Disclaimer: This is transcribed using AI. Expect (funny) errors.
Mindy Peterson: [00:00:00] I’m Mindy Peterson, and this is Enhance Life with Music, a holistic look at the power of music in our everyday lives. My guest today is joining me from New York. Nicole Porter is a clinical art therapist and musician specializing in early childhood trauma, treatment, family advocacy and community education. Nicole directed child therapy in the days following the Sandy Hook School tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012. The processes and tools developed with the Newtown families inspired her to establish a mental health organization and art therapy trauma response team called the Emerald Sketch. Nicole has led trauma response projects at sites ranging from the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, to the March for Our Lives in D.C. and beyond. Welcome to enhance life with music, Nicole.
Nicole Porter Davis: [00:00:59] Thank you, Mindy. It is really wonderful to be here. Happy Valentine’s Day!
Mindy Peterson: [00:01:03] Yes, thank you. You, too. Well, Nicole, any work that improves the mental health of our youth and families is such vital work. We have this recent from December the Surgeon General’s Advisory highlighting the urgent mental health crisis with our nation’s youth. And this was certainly exacerbated by the pandemic, but it wasn’t caused by at the Sandy Hook tragedy was 10 years ago. Tell us how you came to be involved in front line therapy with families in Newtown.
Nicole Porter Davis: [00:01:35] Yes, that is close family, friends. That was a moment in my life that I was. I happened to be sitting in the Florida Keys with my parents and my husband when the news was interrupted with the announcement, and we were all speechless knowing that our friends, David Atkins and Virginia Hutch, lived in Sandy Hook at the time. Mm hmm. So and as it turned out, they know many people in the community and they were very close friends with the art teacher at Sandy Hook Elementary School. So her daughter launched the first Sandy Hook healing project. Heather Gunn Riviera and that went up within days after the tragedy. And David Atkins and I got on the phone immediately. And I’ve always been very vocal about my own goals with art therapy, and I have had focused in early childhood and trauma response as a professional choice. So when that happened, it was a knowing it was an intuitive movement to get myself there with all of my credentials.
Mindy Peterson: [00:02:36] So you were already in this realm at the time of the Sandy Hook tragedy.
Nicole Porter Davis: [00:02:42] I was living in Brooklyn, recently married and had had moved from Philadelphia, so I was still directing an outpatient program in the Philadelphia area. But when the massacre happened, it was an innate response for me to go because I knew people in the community. And as it turned out, I was one of 11 practitioners that arrived and the only one who had childhood trauma experience.
Mindy Peterson: [00:03:04] Wow, that’s so wonderful that that response was enacted so quickly. What exactly did that look like in terms of how does art therapy look in the midst of a tragedy like that? It wasn’t mostly visual arts. Was it mostly music? A combination?
Nicole Porter Davis: [00:03:22] That’s a really great question, especially when we’re dealing with the youngest of survivors in the instance of Sandy Hook. What I entered was this incredible oasis that had been fabricated inside a warehouse with civilian help. And so there were rooms divided and there was basically a corner divided, devised for child therapy, but there was no one there to take the helm. So there was lots of supplies and materials and stuffed animals donated, and I was able to arrive and just begin delegating and create the space so that it was then a creative arts therapy space.
Mindy Peterson: [00:04:00] Ok. So kind of air traffic controller?
Nicole Porter Davis: [00:04:03] Yeah, exactly. And then and then just boom grounding it like with confidentiality waivers and really setting the bar high, letting families know that when they come in, the parents could go in one direction and their child was safely able to enter this space. And everything that happened was confidential. And a lot of it in those first days was also navigating adults that were flooding with the story, like just gently reminding people this is a space for children and families. So we have to be mindful of the child in the space right now and just delicately and having the other personnel available to walk an adult to someone else that they could process with. Wow. I mean, those are like the immediate days. Yeah.
