The opportunity to grab a book and lose yourself in a fictional realm. That album that always cheers you up or helps you make sense of the feelings in your chest. The ability to reflect the world back to us in a way we can digest. These are just a few examples of the gifts that artists have been able to give us to help us get through 2020.
We depend on artists as storytellers and healers. Black artists find themselves in a unique spot during a surge in the Black Lives Matter movement and the COVID-19 pandemic. How do they practice self-care amid the chaos?
I asked artists and mental health facilitators if they had any tips or personal practices for self-care, and they gave insights into how they uniquely care for themselves and how you can care for yourself.
Define Self-Care for Yourself. The term “self-care” may seem whimsical or sound like another thing on your list, but it helps to simplify it to fit your life, the artists suggest. “I define self-care as any healthy action or decision that is helping you to operate as a better person in your proceeding moments,” says Sylvia Sykes, a Black artist in Akron.
Vanessa Michelle, a graphic designer and journalist, suggests self-care is simply treating herself with respect “in regards to my time, money, desires, and patience.” She extends this respect to include her personal and professional life, emphasizing the importance of respecting yourself and your feelings on and off the clock.
Dominic Moore-Dunson, a dance theatre artist, takes it a step further to acknowledge the tendency for artists to be “constantly giving ourselves for others.” However, it is important to remember to give to yourself. Dominic defines self-care as simply “Care about yourself. And if anything, I would add the word ‘first.’”
Editor’s note: Dominic Moore-Dunson is a founding member of The Devil Strip’s Board of Trustees and a co-owner of the magazine. Josy Jones covered this story independently and Moore-Dunson did not see this story before publication.
Set boundaries. It’s easier to acknowledge the importance of self-care than it is to practice. Leatisher Granville is a Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor who encourages setting boundaries. Each artists’ boundaries allow them to take a step back if they feel necessary. Leatisher acknowledges that we are in a crisis and that these times are “hard enough without being tied to unnecessary commitments and relationship interactions.”
Dominic exercises this practice by limiting the amount of Zoom meetings he has in a day. He sets “strict boundaries around how long I will work into the afternoon/evening.” This makes it easier to not have to remind himself or write it in as a task.
Vanessa shared that she likes wielding the word “no” to defend her own boundaries. “My favorite form of self-care is saying no. I take time to evaluate everything that comes my way… before, I would just say yes to things that I really wanted to say no to.”
And Vanessa is right. Leatisher notes, “Saying no can help you focus on recovering from the crisis.”
Accept what you can’t control: Self-care requires you to be self-reflective. Leatisher points out that “Much of our stress is because we fixate on things we cannot control.” Instead, she suggests to focus on what you can do.
It can be simple. “I’ve been careful about… the kind of information I consume on and offline,” says Vanessa Michelle.
Others, like Sylvia Sykes, have had feelings of guilt and duty as an artist creep up on her during this time. Sykes says those heavy feelings have “really blocked” her artistic process, but she has refocused that energy by taking “other actions that are ultimately helping [her] artistic journey and getting back into the flow of creating.” By doing so, she is focusing on what is in her control.
You don’t have to do anything/Don’t be afraid to shift: The uncertainty in the air has caused a creative block for some, as Sylvia expressed. Vanessa Michelle’s plans for travel, work and filming her show “Creating Impact” were disrupted by 2020, so she made a conscious decision to create videos that are motivational to help others. “I feel as though my audience wants to hear more of that than about ROI, SEO, and web design tips,” she says.
Though Sylvia and Vanessa Michelle are shifting their focuses to stay creative, Dominic has given himself permission to slow down. Early in the quarantine, “I was really trying to push through creatively,” he says. Then he asked himself “why” he was pushing through, and realized: “It’s okay to slow down and live through this time as a human. Not just as an artist.”
Bree Chambers, art therapy student and President of the Akron Minority Council, knows that Black artists, “really want to make our work about something,” but she emphasizes that sometimes you can “just write, just play, let go, and see where you go from there” instead of forcing your creative process.
“Our version of self-care needs to be about finding the things that’ll give us life,” Dominic adds. Prioritizing self-care and checking in with yourself can yield the things you need to do or not do, but “if we don’t take care of ourselves, we won’t be able to truly care for anyone else.”
Race Relations: When asked about their own journey with balancing self-care and discussions about race, each artist acknowledged the influx of emotional messages and questions from their white counterparts as well as the friction that accompanies that influx. Dominic feels that “people’s new wokeness makes me need multiple day naps.”
Nevertheless, they each have found ways to care for themselves, even when they are engaging.
“I’ve been prioritizing my emotional health and boundaries,” says Vanessa Michelle, “by not engaging in negative conversations.”
