Heartworks is a brand new, up-and-coming organization dedicated to serving the refugee and resettled population in Knoxville through art therapy classes, painting lessons, conversation, and relationships. Abby Wheeler is currently working closely with Knoxville Internationals Network.
ADAM WHIPPLE: So tell me how you got started. What was the impetus behind creating Heartworks?
ABBY WHEELER: Well, I have wanted to be a missionary since I was six years old. I went to college for intercultural studies at Johnson, and I met my husband, Matt. He has Crohn’s disease, so he cannot live overseas, because he gets infusions every six weeks. It’s like a $20,000 medicine every six weeks, if we didn’t have insurance…
ADAM: Yeah, and if you’re overseas, you’re dealing with whatever their government feels like healthcare should look like.
ABBY: Exactly, and just exposure to different things. So I thought, ‘Now I have no idea what I want to do,’ since this is literally since I was six years old. So, Kenny [Woodhull] was my professor at Johnson, and he helped me kind of explore what’s at the heart of my dream. I discovered that I really just wanted people of all ethnic and racial backgrounds, especially Middle-Eastern refugees, to experience healing and wholeness. And with my personal experience with art, I thought it was a great way to promote healing and wholeness.
ADAM: Is that where you wanted to go?
ABBY: Yeah, I went to Jordan for a summer, and I loved it. And then, I grew up taking art lessons since I was in third grade. All growing up it was my safe space.
ADAM: What was your particular passion, as far as a medium?
ABBY: When I was growing up, pencil. Just pencil. Then later it transitioned more to paint, which is kind of where I’m still at now—acrylic paint. But I still like both. I’ve done colored pencil; I’ve done clay, mixed media. In high school, you could take specialty classes, so I took drawing, painting, mixed media, and then the last year was called Portfolio.
ADAM: So that gateway to Heartworks is that it’s art therapy in the way that people have done music therapy for a little while now?
ADAM: And art therapy, as far as visual art, seems to come a little bit behind that?
ADAM: What was the point when you said, ‘This is healing?’ When you said, ‘This is good for me; this is good for people?’
ABBY: When I was in Jordan, I was trying to figure out, ‘What do I have to offer here,’ because they’re not looking for English. They don’t really need ESL teachers. What they do need is to receive therapy and counseling—the refugees. There are Syrian refugees living in Jordan. What do they need? They need to heal. They’re scared; they’ve watched family members die; they have no belongings. They just need to heal and have hope.
To me, art is a way to always have access to hope. Like, I can always have a pen and paper and be able to draw something beautiful, and it inspires hope and a vision, and the ability to go on, I guess. When I was in Jordan, I led two art therapy—I wouldn’t call them art therapy, though, they were just art sessions. Actually three. Two with ladies, and then one with kids. So, different refugees came, and they were able to lose themselves in a painting for about two hours. It actually was supposed to be a one-hour thing, but they’re very particular. They each got to walk away with a piece that they could hang in their home—just a reminder that ‘I can contribute something beautiful to the world; I can make something beautiful, even when everything around me sucks.’
So that was the point when—I’ve never thought about doing art therapy with refugees, but, at this moment, it kind of makes sense. Counseling, when there’s a language barrier—you don’t even need language, just paint, you know. Just show them what to do.
ADAM: Do you speak—I don’t know what languages everybody speaks over in Jordan.
ABBY: Arabic. I know some Arabic words (laughs).
ADAM: Enough to sound like you don’t know any?
ABBY: Exactly. They [the painting students] would pick up pretty fast, as long as I just nod my head—. When I was on the plane, they thought I spoke Arabic, ‘cause I look kind of Middle Eastern, I guess. But, yeah, I don’t know much. But it didn’t seem to be a barrier at all; they caught on super fast. They were all laughing, and hand gestures go a long way, too.
ADAM: And I can imagine, in a room full of people who need to cross a language barrier but can’t, there can be a lot of humor there, and a good chance for a lot more grace—
ADAM: Did you have a moment of epiphany when you were younger, that somehow you were being healed through art?
