficult to do.
“It’s really hard, but for me this is my healing process,” she said. “I’m going to be 60 this year, and when I’m suppose to be thinking about retiring, this is my calling.”
Eileen said when she got the first grant of this past year for Napier Elementary School it blew her away because it was with a very large company called William, Morris Endeavor Entertainment.
“They found us and asked if we would create this program to work with the kids there and we did,” she said. She said on the first day of the program she showed up wearing clown shoes. She also admits to still having a box of clown noses in her office.
“We believe you have to give back to the community, so when we work with kids that are 5-14 years in different programs they each get a box of art supplies. It’s called Your Heart in a Box,” she said.
“Everyone in our community has something they need to heal,” she said.
She said sometimes the community could feel “clique-ish.”
“We’re not stepping on toes. We’re all looking to help heal people,” she said. She explained that her avenue of art therapy should be used with other creative therapies instead of businesses wrestling with clientele.
Eileen said it takes a lot of communities to build a village, and Nashville is growing out of its seams. She said there are a lot of people in the city that are into the arts, but are unaware of expressive places where people can create.
“We believe we need an integrated community center that houses music, art, drama, poetry, therapies, meditation and yoga. What we are missing is a place where all the expressive arts are housed in one place, and that is our goal.”
“If it wasn’t for those three organizations helping me take those baby steps to teach me what I need to learn to run this place, I wouldn’t be here.”
Centers for Nonprofit Management has allowed Eileen to make grants, Arts and Business Council has helped her find board members, and Hands On Nashville helped them find volunteers.
“Ninety-two percent of people feel better when they walk out, but there’s nothing wrong with feeling worse either,” she said also stating that she keeps evidence based research from pre-class and post-class evaluations.
“It’s not a bad thing if you feel worse. That’s great, that means I did my job, because I invoke those emotions enough in you where you’re actually feeling them now and dealing with them.”
She said for people who feel like a ten when they leave, they work through those emotions and that you’re feeling better about them. It’s just how you look at it.
Form more information, places to donate, or opportunities to volunteer for Your Heart on Art, visit their website: yourheartonart.com.