"We know the arts can heal society," says Holly Jacobson, Executive Director of Seattle's Path With Art. For more than a decade, her organization has been working with people who are moving through various traumatic life situations--mental illnesses, PTSD, and the experience of living unhoused. Jacobson has seen the power of the arts to help people refocus their lives, but also to help them find their places in community.
"The arts are what we turn to. When we are down they lift us up. They make our communities, our cities, our environments whole and connected." Holly Jacobson
In this episode, Holly talks to Vivian and Marcie about her organization, its future, and the role the arts play in moving society forward.
ABOUT THIS EPISODE'S GUEST
With a background in nonprofit management, strategic planning, and communications, Holly Jacobson's professional background spans both for-profit and non-profit institutions. She has created strategic marketing and product solutions for Microsoft, The City of Seattle, and The Seattle International Film Festival, amongst others. A passionate advocate for social justice, in 2003, Holly founded Voter Action, a national non-profit organization focused on ensuring all had equal access to fair and accurate voting. Having studied film at San Francisco State University, she has worked as a director in both documentary and commercial filmmaking. Since 2013, Holly has been the CEO of Path with Art, an organization at the forefront of connecting the arts to low-income adults living in or recovering from trauma. She serves on the Seattle Arts Commission, the Washington Women’s Foundation Impact Assessment Committee, and the steering committee of Arts & Homelessness International, based in the United Kingdom.
For more about Path with Art visit their website
VIVIAN PHILLIPS (00:00):
Hey, I'm Vivian Phillips
MARCIE SILLMAN (00:01):
And I'm Marcie Sillman. And this is doubleXposure.
VIVIAN PHILLIPS (00:16):
DoubleXposure is a podcast where we plum the deepest depths and the tiniest cracks of our world to understand how culture and creativity shape our lives.
MARCIE SILLMAN (00:28):
Today, we find out how an innovative program called Path with Art can help people survive and transcend trauma and find new community.
VIVIAN PHILLIPS (00:47):
Hi, Marcie Sillman.
MARCIE SILLMAN (00:49):
Vivian Phillips. I see that you're wearing a sweater. Hello to you in this “Juneuary” as we speak.
VIVIAN PHILLIPS (00:55):
Oh my God. I can't take it. I wonder though, does this mean that summer's gonna last until October? If it ever gets here? Yeah. It kind of has to stay with us until October, right? Because it's so late, right?
MARCIE SILLMAN (01:09):
Mostly what I'm thinking about is perhaps we won't catch on fire and we won't have a heat dome this summer.
VIVIAN PHILLIPS (01:15):
That would be a really good thing. I've said this to every person I've talked to about the rain. I just love how green it is. It's so beautiful and green, everywhere. Speaking of wet. <laugh>
MARCIE SILLMAN (01:28):
Let's see. What segue are you going with here?
VIVIAN PHILLIPS (01:32):
Speaking of wet the last time I saw you in person, I think we were both a little bit drenched because, uh, it was raining very hard. The evening we met up at Spectrum to go see the performance “Grief” was the name of the, the piece that we saw at Spectrum. Yeah. It was an opportunity to let go of a whole lot of stuff. I feel like, you know, including the repression of our weather <laugh>.
MARCIE SILLMAN (02:00):
Donald Byrd, who is in Washington DC, as we speak making a new ballet for Black dancers, which is very exciting. This piece “Grief” for me was a kind of a exemplar of Donald's taking a theme, taking it from beginning to end, and he's not a young choreographer. He's a master choreographer. And I was just impressed. It was hard to watch. Dealing with grief is hard. This was a very painful piece of art, but the design of it, the movement of the people, everything was just, it reminded me again, when you are a wise elder, you have experienced a lot and you have grown a lot and developed your mastery.
VIVIAN PHILLIPS (02:50):
So even though it was hard to watch, I felt like it, for me personally, it was perfect timing to let go of, you know, a lot of things that I think we share that we're grieving and some things that we're not sharing, that we just kind of repress, you know, so kudos to Donald Bird. One more time. I just, uh, wanted to acknowledge that and acknowledge, that was the last time I saw your face.
MARCIE SILLMAN (03:16):
I know, I know it's true. We're back to, uh, the middle of the pandemic and back to recording, but we had the opportunity to have a little, I guess, emotional and psychic sunshine when we spoke with Holly Jacobson, who is the executive director of an organization called path with art Path with Art deals, with all kinds of people who are moving through traumatic experiences and all kinds of people and all kinds of trauma. And as Holly says, we're a venue for people to connect as human beings, not as their afflictions as you put it.
