Subway Therapy: The Collective Art That Heals

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Subway Therapy: The Collective Art That Heals

Anonymous notes – carrying messages of hope, loss, confusion and anger – recently flooded the walls of New York City’s Union Square subway station. They weren’t the work of a Banksy-like vandal. Instead, they came from tens of thousands of people who were trying to make sense of the recent election and find some comfort in the feelings that stemmed from its results. That’s right: in one of the most bustling cities in the world, scores of people were compelled to pause, reflect and contribute to collective art that heals.

The Subway Therapy installation, created by artist Matthew “Levee” Chavez, collects the thoughts of commuters onto Post-it notes that cover subway walls all over the City. Community-based art depends on interaction and dialogue, and people of all walks of life have been more than willing to contribute to this conversation.


Chavez told Paste it “was never about the election…it was built around stress relief, inclusion, conversation and peaceful expression.” Participant Molly Jenkins felt that relief while reading other submissions on the wall: “It was a welcome reminder that people still care, that there is still love and hope, and that it can be found in ordinary people every day.”

Although Subway Therapy wasn’t created with the election in mind, peoples’ interactions with it have organically shifted its focus. As any such installation grows, it evolves and changes with the collective experiences of its participants, and creates a new narrative that reflects the viewpoint of the community. In this way, the artist, though pivotal in their role, loses some control over the development of the work and gives partial ownership to those who interacted with it.

After all, a collective voice is louder than a single one.


Another participant, Kelly Purkey, spoke about how the other responses reflected the divided mood of the community: “Subway Therapy was incredibly therapeutic and helped to offer a bright spot after what was a dark wave of disheartening experiences that followed the election.”

Recognizing the impact of projects like this one, The New York Historical Society (NYHS) will now preserve a selection of the installation’s notes. “This will offer future generations … keen insights into the thoughts and feelings surrounding the presidential election of 2016 in New York City,” says NYHS Vice President and Museum Director Margaret K. Hofer. Essentially, Subway Therapy will act as a historical time capsule of the election of Donald Trump, as well as an example of how people turned to art for comfort.

Considering the dismal atmosphere that Purkey references, the notes haven’t all been about the election. In fact, they remain mostly uplifting and generally inspiring. Jenkins says she simply wrote “you are loved” on her Post-it: “I hoped that anyone could read that and take some comfort if they needed it… sometimes we all need to be reminded of that.”

While providing an emotional outlet for each individual, the installation also creates an impactful representation of the feelings of the community. A participant is relieved when they get their emotions “out of their system” and onto paper. Other viewers then see their own concerns and hopes echoed by a stranger.

Many other current collective art projects share this aspect of healing as well. Most prominently, The NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt, began with a small group in 1987 and has since become the largest community art project in the world. More than 48,000 panels have been sewn by loved ones of individuals who have died of AIDS. The quilt continues to grow and to inspire thousands of viewers each year.


Another example is Yoko Ono’s current installation, Arising. The artist has called for testimonials from women around the world that demonstrate the harm committed against them on a regular basis. Participants were asked to submit a photo of their eyes with their testimonials, shown here in a photo by Vigfus Birgisson. When displayed together, these real-life stories reiterate to the viewer how frequently these occurrences take place.


In the meantime, while notes at Union Square have been preserved, Chavez still sets up his “office” at different stations in the city each week to continue his mission of providing stress relief. “I hope anyone who participates has a stronger connection to their community, and walks away feeling a bit lighter about whatever may be weighing them down.”

These community art projects all act as a healing agent during times of need, affecting the artist, the participant and the observer in different, and often deeply personal ways. They then become a testament to the way art can transform a space, a mind, an attitude and an outlook, beginning with just one person.

Photo credits:
Main and lead photos of Subway Therapy by Adam Shorr
All other Subway Therapy photos by Aaron Cohen
The NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt photo courtesy of The NAMES Project
Yoko Ono’s Arising project was photographed by Vigfus Birgisson. Participants were asked to submit a photo of their eyes with their testimonials.

Mary Alice Franklin is Editor of Westchester County’s arts and culture newspaper, ArtsNews. Her freelance writing has been seen on The Huffington Post, Art Zealous, Skinnygirl Daily, Art Times Journal, Pure Filler and more.