“It sounds harsh but white folks’ sudden need can’t be my emergency,” adds Dominic.
Vanessa Michelle is appreciative of her friends who are continuing to check in on her. “They seem to be shocked by all the racism,” she says, “I’ve seen so much racism in my personal life that the things that are happening now aren’t shocking. It’s unfortunate, but it’s not shocking.”
With that understanding in mind, although he is “always interested in talking about [race],” Dominic has drawn a line in how far he is willing to engage, “I’m giving myself specific spaces/times in which I’ll engage in the conversation…there is a limit to the amount of personal resource I’m willing to give.”
For Sylvia, her “biracial” identity creates an added layer of rocky terrain. She focuses on “NOT holding things IN but also NOT letting things OUT in a way that is counterproductive.” Before, she’d default to saying nothing or “completely [blowing] up on people because [she] held in too much for too long.” She sees leaning into speaking up as a way to release her own expression in her art and everyday life.
Each of their decisions on how to engage the race conversation has come from setting boundaries and checking in with themselves to understand what will serve them best.
Additional Methods: Additional methods that the artists explore for self-care include journaling and doing things that bring them joy. Leatisher Granville, LPCC, emphasizes that “we need ways to externalize what we are feeling and thinking… writing is proven to unlock parts of the brain that nothing else can.” Although she doesn’t always feel like journaling, Sylvia practices self-care by taking “30 minutes to go back and read my journal entries or notes.” She says it gives her a sense of perspective on why continuing to take care of herself in this way is important. “If the entry is from a positive day, my words uplift me and bring me back to those feelings… Or sometimes I read a bad entry and I’m shocked by how many of the problems of that day were completely forgotten despite how much they seemed like everything in those moments. These things remind me that pain is transient and does not usually last forever.”
Don’t know what to write? That’s fine. “There are no rules to journaling, just write and get what is in, out,” says Leatisher.
Maybe journaling doesn’t work for you. Bree Chambers says that one of her “favorite forms of healing” is the laughter of Black people. She encourages finding something physical or otherwise that will help lighten your mood.
Dominic recommends the Avatar: The Last Airbender series on Netflix. He also spends time praying and reading his Bible.
Leatisher reminds us to think of our bodies and our breath. Since “stress and adversity create patterns of tension in our bodies… stress changes our breathing patterns.” She encourages movement and breathing exercises. Further, meditation can help our brains as they are being “overwhelmed with information, news, negative thoughts, judgments, etc.” Meditation will also help with your breathing. Apps like Calm, Sanvello, Headspace are great places to start.
Also, as Bree Chambers reminds us, it’s okay to get in a steamy shower cry after a particularly stressful day: “Crank that Whitney [Houston] and cry it out.”
The Future: Overall, the artists recognize the importance of the movement. They are hopeful that the unrest brings about real change. And because there is a long way to go, each will emphasize their own self-care alongside their work. Vanessa Michelle is focusing on “empowering local entrepreneurs” while Sylvia is adamant about finding her place in the movement through her art. “I appreciate the empathy I see now,” says Vanessa, “but empathy doesn’t create longstanding change.”
Sylvia emphasizes not letting the spirit of the Black Lives Matter movement become a trend. “We have to live and breathe the message so that authority never thinks it’s okay again to be abusive with power… Consistency is key in correcting the culture of police brutality.”
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Create a Mantra: As Black artists during this time, each of these individuals have found their own definition of self-care. They even have their own mantras to share. Vanessa Michelle would like to remind you: “F— everything else, you matter. Are you treating yourself like you do everyone else?”
Dominic encourages you to check in with yourself and why you’re doing something. “When we are working outside of the ‘why’ we care about, it can drain us.”
Try making your own mantra and make it rhyme, like Sylvia, who says to herself: “My life is easy breezy, money flows to me easily.”
Dominic Moore-Dunson is on Facebook at Dominic Moore-Dunson or The Black Card Project; Sylvia Sykes is on Instagram at @sylviapaints or on Facebook at SylviaPaints; and Vanessa Michelle is on Instagram at @creatingimpacttv.
Bree Chambers is president of Akron Minority Council and an art therapy major at Capital University. Follow Akron Minority Council’s work at www.akronminoritycouncil.com.
Leatisher Granville, LPCC is on Instagram at @twinpowerment. She offers counseling services at Emerge Counseling Services in Akron, a large Christian outpatient mental health practice (www.emerge.org), and Healing Care Counseling in Valley View, a Christian private practice (www.healingcarecounseling.com).
Josy Jones is an actor, director, playwright and community builder in Akron, OH.