VIVIAN PHILLIPS (03:54):
Right. I so enjoyed this conversation with Holly. You know, I've had the opportunity to interact with Holly in various ways, but we never got a chance to just kind of sit and have a conversation about the work of Path with Art. And I, I feel like I came away from our discussion, just so enlightened and also hopeful. She instilled an additional shot of hope that I thought was really necessary at the moment. And I'm excited to introduce hopefully a wider public to Holly Jacobson in the work she does with Path with Art.
Holly Jacobson. Thank you so very much for joining us today. We have been enamored by the mission of Path with Art. And we'd like to start by asking you to tell us a little bit about what is the work of Path with Art?
HOLLY JACOBSON (04:49):
Well, you know, the stated mission of Path with Art is to foster the restoration of individuals, groups, and society from the effects of trauma through art and community. But it's really like if we boiled it down, it's about how art is essential to being human and how art lifts us up as human beings and how art connects us as human beings. So we say individuals, groups and society, because we know now there is science about actually there's neuroscience and a lot more neuroscience is coming out on the daily about how art impacts people's brains to help them heal from trauma or physical or mental health or behavioral health challenges. And we see that every day at Path with Art.
VIVIAN PHILLIPS (05:42):
I just wanted to ask to dive in a little bit about the trauma aspect of the mission statement and ask you to expand a little bit on what kinds of trauma we're talking about and how does that trauma manifest itself, and then open itself to art as a healing process.
HOLLY JACOBSON (06:02):
We just had an event that we're kind, we went back to an in-person event, which was pretty spectacular. And, um, at the event, our, one of our participant artists spoke about her experience. And I'll just give you this as an example, because this is a pretty common example. She has been with us for seven years and she spoke about how at the age of 25, she was on a trajectory or really positive trajectory. She wanted to have a career in healing, and she started to massage as a massage therapist, and she was going to school to become a nurse and had a great thriving practice and a beautiful apartment in Capitol Hill. And all of a sudden, within a month, her illness of bipolar disorder really took over and she found herself running down the street, naked, breaking all the windows and pots and pans.
HOLLY JACOBSON (06:55):
She lost her practice. She lost her apartment. She ended up in the hospital. She was in the hospital, 26 times in her life in and outta the hospital for psychotic episodes. Uh, she was arrested. These are the people that we see mental health exposed on the street. She noticed that in the hospital that they had some arts engagement and different engagement activities, but she really thrived with art. So she was trying to get to an art practice, but she did not have the funds to support it. She'd experienced homelessness. Of course, she lost all her income. She was referred to Path with Art by a, a case worker. And that's how folks come to Path of Art. We work with 60 social service agencies from Plymouth Housing to Sound Mental Health. And she came to Path with Art and started engaging in art practice. And there she has been thriving. She's been able to stay on her medications because her medications gave her incentive to get to her art classes. <laugh> and she found a voice after 26 hospitalizations. She hasn't had one in the, the last seven years and she, she really credits her art connection, her art practice that she has, and the community that she's developed,
MARCIE SILLMAN (08:13):
People are referred to Path with Art. And you talk about an art practice, but that makes me wonder what you are actually offering people because it's not just coming in and doing a visual arts class. Is it?
HOLLY JACOBSON (08:27):
Well, first of all, we're multidisciplinary, Marcie. It's not just a painting class, but we do poetry, Shakespeare. We have two choirs, a veteran's choir and a, a regular choir. So we do the whole full spectrum multidisciplinary. When we say the arts, we mean the arts writ-large. Uh, this particular participant artist that I was referring to really talked about how in these classes, she found a safe place in community, where she had felt like an outsider or rejected, she found a place of belonging. She says, well, you know, everyone else is kind of dealing with their own struggles. So you don't feel like a freak or an out, or just a weirdo. You just get to be yourself and that's enough. And that's okay. And I think that is kind of what makes us unique. It's not just an art class. You're right. We train all our teaching artists and creative mentors in the practices of healing centered arts and trauma informed care.
VIVIAN PHILLIPS (09:19):
So you have a couple of different levels of community. You know, I think that most often people consider community a geographic kind of thing. But what you're doing is really creating this family of community for participants, but there are a lot of, uh, individual artists and arts organizations that have also partnered with Path with Art. How important is it for, um, you to have these connections with what, what we will call an “established cultural community” and how, how have you fostered them over the years? I know some of the answer to that question, but <laugh>, but I think it's really great to hear it directly from you too.
