April 24, 2020
Muralist and Art Therapist Jessie Novik Takes on the World One Wall at a Time
Jessie Novik wearing snorkels and pointing to her mural at Mt. Sinai Children’s Hospital in New York City, N.Y.Source: Jessie Novik
Impassioned by her innate artistry and love for teaching, Jessie Novik has explored multiple avenues for utilizing art as a healing medium, from one-on-one art therapy sessions with her clients to leading public community art projects throughout New York.
Recently, we spoke to the Brooklyn-based creative via telephone to learn more about her lifelong love for art, her experiences in martial arts, and to learn more about how she’s staying connected with her clients virtually during the coronavirus pandemic.
Tell us a little about yourself and your work
I’ve got three main passions, which are art making, martial arts, and art therapy. I sort of fluctuate between those with my time.
I’m a muralist and I’ve been working for the past few years on establishing a career that combines mural painting and art therapy; working with communities, making public art. That’s my dream, to keep moving forward with that. I’d like to lead international, community-based mural projects.
What are your favorite type of paints and your favorite landscapes to portray, whether you’re working individually or in a group – and why?
Jessie Novik leads a community art project at PS/IS278 in Inwood with the non-profit organization Creative Art WorksSource: Jessie Novik
Personally, my favorite type of paint is oil. However, that’s not a medium I would use with clients or with groups because it’s fairly toxic and hard to complete in a single session – it’s more of a process-oriented material.
I’m also fairly messy with [oil painting], so I don’t paint with too many oils these days, although I have plenty. I’m thinking within this quarantine I might get back into it.
What I do paint most readily with, and what I use for my murals, is acrylic, mostly acrylic house paint or artist acrylics. I’ll use those with clients more frequently because it’s easier to set up, easier to clean, and far less toxic. I use them on my own more frequently for the same reasons.
I also like to paint with watercolors when I’m interested in pumping something out in a single session or introducing a client to something that’s a little freer. When we’re not really looking at representation quite as clearly, watercolors are a nice medium to get into.
And for myself, if I’ve had a long day and I just want to come home and paint something really quick I’ll usually use watercolors.
How long have you been painting? When did you realize art was what you wanted to study in college and pursue as a career?
I’ve painting since I was a really little kid. My mom is fairly artsy and I grew up with an older sister who was also into making art, so we always had art materials in the house. From a young age, my mom, my sister, and I would make crafts together in the house.
That just stuck with me. I really loved and it and spent a lot of time on my own making artwork, paintings, specifically. I wanted to be a great painter. I was also grounded a lot, so that offered me additional times to spend by myself, brooding and making artwork [laughs].
For those who may be unfamiliar, could you tell us a little about what art therapy is and what an art therapy session would look like?
Art therapy can be paired down to two main categories. One is using art as therapy in itself, so exploring materials with clients in an individual or group setting where we would be looking at the specific therapeutic properties of the materials as they pertain to the specific population.
So whether someone is tactile friendly or not so much, y’know, clay in and of itself can have very cathartic properties; squeezing a ball of clay and talking about how that feels in the body, what emotions that bring up.
Or something more representational: looking at content, looking at color, looking at form. Then – whether it’s verbal or non-verbal – seeing what is coming up for the client in order to discover new insights for them to be aware of what kind of content that process of exploring materials is. Just having this dialogue about it that’s fairly safe.
A lot of times, clients come to me – especially when I work with young people, teenagers – they’ll say, “I don’t like talking about my feelings!” and I say, “Alright! Well, let’s not talk about ‘em.”
Eventually, we start making art and the feelings come up. They kind of just come up on their own without any pressure.
That’s art as therapy. There’s also art as a diagnostic tool, which usually would be used in conjunction with allied mental health professionals where you’re looking specifically at the content or the way in which a piece of art was created.
