Q&A: Art & Resilience Director Tracie McCambridge

Melissa Starker, Creative Content & PR Manager

Feb 17, 2022

Art on the Brain session with string quartet

In November 2020, Tracie McCambridge, the former Wex Manager of Gallery Teaching and Engagement, returned to the center part-time while continuing the work she’d done since leaving the position to become Director of Humanism in Medicine in the Department of Medicine Administration at Ohio State's College of Medicine.

This fall, the Wex received an Institute of Museum and Library Services American Rescue Plan grant to support McCambridge’s full-time return to the Wex, as well as a stronger institutional focus on how art can be used as a resource for self-care and healing. We now have a department devoted to Art & Resilience, of which McCambridge is director. She also recently earned an Outreach and Engagement Community Programs and Events grant from Ohio State to support Art & Resilience programming, and earlier this month, she was invited to speak about building a foundation for resilience programming at the Museum Next Museums, Health & Wellbeing Summit. 

In the conversation below, McCambridge shares how her thinking about her work has evolved with time and experience, along with an update on initiatives with organizations like Sanctuary Night.

For someone who is just hearing about the Art & Resilience Department, what is your focus?

I work really closely with Helyn [Marshall, the Wex’s Accessibility Manager] to make the center as accessible as possible, allowing everyone to have a very equitable experience when they come through the door or virtually experience our programs. My thinking is that when framed with intention, arts engagement can actually really enhance the wellbeing of individuals and our community as a whole, so this is a different way of engaging with the center and it's a different layer of relevance in people's lives. So this is about doing what we can to support people’s wellbeing.

Originally, when I started creating these programs, I was really thinking about how I could support or enhance certain thinking dispositions—critical thinking or creative thinking—and that's very important. But it was really interesting to let the programs evolve as they needed to, guided by the people in the groups that I was working with. What they needed was a place where they could be seen, where they could have their full identity, all the layers of need that they had, to be welcomed and and supported. So where the Education Department might collaborate with faculty who are teaching classes, or K-12 teachers in the community for amazing things like Worldview, to help people understand the world around them, my department and I are more likely to collaborate with social workers and mental health care providers, people who are supporting people in a different way.

In a school, there are the teachers and then there are the social workers and the counselors. It’s kind of delineating those different roles, and this for us is addressing the fact that the CDC has claimed that loneliness is reaching epidemic levels. It’s a public health crisis; right now it’s equating chronic loneliness to smoking 15 cigarettes a day [in terms of] the health impact on people. It is really intense and so, what better way to combat certain kinds of loneliness than bringing people together with others who can really understand what they're going through, so they don't feel so socially isolated in their community? That's what we try to do.

You talked about that shift in thinking in the video presentation you prepared for the Museum Next conference. Could you elaborate here?

So like I said, when I when I first started I really approached it as an educator. Art on the Brain was my pilot program, so I did a lot of homework. I even took an online intro to clinical neurology course at SF Berkeley. I was really like, I need to learn what happens when the brain gets injured. I was still a lay person, not an expert by any means, but I really wanted to understand as much as I could as a non-medical person when it comes to brain injury. I wanted to pinpoint some of the symptoms so I could create an education strategy to come at those symptoms. For example, proprioception was often impacted, which is your ability to understand where your body is in space, so we started doing what's called blind drawings. We would do sketching and stuff, really trying to be targeted, and that was fun and for some people I think it might have helped a little, but we were so early on. It wasn't formally measuring anything.

Learning was happening, and I think any time you go into an environment where there's weird art and new things going on, you're going to learn something. But what also happened is that people started opening up about their experiences. They started making themselves really vulnerable with each other.

One of the things that's really important to all my programs is that I always invite loved ones to come along. So I started getting feedback from loved ones saying, for instance, he won't talk about his injury, he won't talk about what happened with his physicians or he won't even talk about it at home, and he just talked about it here with this group of strangers, and I don't understand why. It’s positive but I don't understand why. I had a man who was coming with his parents and he had terminal brain cancer. His mother pulled me aside and said, “We can't get him to go see his therapist anymore and we have to fight with him to even go to his doctor's appointments anymore because he knows that this is terminal, but he shows up to this every week, even though he's in significant pain.” He kept showing up, and it was because he found people that understood, in a way, what he was experiencing. He wasn't the only person in the group who was living with brain cancer and the experience was not focused on his injury.

I think that's another key thing: I completely moved away from focusing on what we should fix. I never asked for a diagnosis. I never asked for a label. I don't care unless somebody wants to share that. What we focus on is the art and the experience we're creating together. We create openness for storytelling and experiences to be shared, and we create a very caring and healthy container for all of those experiences.