HOLLY JACOBSON (10:01):
It's really baked into our mission. I'll go back to our mission, individuals, groups, and society, right? Pet art's mission is advocacy in some ways. So we're about demonstrating that the arts matter that the arts can heal, but we just talked about the healing end of an individual. We know the arts can heal society. The arts are what we turn to when we are down, they lift us up. They make our communities, our cities, our environments, whole and connected. It's inherent in our mission. Our participant artists come through 60 social service agencies, but we also partner like you're saying with 34 arts and cultural agencies, and that is really critical. One, we help those arts and cultural organizations open their doors more widely and share their wonderful programs with a more diverse group of folks that they may not typically serve the other way is that they give us access to their, uh, spaces. So our veterans choir rehearses at the opera and our regular choir rehearses at the symphony. So we collaborate in that way or we'll do deeper collaborations like we have going with the opera right now. Um, or we have with SAM (Seattle Art Museum) in the past, et cetera, and then we'll do trainings to help them think through what does it mean to open your doors more widely?
MARCIE SILLMAN (11:24):
It, it's interesting that you mentioned the opera. I had the good fortune of doing a story about the veterans choir, and it was a, an opera production in which they performed. And I got a chance to meet some of the participants. And it got me to thinking about that notion of community that you've been talking about. And that's the theme of this season of doubleXposure. So it's something Vivian and I are really interested in as well. And I'm wondering, you talk about building community and about art healing, a community, what is community in your mind and why is it so important?
HOLLY JACOBSON (11:59):
I wish there were more words for community. You know, how some languages have lots of words for whatever, like rain, like a lot of Pacific Northwest, uh, Native communities have lots of words for rain. I think we need more words for community. Because first of all, I have to talk about it so much. I kind of get, I hear myself going community, community, community, and it's like, <laugh>, it's totally like, we need more words for community. [MARCIE: Amen.] <laugh> but thanks for asking this question, Marcie. Community is such a big part of our work and the arts community is a big part of our work. And so our, we have a community with our artist. There is a community that's built there. Then I like to say, Path of Art is a big tent community, because if you are a staff, a teaching artist, a donor, a board member, like a volunteer, you're like in the cult of Path with Art, because you believe in this mission and we couldn't do it without you.
HOLLY JACOBSON (12:52):
We need all of us. That is really true. And that is a really important point to remember, we need our participant artists to help share what they're experiencing. And that is a really powerful thing. I discovered when I came to Path with Art about nine years ago, which was, we're a venue for people to connect as human beings. When we're connecting. We, we connected over a piece of our earlier in our discussion, before we got on to this call, it helped us connect as human beings, not our circumstances. And that is sounds small, but it's huge. It's huge. How often do people get to connect with folks who maybe have bipolar disorder and are open about it, and you can understand it? How often do people get to connect with folks who are living unhoused or have that experience if you're not unhoused or have never had that experience?
VIVIAN PHILLIPS (13:43):
You know, when you talk about the unhoused population, I, during the whole conversation, I've just been really wondering about what is the role, where is the place for Path with Art in actually being a part of a solution that we just keep throwing millions of dollars at the unhoused population issue, public health issue, and I'd love to see more art centered in the solution. Where does Holly Jacobson sit in that spectrum?
HOLLY JACOBSON (14:18):
Well, Holly Jacobson's just a lucky steward of this mission, right? So I'm just part of it. But I think you bring up a really good point about the unhoused situation we call it. You know, the homeless situation is, is how it gets talked about across the city, at dining room tables, at business community meetings. And we, we act like it's this monolithic problem. Homelessness does not create homelessness. <laugh> it just doesn't. We all have to be part of the solution. It's not, it's not one sector's responsibility in my opinion. So this is Holly, the advocate speaking. It's not one problem, and it's not one solution. We gotta quit looking for a pill. But what is a really important part of the solution is helping people feel whole from the inside, helping people see hope that they can get some place different and helping them feel human and valued. Art does all those things.
VIVIAN PHILLIPS (15:19):
Our music is courtesy of Big World Breaks, many thanks.
MARCIE SILLMAN (15:23):
And this year we welcome our sponsor LANGSTON, cultivating Black brilliance from their home at Seattle's Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute in the historic Central District.
VIVIAN PHILLIPS (15:36):
But I'm gonna move on and ask you about how you maintained community during the pandemic. Tell us how you did that.
