Solana Beach resident helps others — especially veterans — through art therapy
By Diane Y. Welch
On Saturdays, at 12:30 p.m., Harris teaches photorealistic drawing at the Solana Beach Library to individuals and family members. It was a student in one of his classes that connected Harris to Scripps Hospital’s Wounded Warrior program.
“Based on her own successes she asked me if I could teach veterans at the hospital. I thought the idea phenomenal,” said Harris, who had suffered paralysis as a child. “In fact, that’s how I initially got into drawing as I had a lot of time on my hands. So I when I agreed to work at Scripps I could relate to these men on a lot of different levels, from their physical impairments, to understanding what they go through psychologically.”
The success with the wounded veterans led Harris to work with brain trauma victims and amputees. “I became the non-medical person who brings some joy into their life. I give them a magical place inside where they don’t focus on their illness, they focus on being free from their illness,” he said.
When Harris took this same concept to the Veterans Administration Medical Center in La Jolla they suggested he work with the spinal cord injured, paraplegics and quadriplegics and his “Drawing with Joel” classes were initiated.
With his quadriplegic students Harris becomes their hands, conducting bedside drawing with them. “I connect with them on all different levels. I ask them what they did in their life, what they enjoyed and then I’ll start the drawing and they guide me verbally how to create the picture.” The drawings are left in the hospital room and become therapeutic.
Harris would not change his current lifestyle of helping others although in the 1980s he was on a very different track. He had an oceanview home in Cardiff, and was the designer for a nationally-distributed fitness magazine. “I came home one day and my house had burned down. Everything was destroyed. But what appeared to be a disaster actually turned out to be a godsend, when you look at the big picture,” he said. The setback had Harris moving in with friends and sleeping on their couch.
His friends had a baby and Harris chose her name, Taysia. Harris began writing and illustrating books for her. “I was experiencing how wonderful children are and it inspired me to write five children’s books that are now ready for publishing.”
The library became the quiet place where Harris could work on his book and his artistry caught the attention of the librarian. She asked if he would teach drawing there and he agreed. “I taught drawing the way it should have been taught to me in college,” he quipped. Harris’ professional background includes fine art studies, medical illustration, photography and communications.
His latest project is his company, Healing Americas Heroes.org. Partnered with American Combat Veterans of War, it facilitates artshows of the work of his wounded warrior students. The first show was held in the summer at Carlsbad’s Front Porch Gallery. Harris plans to take the exhibition on the road. The artwork will be made into greeting cards, with the proceeds split between the company and the artists.
Harris believes that art is therapeutic for everyone. “The only place where we are really healthy is moment by moment. When we start to think about things that have happened in the past, our bodies can’t go to those places. That’s where the word, “dis-ease” comes from, we create our own illness. I teach being present and being watchful of the environment, it keeps us healthy,” he said.
Visit www.theartofhealingheroes.com to learn more about Healing Americas Heroes.org. To find out about Joel Harris’s library workshops, call (858) 755-1404.