I’m really intentional about the container that we create to have these experiences. Together, we set ground rules for self-talk and how we treat ourselves as we experience new things. That can sometimes be intimidating, the gallery space, but really our focus became the caring aspect of being in a community with this interesting, weird stuff around us and discovering what's coming up for us [in response], and sharing our ideas. Really, it became so much more. I care less and less about what's being learned and I care more and more about the social and caring experience that we're creating together, and the quality of that experience.

Vets at the Wex event

A military veteran takes in the galleries during a Vets at the Wex program

Would you share an update on other programs you’ve developed for the Wex? I’d like to hear more about your work with the in-progress community resource for trafficked women, Sanctuary Night.

I did Vets at the Wex online last year but it just didn't work as well as we hoped, so we’ve been working with the VA to figure out when it will be safe again to bring everybody together. We’re hoping for this summer. We were hoping to do it this winter and because of Omicron, we just had to pump the brakes, but it’s still rolling along.

I'm also still working really deeply with women who've been trafficked or women who are active in street life through Sanctuary Night. Working with Sanctuary Night, we're not only supporting survivors but those who are now far enough along in their healing journey that they can be leaders, and sort of be mentors to women who are currently active in street life. So we're creating opportunities to help support them in this new role because it, in itself, is intense—when you see someone who is active in street life, you might get pulled back to some of your own experiences—so we really try to help them. But we also are creating outreach experiences for women who are actively in street life, and then I have a few programs that I'm kind of like hatching right now.

One of the things I wanted to share is actually why I got connected to trafficking: because brain trauma is so common in women who've been hurt so much, and because of drug use. And that's also why I got in touch with the VA Hospital, because of concussive blast injury, brain trauma, severe PTSD causing brain trauma. Brain trauma has been the thread that has just led in all different directions.

"One of the things I wanted to share is actually why I got connected to trafficking: because brain trauma is so common in women who've been hurt so much, and because of drug use. And that's also why I got in touch with the VA Hospital, because of concussion blast injury, brain trauma, severe PTSD causing brain trauma. Brain trauma has been the thread that has just led in all different directions."

It seems like the Sanctuary Night work also came out of the work you’ve done in the past with Catch Court.

Yeah, Hannah Estabrook was the program coordinator for Catch Court and she’s a Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor, so she she was one of their core mental health providers. Then Hannah left to start Sanctuary Night. So I kind of traveled long with her, but it’s possible that down the road, I will collaborate with Catch again. Supporting this new initiative that Hannah is pulling up off the ground is really exciting. Columbus doesn't have anything like this right now, where it's 24-7 available for women.

I know you’ve also been talking with people at Wexner Medical Center about new programming.

That's pretty early, but one of the things i'm trying to do—and this is another thing that kind of got bumped because of Omicron—is work with a gastroenterologist. He's this really wonderful person who often treats those patients that have mystery GI issues, who cannot figure out what the heck is going on. He takes a lot of time with patients and he began to realize that some of these some of these things are rooted in trauma, because emotion is connected to your gastrointestinal system— you know, butterflies in your stomach.

One of the things that we've been talking about is exploring what might happen if we bring some of his patients into the gallery space to work in the same way that i've been working with a lot of these other groups. We want to actually measure how this might impact quality of life, having folks who very often feel super isolated in their experience and bringing them together, letting them experience the arts and these new, novel, strange things and be empowered by the way that we experience the arts.

I format our process so that people start to realize, oh my gosh, this stuff that I thought you have to be one of the cool kids, part of this very elite club, to understand, I know a lot about just based on my ability to look at my own lived experience. People start to come up with their own interpretations. It can be very empowering to come into this space that previously felt very exclusive and very closed off and to feel like, this is my space. Now I know what's going on here and I can bring my friends—just having that feeling of power and agency over something that once felt intimidating. I’ve seen that most directly with the Catch Court women, where they have felt like, I don't know what i'm doing, and then at the end they're like, you don't need to tell me, I can figure this out myself. There's something really wonderful about that.

I don't know if empowerment is something that these patients will feel because so often when they can't figure out what the hell's going on in their bodies, it makes a person feel powerless or out of control. It’s really frustrating, so if we can help, we’ll facilitate these folks finding even just this tiny little moment of experiencing, I don't feel like I have any control in the space, I don’t know what's going on, and then all of a sudden, I feel at home in this space, and I feel ownership. Just watching people feel that victory.

Also, it's this totally new, multisensory experience, and it just takes you out of the thing that’s the focus of so much of your energy and your waking thought.

Yes, that's an important thing. We are not focusing on injury, we're not focusing on deficit, and we're not focusing on fixing anything. We’re just focusing on having an exciting, interesting, fun experience as a group with whatever we are able to bring to the table that day.


Top of page: Tracie McCambridge leads an Art on the Brain session with a private performance by a string quartet

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