Sara Rose Salih has always believed in the power of healing through art. Through her work at her nonprofit, The Usual Artspects, she’s showing people how to not only believe in that power but experience it firsthand themselves.
The Usual Artspects uses group art therapy to help women who have experienced sexual abuse and violence, something that Salih has unfortunately seen throughout her life. She started the nonprofit back in 2020 after creating an online support group for sexual assault survivors upon realizing the need for women to have a safe space during the COVID-19 pandemic when public gatherings shut down.
“During the pandemic, I started really researching to see what the studies were on, specifically art therapy and dance therapy, writing therapy…in survivors of sexual abuse because that is a cause that’s always been near and dear to my heart as a survivor myself,” Salih said, calling sexual abuse “an ongoing theme” in her life that has affected close family and friends as well.
After creating the support group and bringing in therapists for virtual Q&As from places like New York and the United Kingdom, Salih started hosting paint nights and open mic nights with the group as another way women could share their experiences.
From there, the basis for The Usual Artspects began. Now, Salih has turned that concept into a nonprofit that uses art therapy to help survivors of sexual assault and abuse across the DFW metroplex.
“We bring the art therapist to them. We create the curriculum, and so that has been kind of our primary way to book our programs, but we’ve also recently opened some up into the community as well for all women that are welcome, regardless of what kind of trauma they’ve experienced,” Salih said.
She added that the safe, communal spaces the organization creates for its curriculum help to benefit those it serves in significant ways.
“That is what is so healing for these women because they have just been suffering in silence, and they feel so alone,” Salih said of the group therapy sessions The Usual Artspects is able to create. “Then, when somebody else starts to share their story, it’s just, oh my God, all of a sudden, your life makes sense. You have somebody, a soul sister, that’s been through something similar, and even if the situations are different, the aftermath for all of these women is almost identical as far as mental health symptoms.”
Salih said The Usual Artspects has seen “at least a 50% decrease in anxiety, depression and PTSD” symptoms in surveys they’ve done with women comparing their symptoms before and after the art therapy sessions.
“Trauma can really affect our brains in ways that we don’t even understand, and so I think one of the biggest benefits that I’ve seen is it gives a voice to the voiceless,” Salih said of art therapy, describing how The Usual Artspects wants to provide a different therapeutic outlet beyond traditional “talk therapy” that she views as more prevalent in DFW. “I think sometimes survivors aren’t in the place where they can even express themselves verbally, so I think the pen and the paper, and being guided by a professional to express yourself on paper, can be huge for them. We’ve had women in our sessions just crying their eyes out saying, ‘I had no idea how much I needed this.’ To me, that’s one of the biggest things is they just don’t even know the power of (art therapy) until they sit down and give it a try.”
Salih said The Usual Artspects has reached 98 women this year, with programming supported in large part through funds raised via art markets the nonprofit hosts around DFW. The Usual Artspects uses the vendor and booth fees from its markets to fund the programs, with the artists then able to keep their proceeds from the market itself.
“They’re supporting our nonprofit, but we’re also supporting them as entrepreneurs,” Salih said, describing the markets as the nonprofit’s “saving grace” and what helped kickstart its funding back when The Usual Artspects began hosting them in April 2021.
The Usual Artspects is preparing to host a pair of art markets in the coming weeks, including its first with interactive experience-driven art company Meow Wolf at its Grapevine location.
Meow Wolf Impact Manager Kaitlyn Armendariz called The Usual Artspects “the perfect organization to partner with” for its first art market in Grapevine.
“One of the things that we are really interested in when we talk about arts access is this intersection between arts and health, and that’s a space The Usual Artspects works in through their art therapy initiatives,” Armendariz said. “In fact, one of our overarching themes this year for the Meow Wolf Foundation was this idea of arts as a tool for healing, and so there’s really nice alignment there.”
Armendariz described how the market will spread across two spaces throughout the front of house and event venue areas at Meow Wolf, with around 15 vendors expected to be available for people to visit while exploring the ticketed exhibition.
Salih said that many vendors tell her that they choose to partner with The Usual Artspects for markets due to their own experiences with sexual assault and abuse, having found healing and a way to take “their power back and…their life back” by starting small art businesses.
“We just wouldn’t be where we are today without the support of our artists and vendors and their funding,” Salih said.
Armendariz noted that Meow Wolf hopes to partner with The Usual Artspects again, as well as other nonprofits in the area, as it looks to expand its community outreach efforts.
“I think this focus primarily on women and survivors of domestic abuse and sexual assault is really unique to The Usual Artspects, and it’s really important work that they’re doing, and I think they’re doing it really well,” Armendariz said.
Salih said The Usual Artspects is also looking at ways to expand its efforts by potentially exploring online sessions and different forms of art-based therapy. The nonprofit is also working on awareness efforts in the local community to prevent sexual assault from happening in the first place, as Salih’s research and surveys found that the majority of women had first experienced sexually abuse as children by someone they knew.
“Our mission, overall, is to help victims of trauma in DFW, and hopefully that can expand further out in Texas,” Salih said.
The Usual Artspects will be hosting art markets at Meow Wolf on December 9 and False Idol Brewing on December 16. The nonprofit has also partnered with the Women’s Division of the Grapevine Chamber of Commerce for an event at Chicken N Pickle in Grapevine on December 9 where they will have an educational booth set up. For more information about The Usual Artspects, visit https://www.theusualartspects.com/.
These interviews have been edited for clarity.