Mindy Peterson: [00:04:41] How long did that immediate response continue? Was this a matter of days, weeks, months
Nicole Porter Davis: [00:04:47] That was up through the holiday? Right? It’s so tragic. It was right before Christmas, right? Yeah, I was there on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and after the new year came and went, that closed. So that’s when. I shifted and there were over a dozen families that had already made a strong enough connection with myself in the art therapy that they wanted their children to continue. So that’s when David Atkinson, Virginia Hutch, continued to be integral because they are lawyers in the health care realm. And they opened up their private office in their home so that I could do therapy there two days a week. So I maintained I opened up a five week opportunity for the community where I said, you can sign up for five weeks of therapy and kept it very focused on safety, basically. So I could assess who else is here. And that’s when I began to mobilize this system of outreach for the community and accessing more local clinicians, many of whom still work in that community to this day. Wow.
Mindy Peterson: [00:05:45] Well, the experience overall in the tools that you developed in the process inspired you to establish Emerald Sketch, Mental Health Organization and art therapy trauma response team. Tell us about Emerald sketch.
Nicole Porter Davis: [00:05:59] Yes, so Emerald sketch still functions today by March of that year. The tragedy happened December by March. The Emerald sketch was established so that I could then begin billing basically for all the services. Before that, it was all volunteerism. Hmm. Mm hmm. You know, and then it just set the bar for professionalism and therapeutic services to families in need because in our bigger picture, our federal government provides nothing as it is immediately. So it really is up to civilian morale to put on our bootstraps and work together. The Emerald sketch also functions like I continue to provide virtual therapy for a few families from that particular tragedy, as well as others over time, and much of it is virtual now. But then the programs also really heavy on training clinicians when and where tragedy is happening. So it’s really a holding place for that, that clinicians can access training and trauma response and how to mobilize their own community and get their own business up and running so that people can access the service.
Mindy Peterson: [00:07:00] Ok. So the program Emerald Scotch is both training and boots on the ground making it happen? Yeah, yeah. Ok. And the artists that you work with, what’s their affiliation with Emerald Scotch? Are they employed by Emerald SC.? Do you contract with them? How does that work?
Nicole Porter Davis: [00:07:19] Typically contracting when I was in Newtown on location, there was a full staff and then when I transitioned out of Newtown in twenty fourteen, that’s when it took on the the greater global picture of training people worldwide to be able to do exactly what was done in Newtown. And there’s so many layers it really depends on the amount of involvement any one person or group in another region wants to take it. You know, it’s like goes from everything, from getting federal funding so that after year one and a half, you have a revenue stream that isn’t only reliant on billing, like there’s all these layers in addition to the clinical work.
Mindy Peterson: [00:07:59] And is that what you mean when you say, I know in your website, it says that enrolled sketch mobilizes clinicians to set up sustainable creative arts therapy services. So is that what you mean by sustainable? Is that there’s this layer of figuring out a funding stream?
Nicole Porter Davis: [00:08:15] Yes, as well as maintenance like it’s been, it’s been different almost everywhere. I’ve helped, like in Texas, in Santa Fe, there was a high school shooting. Twenty fifteen, twenty fourteen. I mean, there’s there’s been many, but I went to Houston and helped train and it’s primarily music therapy in Texas. It’s a much larger body of music therapists versus art therapists, so that we implemented a virtual program where I would I would call in once a week and there were therapists on the ground that worked in tandem with me virtually versus Charleston, South Carolina. I went down and really trained another art therapist who had a functioning business, how to implement the trauma response and improve and basically bolster what she had going and how to gear it directly for the trauma response.
Mindy Peterson: [00:09:04] Ok. Emerald Scratch responds to disasters and traumatic events around the globe. What are some of the triggering events that would cause Emerald sketch to activate besides shootings, natural disasters, refugee and migrant crises?
Nicole Porter Davis: [00:09:21] Yes, I’ve been fortunate to provide a lot of trainings for art therapists, specifically through the chapters of the American Art Therapy Association. Like the wildfires of California. Five years ago, I was on Zoom, providing trainings for over 90 clinicians at a time, and it looks like that it’s like a two to three hour training of this is how to mobilize the outreach first, because they all everyone has the skills of the clinical work, the foundation of them. It’s a matter of giving everyone the confidence and the skills to provide the outreach so people know that creative arts therapy isn’t available, service that’s highly effective.
