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In new book, Vermont woman shares how the arts can help abuse victims

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The author, Tracy Penfield, is the founder of SafeArt in Chelsea, Vt., which recognizes how nonverbal communication, including in the performing and visual arts, can aid people who have endured abuse.

Tracy Penfield, founding director of SafeArt, recently completed "A Curriculum of Courage: Making Safe Art," a book based on her work at the Chelsea, Vt., nonprofit that uses the arts as therapy for victims of abuse and trauma.
James M. Patterson/The Valley News/AP | Caption
  • Nicola Smith
    The Valley News/Associated Press

In 1995, Tracy Penfield began volunteering at SafeLine, a domestic and sexual violence crisis hotline based in Chelsea, Vt.

A decade earlier, Penfield had left a destructive marriage out West to return home to the area, where she grew up. The stories she heard on the hotline floored her.

"I tell you, it was like being thrown into the front lines of domestic and sexual violence. I was humbled and awed by what people told me," Penfield said.

She understood then that she carried her own scars from her marriage, and she realized how valuable it could be to talk to someone without judgment – and to be heard.

As a dancer and weaver, she also recognized the role that nonverbal communication, specifically in the performing and visual arts, could play in helping people who have endured abuse. That led her in 2000 to found SafeArt, a nonprofit organization in Chelsea that offers workshops, classes and one-on-one counseling at no charge to people who need help.

Now Penfield has a book out, "A Curriculum of Courage: Making SafeArt," that explores how teachers, health professionals and individuals can use some of the techniques that she and other SafeArt personnel have devised to help people who have endured abuse.

The book covers a lot of ground, including the principles that SafeArt espouses, how to facilitate sessions and workshops, how trauma is believed to affect the brain and how people can use meditation, writing, dance and movement, the visual arts and theater to express what they're feeling.

"It's different from a step-by-step curriculum. I didn't want it to be an academic tome," Penfield said in an interview in her office.

She is not a psychologist, she makes clear, but she has done specific training over the years to work on issues of abuse. She envisions the book as a kind of cookbook: A teacher could dip into whatever section she wants to and adapt the advice to suit her classroom's needs.

Over the years she has given presentations to elementary, middle and high school students in the region because she would like to reach as many people as possible.

"When we go into a classroom, we get everybody," Penfield said.

The point, she said, is to show and tell people that if and when they seek out SafeArt, they can expect an atmosphere of "nonjudgment and non-expectation."

Mary Chin, who taught art at Oxbow Union High School in Bradford, Vt., recalled that a week's residency by the SafeArt staff showed students that they were not alone in experiencing abuse, trauma or even just the normal adolescent feelings of isolation.

"The kids sat in a circle and were asked, What was this like for you? The kids said, 'I thought I was the only one, and now I know that I'm not,' " Chin said in a phone interview. Students understood each other better, and that also helped to lessen any tensions between them, she added.

But it is not necessary for people to talk about what brought them to Safe Art if they do not wish to, Penfield said.

She remembered doing movement therapy with a woman whose gestures and way of holding herself were a clear metaphor for whatever it was that she'd lived through.

"She never told me what had happened to her, and I didn't ask her to," Penfield said. The objective was to support "the growth and healing of an individual, through nonverbal means."

Kim Donnell, a Hanover, N.H., resident who said she has experienced trauma, has been coming to SafeArt for nearly two years. She's attended workshops on writing haiku and working with horses that, she said, have "helped me get on track with movement and body work."

"I was like a statue until I met Tracy," Donnell said.

Raymond Chin, a clinical psychologist who practices in Hanover and works with children and adolescents (and who is married to Mary Chin), worked with Penfield on the chapter on trauma and the brain.

While talk therapy is appropriate for many people dealing with trauma, adults in particular, it often retraumatizes children because it forces them to relive the trauma. Furthermore, "sometimes the trauma will happen when children have very little verbal skills. To try to have them verbalize it would be developmentally inappropriate," Chin said in a phone interview.

This is where the visual and performing arts, and movement, can come in.

"You can take something that is very stressful and not only acknowledge it, but also use it as a driving force to create. People who are then able to create feel alive and, if you will, powerful," Chin added.