HOLLY JACOBSON (15:45):
Well, the pandemic really helped us grow in a way. We went online. We had to pivot quickly because when we're talking about our participant artists who are experiencing a lot of folks come to us to counteract isolation, uh, a lot of our participant artists come to us because they are feeling the effects of isolation, which we all know has negative health effects for all of us. Isolation is bad for human beings. And so we had to pivot quickly and get tablets. And then because our participant artists did not have access necessarily to the libraries or the community centers where they could access a computer. And some of 'em didn't have a lot of experience, especially the older population. So we got tablets for everybody. We did a call for tech volunteers and got answers from around the country. And we trained our teaching artists, who some of them had just as much trouble as some of our participant artists, who've never been online.
HOLLY JACOBSON (16:39):
And then everyone went online and, and we also learned a lot more about community that it's not just about a place. And also that some people were able to participate in Path with Art programs, because they'd never been able to feel safe, just because of their mental or physical health issues, could not get out of where they were staying or living to participate in a program. So we got new participant artists who started thriving and now are out in community. And to have seen that trajectory of folks who could not get out into community, start with a tablet, developed community. Community got them through. And their art made them feel like they were contributing and now they are out here. It's, I, it was amazing.
MARCIE SILLMAN (17:30):
You know, we have talked a lot about the, what was it? 34 partnering organizations. I think that's the number you've talked about. The individual artists who work with you and some of those organizations are located at Seattle Center. And you are about to, if you have not already, opened your new, I, I wanna call it, head your world headquarters there just, uh, across the street from the Seattle Center campus. And I'm wondering why you chose that neighborhood?
HOLLY JACOBSON (18:02):
Well, to be honest, it chose us. The fantastic Paul Lambros from Plymouth Housing, longtime CEO of Plymouth Housing called me up and said, we're doing this project. We were already gonna do another project in Pioneer Square, but it was on city land. It was, uh, a dollar a year in rent. And, um, it was right across from Seattle Center. So we said, yeah, let's do it, which is great because the project of Pioneer Square was falling apart, <laugh> nevertheless, we are building out what we call, not our worldwide headquarters, but our art home. And it's part of the Center, considered part of the Center campus, even though it's across the street. At Second and Mercer and above us are 90 plus units of Plymouth Housing, uh, low-income units. And it's an art home for everyone. We have two visual art studios and a small jewel box recording studio where we can do podcast. Even though we do podcasts with our partners across the street at King FM, they donate us space for that. We can, but we can do some recording. It's pretty fabulous. It will open in September. And it is, when we talk about that venue for people to, A - belong, but also come to gather, where community can come together and experience each other as human beings. That is what this is.
VIVIAN PHILLIPS (19:24):
Well, listen, I was walking down Mercer a couple of weeks ago and I went, wait, the windows are not covered. So I looked in and I know what the space in Pioneer Square looks like as well, been there before. And I'm just so excited for your program to have this kind of presence and home and creating this new community home for look, 90 people who are living there in some ways. And then beyond that. Holly, the work that you do is challenging, but I wonder what parts of it do you find your greatest reward?
HOLLY JACOBSON (20:07):
Oh my gosh. It, I mean, just the work of being an, uh, you know, Executive Director, CEO of a, of a nonprofit is challenging <laugh> so that's the only like general, it's general challenge, right? The work that I do is, but I, it is not challenging to me. It is so rewarding. Like I am the lucky steward. What is the biggest reward? I mean, obviously our participant artists, seeing people who not able to look up in the beginning and then stand tall and even maybe tell me no, <laugh> have that, you can see the agency that people develop through their art practice, through coming into their best potential through art and community is it's physical, it's spiritual, it's all the things. Yeah. That's pretty special. It's pretty lucky, really, to be able to witness that.
MARCIE SILLMAN (21:01):
Holly, this has been such a uplifting conversation. You have really given a boost to my day, hearing your passion in a world where things sometimes feel so heavy. It is just really inspirational. It gives a lot of hope.
VIVIAN PHILLIPS (21:18):
Hope. I have to agree with Marcie. I mean, I've been incredibly inspired, but you know, the humanity of the work that you do and the humanity that the arts increases in all of us, we couldn't have asked for a better person to articulate those meanings than you, Holly Jacobson. Thank you so much.
HOLLY JACOBSON (21:41):
Vivian Phillips and Marcie Stillman. I feel like I have just been knighted or something by the <laugh> the Queens of Art.
MARCIE SILLMAN (21:50):
So, Vivian, I don't know if we're the doyens of the art world, but we most definitely, as women in our prime, as Maggie Smith said in the movie, The Prime of Miss Jean Brody, we are wise and we've experienced a lot. And I think that we've spent our careers, our lifetimes just developing the passion and the devotion that we have to the community of people who make art happen.