Mindy Peterson: [00:09:53] So do you get involved in advocacy work then as well? Yes. Advocating for
Nicole Porter Davis: [00:09:58] Therapy? Yes. Imagine that’s a big part of like the outreach program that I implement is really the neurobiology of how art therapy works, where anyone coming into an outreach session learns the real nuts and bolts of how our sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems work and how 90 percent of our regulation shuts down. The neurotransmission shuts down when a trauma happens and the S.O.S. system goes off. And then I get really deep into the neurobiology of creativity and how we enter that somatic realm of the inner core early childhood brain with the clients, with the group, with the community. And by doing that, we begin to then reorganize and reintegrate the really distressing signals that shut down our neurotransmission and doing that dialogue of giving people a creative arts experience. Like you asked me earlier, it was a beautiful question. I didn’t answer directly about what are the forms of creativity? I’m bringing everyone right, like when I’m in the room and during the outreach. It’s very forensic clinical art therapy. It is straightforward. Here’s a PTSD scale. Now you’re going to you have the choice to draw a safe place or a person in a safe place. We’re going to take 20 to 30 minutes, then we’re going to put the artwork up. We’re going to process it as a group. And then I’m going to teach you about the neurobiology of how art therapy heals when someone’s upset.
Mindy Peterson: [00:11:20] So you’re and you’re teaching this to children who are in the process of the therapy? Or are you referring to the training that you’re doing with other therapists?
Nicole Porter Davis: [00:11:30] The training that I’m doing for civilians, primarily, it’s geared for teenagers and adults, OK, but I absolutely have a child friendly version that when children like typically adults will come to that outreach and then they’ll decide if they want to enroll now or if the program has their information, they can come back any time and it begins to create that resiliency, that flexibility that a community needs when something horrible has happened.
Mindy Peterson: [00:11:55] So your example of drawing the safe space and then talking about it is that something in exercise that you would actually do in an art therapy session with a child?
Nicole Porter Davis: [00:12:05] Yes, that’s what I was going to bridge is that when then the children enter, like typically children aren’t coming for an outreach. Children are coming because the parents are ready to bring them for art therapy. And it’s always the first layer is that people are typically people that have had some other upsetting event go on in their close family, like a death, a loss, a separation. And then the tragedy is that first layer and usually by month, three or four people that are severely devastated by the actual trauma have lost someone because of it begin to come in. So it comes in layers. But the children, once they enter, there’s another dialogue very similar in childlike, playful ways where they’re introduced to the space and they’re given the recipe of what each session is going to look like and how that’s going to be consistent every time. And when it’s appropriate, I or the team member will integrate. This is what’s really happening with yourself physically and that comes into play in the therapy of how are you feeling right now? One to five horrible or fabulous? Ok, where do you want to be at the end of the art therapy session and then physically checking back in and saying, How do you feel and where is it in your body? Where is it in your mind body? And like really bringing that somatic experience into the verbal realm of articulation with the other human?
Mindy Peterson: [00:13:20] Oh, fascinating. Anything else you want to tell us about kind of that basic recipe that’s followed in in a session just to give us an idea of sort of what this actually looks like in action,
Nicole Porter Davis: [00:13:31] The mindfulness of being with the child, right? It’s like they have the beauty of living in a state of wonderment, even when devastated in my first days. Sometimes it’s just blowing bubbles with a child, you know, sometimes it’s tapping tissue paper that then becomes music, but aligning with that child or that family or that adult really aligning with them and finding that that zone that a mother and child or a father and child parent, child caregiver and newborn have with each other because that’s where the sympathetic parasympathetic nervous system relates.
Mindy Peterson: [00:14:06] Well, you know, produce and perform as the virtual band you and us creating healing arts music for families. The band’s first album for Children of All Ages debuted yesterday. Congratulations as your Valentine’s Day love letter to the planet. Tell us about the album and how you tie that in with Valentine’s Day.
Nicole Porter Davis: [00:14:31] Yes, this is such an enthusiastic, fun loving, exciting time. The release of four children of all ages it’s really a cultivation of the nine years since the Sandy Hook tragedy in the sense that I’ve always used music in my clinical work, you know, for the 10 years before I was in Newtown and for the nine years since. It’s always a part of my work in the sense of when I ask a client to open up to their creativity, I am ready and willing to go in. The direction that they need to go, if that’s music, if that’s movement, if that’s writing and drawing, sculpting the space, when I get to work in physical space, it’s all about the art materials, but I’ve certainly had families bring. We set up keyboards, we bring in the acoustic instruments. So it’s always an available option. And and I’ve always used music to captivate the attention of a large group of children to help ail really upset children in the crisis. Centers that I’ve done work in and helping lead groups of teachers in early childhood trauma centers use music to help soothe children at their nap time and ways ways like that have always been an integrated part of my clinical work.