Whether there was a lot of pressure or light pressure, there’s a lot of contrast, or really straight, strong marks versus delicate marks. All of that can shed a lot of light to the affect and level of functioning that a client might have at that moment. To look at that, explore what other types of underlying themes or emotions might be expressed there, and share that information with other therapists on the case team.
You had also mentioned via email that you have clients you’ve been staying connected with digitally on Zoom. What is a virtual art therapy session like? What are the pros and cons of working with clients digitally?
I’ve been working with clients in different capacities since the quarantine [began]. I work with a non-profit called The Animation Project, and we work in groups – mostly young people throughout the five boroughs – to write stories. I partnered with a professional animator so we can then bring those stories to life and put them up on YouTube.
We’ve been running groups and we’ve been still going with our digital programming, so basically talking to groups through Zoom and coming up with story ideas.
One-on-one, I’ve been continuing to work with adults with developmental disorders. That’s been pretty magical, I’d say. I’m so glad that I’m able to continue to work with them.
Even though we’ve had to really transform our method, it’s been kind of fun to explore the different ways we can integrate creative arts into our sessions digitally, whether we’re exploring different kinds of apps or using screenshare (I would pull up a screen and maybe we would write a story collectively and they could read it out), there are some interactive drawing apps out there.
I’ve been trying to stay up on what’s available for creative engagement and experimenting with clients. I have to say, I look forward to days where I have those sessions because it’s really nice and warm, especially since I worry for them during this time. The transition’s got to be challenging for them.
Why do you think art is such a healing medium?
It’s kind of inherit for me because I just feel good when I create. The more I have on my mind or the more stressed I am, the more unrest I experience internally, the better art I make and the more engaged in art making I am.
The clients that I work with developmental delays, we’re working on functional goals. When we would meet in person, there was a lot of working with different tools in order to build control and [accomplish] skill building – which is also what I do with kids through The Animation Project. We’re building digital tools, which is enhancing their professional development and giving them more tools and more ways to express themselves in order to have agency and build confidence around.
On a more practical level, it’s technical skill building. That’s a large part that I really value and identify with.
[Art’s] also just a form of engaging in creative activity where the product isn’t as important and it’s more about being in the moment and experimenting. I feel thoughts flow freely during that time. There’s little pressure.
What do you find most rewarding about being an artist and why?
Novik’s largest independent mural project at Mt. Sinai Children’s Hospital in New York City, N.Y.Source: Jessie Novik
When I’m making art, I feel like I’m spending my time doing something positive for myself – even if I’m procrastinating something else. When I’m making art, the time spent is worthwhile because I’m creating something new that wasn’t there before.
I guess that’s one example of how I find it most rewarding.
I also just like to make myself proud by pushing my own skill level and enhancing my abilities with different materials.
I get really into projects, I hyper focus and get very technical with detail. Getting really absorbed into something and problem solving, laboring over a piece, and then taking a step back feeling proud or like I reached a new level. That’s really rewarding to me.
What do you find most challenging about being an artist and why?
Watercolor illustration by Jessie NovikSource: Jessie Novik
Representation, putting myself out there and continuing to do that regularly, that’s what I would say is most challenging. Staying up to date on the way artists are being seen and reaching greater audiences.
While I am trying to grow professionally as an art therapist, I am an artist and I would like to have my work out there as much as possible. I’d like to have a broad audience.
Using the tools on the internet, staying up to date, and continuing to put work up there to reach a broader audience is most challenging. [Having a broader audience] is also important so I can get more commissions, get more work to supplement my regular income. Balancing those is a challenge. Balancing my goals as an art therapist and also my own artistic goals, finding time for both.
Why How would you summarize your experiences leading community art projects and which project was your favorite to work on?
Jessie Novik’s artwork in action: Novik leads and paints alongside various groups as they work together on murals in New York.Source: Jessie Novik
I’ve led a lot of them. Since 2014, I’ve been leading community-based mural projects through a few different non-profits, mostly this one called Creative Art Works. I started off as an assistant, then I started leading groups of about eight to 26 young people, mostly high school students enrolled in summer youth employment or other types of summer/after school apprenticeship programs.