VIVIAN PHILLIPS (22:17):
It makes me happy to hear Holly articulate what we want people to feel about us. And that is, we just want everybody to feel and understand the impact that the arts has on both our lives, our humanity and our communities, no matter how you define community. And I think that was one of the things I really loved about the way that she spoke to community art and community and how Path with the Art is multidisciplinary, which makes it also multi communal, right. In so many different ways. And I'll, I'll take it. <laugh>
MARCIE SILLMAN (22:58):
I really love that she said that she wished that like many of the Northwest Native nations who have a lot of words for rain or for snow, that there were more words for community because sometimes it, it seems so trivial to just talk about fostering community. And you're like, what the heck does that mean? But I think that in this era of electronics, when everybody's looking at their phones and we've been communicating for the most part for the past two and a half years over, you know, the wonders of Zoom or other internet-based programs, I think there's something really that we need that. And that's that connection with other people, with the organizations that define us. And that's why I was super excited that Path with Art is opening their house of art, their art house, um, just, you know, adjacent to Seattle Center, where all, or most, of the major sort of establishment arts organizations, performing arts organizations are located. It's so wonderful.
VIVIAN PHILLIPS (24:00):
I love that you called it the world headquarters. <laugh> for a Path with Art, because you might be articulating, you know, something that could become a reality. I am truly, truly excited about them getting adequate space and being in a place that's really pretty easily accessible by so many different people. No matter what your method of transportation might be just north of downtown Seattle in that big kind of arts hub area. I'm excited about what they are doing, what they will be able to do more of. And my wish, my hope, my dream is that we will really get serious about engaging the arts in policy to address the unhoused situation, issue, whatever we wanna call it in our community.
MARCIE SILLMAN (24:56):
I think Holly's really passionate about what she has seen and the fact that she knows that the folks that, that do find their way to Path with Art, not everybody does find their way to Path with Art, but the, but the people who do find their way there, she has seen lives change, which is what's really awesome. So I, I would love Holly to have a seat at the policy table, but of course we would love artists and creative thinkers to have seats at the policy table because people who work in the arts are problem solvers, making a work of artist is about solving a question in your head, whether that's a painting that you make, or whether you are like you designing clothing and figuring out how do I sew this together? What material do I wanna use to make something that's bigger than the ingredients of it?
MARCIE SILLMAN (25:48):
That's another reason I'm so excited that Path with Art is right there at Seattle Center. Because I think when we talk about art programs for communities, traditionally that have been marginalized populations that are not part of the mainstream conversations. I think we don't think of it as, as an arts organization. We think of it as a social service organization. People are helped on so many levels by art in this instance, people who are moving through traumatic experiences, but that doesn't make it any less artful than what's happening at the opera or the ballet or the Seattle Rep or the Children's Theater
VIVIAN PHILLIPS (26:26):
Listening to you, um, Marcie I'm like, Minister Marcie <laugh>. I want to take a collection plate. <laugh> Taking us to church Marcie. Yes. Yes.
MARCIE SILLMAN (26:38):
Somebody's gotta preach about art. And I guess that's right. I guess the, you know, I've told you often that art is my church. Art is my, is my synagogue. It is the place where I worship.
VIVIAN PHILLIPS (26:47):
MARCIE SILLMAN (26:48):
It’s a place I find communion. And so that's, what's so exciting about this season of doubleXposure, and it's such a, a pleasure moving through these explorations with you.
VIVIAN PHILLIPS (27:00):
It is my absolute honor and pleasure. This is one of my ways of practicing radical self-care, which is, you know, become a really popular term of late, having the opportunity to have in depth explorations with art makers, arts organizations.
MARCIE SILLMAN (27:18):
I wanna just take one last moment to thank our audience. And if this is something that you've enjoyed, tell a friend.
>background music by Big World Breaks cues in
MARCIE SILLMAN (27:32):
DoubleXposure, Executive Producers are me, Marcie SIllman
VIVIAN PHILLIPS (27:36):
And me Vivian Phillips. We get production support from Hilary Northcraft, Randy Ingstrom and Calanda Childers.
MARCIE SILLMAN (27:44):
Support for doubleXposure comes from Pyramid Communications,
VIVIAN PHILLIPS (27:47):
And we're especially proud to support Crosscut Media’s Black Arts Legacies project, highlighting the role of Black artists and arts organizations throughout our cultural landscape.
MARCIE SILLMAN (28:00):
If you like what you're hearing on this episode of doubleXposure, be sure to follow us on your favorite podcast app and check out our website, doublexposurepod.com.
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