Mindy Peterson: [00:15:40] So is that something that you got involved in as a child in terms of music and learning to play an instrument?
Nicole Porter Davis: [00:15:45] Yeah, I picked up the flute. I think I was 11 or 12. I started to really study music and just always had access to instruments as a child growing up. And, you know, and I was fortunate to have been studied many different forms of fine art and studied theater and studied dance my entire childhood. So, you know, if you become an art therapist specifically because we break up the sciences not to be too tangential, but it’s not typical for an art therapist to be trained in all forms of creativity. It’s yeah, it’s rare, and I think it it speaks really well, especially when working with young children. Hmm. Which should be applied through all ages. You know, we nurture little ones more. So that’s why this album, you know, given the pandemic and my own child was three years old when the pandemic started and the song Safety and Security on the album has a story integrated in it that I improvised the night I found out. I remember it was March 13th. I had to tell. We had to tell our daughter there was no more preschool. Mm-hmm. And I innovated that story and found very quickly that anyone I shared it with was finding benefit with their children. You know, in the power of the metaphor and the significance, you know, and then through the pandemic, I’ve done a lot of response work with the migrant child crisis that was going on before the pandemic, and it’s still going on. So I have a very insatiable appetite for implementing creative arts therapy solutions for children that are really in crisis because there’s millions of them. So that’s the heart song of the album, and I happen to combination of intuitive wisdom and like minded friends and family. The absolute magical cluster of people came together and made this album possible.
Mindy Peterson: [00:17:23] Tell us more about how you apply our therapy techniques to music or what techniques have been applied in this album’s music.
Nicole Porter Davis: [00:17:31] I love this question. Right? And that again goes back to that higher thinking right? These these critical thinking skills we learned from studying an instrument, right? Or yeah, and it really does come down to that that me employing and making choice like I basically, the album follows the clinical sequences that a client goes through with an art therapist that’s trained in the trauma response that I work with that, you know, under my hub, we call it the Emerald sketch sequence, but I learned from other clinicians that supervised my work in Newtown that have been writing about it for decades before.
Mindy Peterson: [00:18:08] So what’s the sequence that you’re referring to?
Nicole Porter Davis: [00:18:11] So we start with safety, where it’s very creative arts therapy tasks on safety and security. So the example I gave, you know, and then from that, we move to the therapeutic relationship where you actively make art music movement about what it’s like to be in the new relationship with therapists. Like, that’s a tricky one that everyone’s always puzzled by that. But it’s really it’s the key to the magic door to make sure that relationship is locked and solid and the person feels really secure because the next phase is secure remembrance, which is the magical metaphor for trauma processing. It’s very unlikely that you’re going to say to someone, Hey, let’s do a trauma process and they’re going to be like, I’m going swimming. Yeah, right? But if you say, Hey, we did therapeutic relationship last week, are you up for doing a secure remembrance? You can choose to do the story of the tragedy, or you can choose another story. You could choose a dream. You could choose something that happened this week. And let’s just practice making art about a secure remembrance where you’re giving choice to the client. It’s very human centered. It allows them to reveal the upset at their own pace. Hmm. And then from secure remembrance comes transformation, and this isn’t typically done in a single session. All of these sequences often are given weeks, if not months of time depends on the level of trauma. Some people can do it in a month and a half, really high functioning people that had a mild upset. Mm hmm. So then we do transformation, which is you transform the story, you transform the secure remembrance. And you know, part of that is always letting people know you transform the artwork. We know we can never change what happened in our history, but we can change what we see in the artwork. So we start there and we stay there. Knowing knowing that these neurobiological transformations are taking place.
Mindy Peterson: [00:20:05] Uh-huh. So there’s four steps then to that sequence with transformation being the last.
