We had the good fortune of connecting with Elizabeth Washburn and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Elizabeth, where are your from? We’d love to hear about how your background has played a role in who you are today?
Growing up in the midwest, in Kansas, with low crime rates, a middle class upbringing, and loving supportive parents is absolutely fundamental in who I am today. It wasn’t until I started working with combat veterans and incarcerated teens that I truly realized what a difference-maker a safe loving home is to the development of an individual. So many of the challenges I see the people I work with face are a direct result of their childhoods. When a person is brought up in an unsafe environment, their cognitive and emotional skills are negatively impacted, which leads to disruptions in their mental health and individual achievement throughout their lives. Being loved and feeling safe are crucial to healthy emotional development and the building of self-confidence. Self-confidence provides one with a willingness to take risks, like starting a nonprofit organization when, at the time, all of the sectors I was trying to reach were governed by a notion that art should be free, and the efficacy of the arts to help people heal had not been accepted.
The perseverance and follow through that was taught and expected of me as a child, makes it possible for me today to pursue my passions, while at the same time, supporting myself as an artist. It also helps that evidenced-based research concerning the efficacy of the arts and healing has become more widely accepted by the agencies I serve, and art programs have become integrated into their treatment protocols. My work is largely in healthcare settings and with young people in the juvenile justice system. Sometimes these big bureaucratic constructs take a little while to evolve, but the arts are well are their way to becoming a normative component in mental health treatments across the spectrum. And for that, I am very grateful.
Can you open up a bit about your work and career? We’re big fans and we’d love for our community to learn more about your work.
Making art is the core to everything I do, personally and professionally. I have always made art and can’t remember not loving to draw. It is almost like I was born with the passion and then it was encouraged by my parents. The art I make has gone through many transformations throughout my life. Initially, I wanted to be good at my craft. I wanted to be able to draw or paint anything. Once I achieved that skill level, then the subject matter in my art began to be directed towards the people I was meeting in my nonprofit work.
Combat veterans were a big focus for several years. I painted their stories and experiences that they shared with me in my therapeutic art program in an effort to better understand them and to advocate for them. For example, my MFA thesis was on the impact of multiple combat deployments on our service members. This work was created in 2010-12 when a lot of these men and women were returning home from Afghanistan and Iraq after serving many back to back combat deployments.
Never in our history has our country had such a long and protracted war, and unknown to the general public, a very small percentage of our military actually sees combat. Only a very small number of service members were repeatedly sent back into battle, so the onerous for this responsibility and all of its ramifications fall onto a relatively small number of people in our military. My compassion for these men and women were the inspiration for my art for a while.
After painting other people’s stories, I began directing the subject matter in my art to be more reflective of my own life. I had a professor in grad school who told me that the best art an artist can make is about themselves. Previously, I had felt a little self-gratuitous to focus on myself in my artwork, but I soon realized that the therapeutic relief that I was espousing to my students in my art program could be utilized by me, for myself. The depths in which you can go when you are using your own mind and emotions is endless, and figuring out to convey your thoughts and feelings is the challenge.
I have realized over time that pushing that edge, as people will say, is really necessary for personal growth. Throughout my life, once I figure something out, I am on to the next challenge. However, with the self, it is constantly evolving and changing, so I never get bored.
Any places to eat or things to do that you can share with our readers? If they have a friend visiting town, what are some spots they could take them to?
I know exactly where I will take this friend. We will put bikes on the back of my car and head to the bike path that starts in Old Town and ends in Ocean Beach. The bike path is flat, so I won’t be torturing this friend by asking them to ride a few miles. Once we get to Ocean Beach, we will check out the dogs at the OB Dog Beach, because the bike path leads directly to it. Then, we will ride through OB and off to a secret side street, which I will not reveal now, and watch the sun set behind Ocean Beach Pier. I will have packed a couple of beers and a sandwich, and we will just have a solid hang out.
The Shoutout series is all about recognizing that our success and where we are in life is at least somewhat thanks to the efforts, support, mentorship, love and encouragement of others. So is there someone that you want to dedicate your shoutout to?
I would have to say, again, my family. What I do now with my nonprofit had not previously existed in my relative sphere here is San Diego, so there was a lot of trial and error, and no mentors that I was aware of. My thanks would definitely have to go my family because they always had high expectations for me without making me feel pressured. They instilled a confidence in me that allows me to take risks and not let fear interfere with my life path. At 47 years old, I still get the “I am proud of you” from my dad, and if feels just as good to me now as it did when I was little.