I fell in love with it as soon as I started. I realized quickly that’s what I wanted to continue to do professionally.
Working with an entire group and teaching them the skills step-by-step in order to have a group piece, and having them be involved in the design conception, it feels… It’s hard to describe, but the cohesion that occurs over time is really rewarding.
Beyond being an art therapist, I really enjoy teaching. Teaching these technical skills to allow someone to leave their mark on a wall, producing this piece of work, having the participants sign their names on it, and then stepping back and hearing them say things like, “Wow, we did that. I can’t believe we made that.” That’s really rewarding and warm. I get a huge sense of gratification from that, so that’s what I want to continue doing more of on an even greater scale.
In addition to your work as an artist, you also mentioned martial arts is a passion of yours. Your website says that you hold a third-degree black belt in karate, and that you also teach self-defense to children and adults. How did you get immersed in karate and begin teaching self-defense?
I’ve been immersed in martial arts since I was a very little kid. My mom took me to karate when I was about six-years-old and I just fell in love with it.
For similar reasons to art, I just feel a sense of peace when I’m doing martial arts and I get to let aggression out. I get to be strong and build strength on that.
Growing up, karate was so powerful for me, it provided me with so much independence and confidence, so in teaching karate, I really aim to give that back to the students I work with.
I’ve also been training in Brazilian jiu-jitsu and MMA [mixed martial arts] for the last 10 years or so. That’s really been my focus lately.
In Brazilian ji-jitsu I have a brown belt now and I compete every once in a while. I just love it. It feels really great to use my body in that way and to get out aggression in a way that’s very technical and disciplined – it certainly keeps me disciplined, physically and mentally.
It’s a major passion of mine. And teaching, too, I teach and train at Brooklyn Martial Arts. I get a major sense of joy when I see kids getting the same types of feelings from it that I experienced as a young child.
It sounds like you keep busy with a variety of wonderful activities, but do you have any other hobbies or secret talents that you’d like to mention?
Well, I play classical guitar, although I’m not that disciplined with that. I pretty much play guitar when I’m putting off doing other things.
I like to be outdoors as much as possible – not so much these days – but I like to hike, climb, and travel.
I use a lot of other creative mediums, too. I like to play with clay, collage, draw, and sketch. I’ve been getting into digital art lately. Really, any kind of material I can get my hands on and explore I really dive into. I just like to stay as physically active as possible. I like working out, going to the gym, and exercising.
What’s next for you, Jessie? Are you working on any other big art projects or digital community events?
A crane mural painted by Jessie Novik on her bedroom closet doorSource: Jessie Novik
I’m continuing my work with my clients through The Animation Project and individually. I had two major public art projects I was working on these last few months. I was teaching at Pratt [Institute] a course on art therapy and mural painting and we had to go digital with our final product.
We were going to be painting a mural in the hallway of the Pratt art therapy department. We instead created a group digital collage where they each contributed to a square and we put something together for that.
But we have the sketch up on the wall, we have the pencil outline. Depending on when we will be allowed back on campus, I would like to still complete that mural with those students who are interested or are still available to put time in on that. It was kind of a bummer to have to put that aside.
Additionally, I had a mural that I was getting started as an art therapist in Coney Island with HeartShare St. Vincent’s at a housing community center. We were going to be painting a wall in their hallway. We had the design almost complete and then we had to put that whole process on hold.
I’m hoping to be able to get back into that once the site has opened back up, and once we’re cleared to be in contact with other humans. That’s all still up in the air at this point.
As far as my own projects go, I am painting in my apartment a converted fireplace that’s been transformed into a bookshelf. I’m looking at a lot of faux and Trompe trompe l’oeil motifs, figuring out exactly how I want to decorate my fireplace. I’m thinking a green marble kind of effect.
I’m just going to paint all my walls by the end of this quarantine. I’ll just have everything covered that I can.
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