Nicole Porter Davis: [00:20:10] No. Two more then we have right now. It’s so good and juicy. Then we then we have social connection, which was the first song we released. Yeah. And that’s another significant step of the overarching of therapy best case scenario, because then as the therapist, I’m coming in and saying to the person, who are your social connections outside of this relationship? Hmm. Like, who’s who are your real people? And then after that, we do relapse prevention. Ok, now pack your suitcase, pack your visual suitcase. And on the album, that’s raw emotional power. What are all the best tools that you just learned and that you want to remember? Like for some people, adults love it when there are flashcards made for them, like little mini pictures of all of the artwork they created because it’s automatic memory of what helped that week with that task.
Mindy Peterson: [00:21:02] I love the thought and intention that went into this album, so it sounds like the early tracks on the on the album focus on safety and then you just kind of make your way through. Yes, the the sequence with the focus of each of the songs and tracks.
Nicole Porter Davis: [00:21:16] Yes. And I really did my best to make it very uplifting. And that’s why I loved working with Wyndham Garnett and Nicholas Kinsey because they’re both incredibly talented. Musicians have known each other since they were young children, so, you know, the integration process was snapping. And like I said, they’re excellent musicians. So the music coming together, I think, is just it’s really upbeat and fun for people to enjoy. Meanwhile, we’re hitting on all these really great subconscious material that everyone needs during this pandemic.
Mindy Peterson: [00:21:48] Uh-huh. Well, I love the therapeutic structure and in just these principles that you’re very intentional about incorporating into your practice and into this album. And at the same time, it sounds like it’s very accessible and practical. I love you referenced some flashcards of artwork, and wow, what a great way to have that prop to refer to. Sometimes just having that tangible physical item can be really powerful.
Nicole Porter Davis: [00:22:16] Oh yeah, I can remember doing that for people back in the 2000s where it just elevates that departure, that ending of, OK, I’m saying goodbye to therapy and also letting people know that a wonderful experience in therapy is knowing you can come back anytime something a normal developmental challenge comes up, right? It’s like helping people see a new perspective on the reality of our life path. That’s one of my favorite tasks at the end of work with people, too, is create your life path. Like, if it were a song, what would it sound like if it were a game board? What would it look like? Hmm.
Mindy Peterson: [00:22:51] Well, this album is now available as of yesterday Valentine’s Day, so I’ll definitely have links in the show notes for listeners to get their hands on and ears on this music and the album. Is there anything else that you want people to know about this music? Your motivation in making it or anything else about the album? Before we close things out with, I believe, a clip of one of the songs on the album.
Nicole Porter Davis: [00:23:19] I think my final note is to share that I’m very grateful for all the listeners, and I feel very fortunate to have had the opportunity to create the music and to share the music and any interaction. I welcome and I’m just so excited to be here with you, Mindy. Sharing this this new release.
Mindy Peterson: [00:23:35] Well, I’m thrilled about it, and I just want to point out that the title is for children of all ages, and it literally is for children of all ages. You’ve really specialized in a lot of early childhood work, but this music is for everyone, and parents have experienced trauma through this pandemic and experienced it through the shootings in Newtown and refugee. You know, parents experience trauma to adults do. And this music is for all of us. Well, I ask all my guests to close out our conversation with a musical, ending a coda by sharing a song or story with us about a moment that music enhanced your life. Tell us about the song from your album that you’re going to share with us in closing today.
Nicole Porter Davis: [00:24:22] Yeah, I’m choosing to share the song relation ship.
Mindy Peterson: [00:24:26] That is about your words.
Nicole Porter Davis: [00:24:28] Yes, separate separating it and really entering that realm of the metaphor. The two of us have been talking about today where we are inviting the audience to come aboard our ship and I say our audience because I’m thinking in the long run I and the collective behind you and us, we want to see you and us become a virtual band, right? We’ve created these five charming characters that are very diverse. Known to me is the lead who takes on my role where the song relationship is an invitation for that therapeutic relationship of we want the fans to join the virtual band. This is the step in the album of How much fun are you having? Like, We want you on this boat with us, right? Like this is about all of us joining together and being in the moment and being connected together is really how we empower greater vibrations of healing collectively. So I love this song because you’ll hear the metaphor layers of the Royal Road, and for me, the the neurobiologists. The scientist in me is just so very excited and and stimulated to share neuroscience in a way that’s completely hidden in this charming song about relation the ship.
Transcribed by Sonix.ai