Art Transcends Words – Jen Kiaba

“When you see people put their heart into something, you want them to be validated for it because it is part of their soul” Jen Kiaba

The healing power of art has long been explored in different settings in an effort to influence, acknowledge and manage a wide range of human behaviors and functions. Our guest today, Jen Kiaba, has been working with people to help them heal by encouraging them to express their stories through art where she leads by example.

Jen Kiaba is an artist and educator who grew up in the infamous Unification Church, a religious group referred to by popular media as “the Moonies” and a primary example of a cult. After escaping a forced arranged marriage, she fought her way out in her early twenties. After leaving the cult she went on to earn her BA in Art History at Bard College.

As an artist, she uses photography to explore the failure of faith and the resulting loss of identity that occurs. Her work has been exhibited internationally, was a third-place winner of the Julia Margaret Cameron Award, a top 200 finalist in Critical Mass, and an Honorable Mention in the 13th Pollux Award. Since 2014 she has worked as an educator and mentor with a local non-profit that seeks to empower youth to develop their artistic voice to shape their futures. She also writes and speaks about art, healing, and their intersection.

In today’s episode, we will be discussing more on how art can be embraced to fast-track the healing process in children. We will also talk about why it is important to recognize and validate people’s efforts when expressing their art.

Listen in!

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  • I love that you started by saying that despite the fact that I have this unique experience, so many people connect with and I think that is such a poignant truth. [3:14]
  • In the nonprofits that I’ve worked with, a lot of the teenagers that we come into contact with are highly at-risk youth so I tend to lead in the classes with my stories. [4:51]
  • I share my story and my art with them, again, not in any way to burden them but just to say, this is a safe space I am trusting you with. [5:19]
  • Many of us can understand the universals in art much better than we can understand the language of a story sometimes. [5:37]
  • If we don’t have the exact same experience, it’s very easy to dismiss it as other but when these kids see the work, I can often see a light bulb go off. [5:45]
  • In the environment that they may be in, it is difficult for the kids to know what is ok to express because generally, we tend to want to show people the good side and find it hard to share the dark side. [5:57]
  • When I share the work that I’ve created in my healing process, I’m always amazed at how honest and raw, and vulnerable the art that these kids share. [6:16]
  • And so I tend to use the same techniques when I mentor and a lot of people come to me because of my work and my story. [6:27]
  • People are amazed that those themes are so present in their visuals, and then you know, from an artistic perspective, we start to put together bodies of work and things. [7:01]
  • I learned that art is a language in and of itself. It transcends the spoken word, it transcends the left side of the brain and the logical thinking. It is such a powerful tool for communication for people to feel seen and to feel heard. [7:19]
  • In my business, I seek out partnerships with nonprofits to teach and nonprofits to license to where I know that my work can be a tool to help further somebody else’s business or somebody else’s mission. [7:38]
  • There are so many different ways that I try to plug in now that I’ve learned that there are so many connections for us and that our stories are so interwoven even if they seem different. [8:15]
  • Anytime I hear of an organization where they have this mission that resonates, maybe even with just a small part of my story, I find ways to connect with them so that I can help further their mission from a visual standpoint. [8:28]
  • I’ve only recently started to learn that one of the reasons art therapy is so powerful is because it helps to connect more fluidly to the right side of the brain. [11:14]
  • In my classes and my mentorships, I’m usually very forthright in giving permission slips to kids to create whatever they need to. [11:58]
  • I do think that there are things that we need to process with the support of somebody who is trained. [12:19]
  • In an art class, I do find that it has been freeing and the work that I’ve seen the kids create, and the relationships that I’ve established because of art and I know that it makes a difference. [12:26]
  • In educational spaces, we have to realize, especially creativity, we are being so vulnerable and I am usually so fiercely protective. [15:38]
  • When you see people put their heart into something, you want them to be validated for it because it is part of somebody’s soul. [16:45]
  • Commercial Break [17:10]
  • I believe that when kids create in some of their darkest spaces, it helps them give more words or definitions or give them more power over some of their experiences. [19:08]
  • When I exited the Unification Church and was processing and healing, I didn’t have language for my experience. I didn’t know how to talk about it because I didn’t know what I experienced was abuse. [19:21]
  • When I first started going to therapy, one of the best ways for me to communicate was via my art, and even talking to other survivors of you know, domestic abuse and abusive families and things like that. [19:37]
  • To me what has been so amazing is that when I’ve shared my art, I hear other people’s stories in return and that has been the primary way for me to develop the language around my experience. [19:52]
  • I’ve since started to research cults and coercive control and narcissistic abuse and can now have a more academic framework for it. [20:06]
  • The first time I ever shared my work I was at a very small workshop where I showed my prints to the woman across the table from me, she looked at my pictures, and she said, these reminded her of her abusive background and she told me her story. [20:27]
  • It made me realize that this was an incredible way for us to develop connections and you find shared experiences and that allow you to feel not so alone. [20:51]
  • You are more artistic than you give yourself credit for, and art is an incredible healing and communication tool. [24:27]


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