ABBY: Yeah, I struggled with a variety of things growing up. I grew up in a Christian family, but I—I don’t know. I didn’t have very many friends in high school at all. I just felt no one was on the same page spiritually. And I also, like most high school girls, went through some sort of breakup. The nature of the breakup caused me to struggle with self-image and self-worth in a pretty significant way.
It was at my art class—I remember the day super clearly, when my boyfriend broke up with me because he was really struggling with something pretty serious. So, I was at my art class when I found out our relationship was over, and my art teacher—in my mind, she’s like an angel. All growing up, she made me feel like a million bucks every time I went in. It was also the one place I could create; I could control what was happening. I’m a perfectionist, so—if the world is chaotic and I don’t know how to deal with high school and boyfriends and my sisters—. It was the one time, for that hour each week, where I could control what was happening on the paper and make it exactly what I wanted it to be. That day, though, I was with my art teacher, and I just painted.
ADAM: Do you still have any of those pieces?
ABBY: Yeah! I kind of feel like they’re my best pieces ever, which is funny, because I should probably be further along. It’s been eight years, or something. That’s all I had at that time. I didn’t have a job, so art was all I had. Some of my best pieces, for sure—really unique.
ADAM: What does the outworking of Heartworks look like in Knoxville now?
ABBY: The idea would be that I could partner with Knoxville Internationals Network. I have a good relationship with Carol Waldo and Jani Whaley [Executive Director and English & Culture Teacher, respectively]. They’ve let me lead paint days with the refugee ladies already. I’ve led two, I believe at this point. I’m doing a training in Seattle this month, where I’ll actually get trained in art therapy techniques instead of just going up there and letting them copy whatever I do.
That part of Heartworks will be called Heartworks Healing, which will take place, starting out, at the Pines apartment complex in West Knoxville. They have a community space, and the people who own the complex let us hold ESL lessons every week. I taught English there for two years. So, hopefully, they’ll let me use that space. The ladies can’t drive.
ADAM: So they have to be on a bus route?
ABBY: They have to be on a bus route, or at a community center where the ladies live.
ADAM: Are most of the refugees women and kids?
ABBY: The ones in my program would be. The men are working during the day, in factory jobs. Maybe eventually I could think about empowering an artistic guy to lead something for the men, because I’m sure they need to process and heal too.
ADAM: And I’m sure you’ve got fundraising to do.
ABBY: Yes, I already sent out letters in November and December. I’ve got to raise $23,000. So, there are three parts to this. The first part is Heartworks Healing with refugees. The second part is Heartworks Studio, which is free art lessons currently happening out of my house. I have five students who are coming each week, just coming for an hour, from my immediate community. It’s just whatever kids want to come. Right now, it’s mostly church kids, but ideally, it would be a nice blend of, like, my next door neighbors and the church kids. I’d like to create a similar atmosphere to the one I grew up in, with my art teacher. Just a space, an open studio, and I’ll provide coaching as needed—coaching on art and coaching on life as needed.
The third part is I’m custom hand-painting Bibles and selling them. That’s my way to generate some revenue right now. So, someone asked me to paint a red tractor on the Bible, so I did. Ideally, because Kenny [Woodhull]’s non-profit [New City Resources] exists to cultivate missional community, the hope would be that this piece of art would make someone want to hold this Bible, want to open it and experience the healing and wholeness and sense of community that is within it. That’s the idea. I’ve done ten so far. Most people have gotten the ESV translation, and then there’s a Jesus Bible, that’s a new translation. the hope would be that this piece of art would make someone want to hold this Bible, want to open it.
Abby Wheeler the founder of the burgeoning community initiative Heartworks, serving Knoxville’s refugee population through art therapy and the community at large through free art lessons. In addition, she’s currently the Administrative Coordinator for Johnson University’s Urban Alliance program. Keep an ear to the ground for more news about Heartworks in the coming year!