How Brittany Knapp Balances Advocacy and Self-Discovery
Written by Emma Riva
“Let the crazy girl be,” artist, art therapist, and gallerist Brittany Knapp proclaims in a spring 2023 Instagram post. “I’m perpetually amazed by the fact that the “crazy girl” trope still exists.Even worse if you actually have mental illness. WATCH OUT GUYS!!” she writes. “We need to act low maintenance. We need to have impeccable boundaries. Don’t have any daddy issues and don’t have expectations. Oh ya, and if you keep entertaining men who don’t see your “worth”- that’s on you too. Have better self-esteem and be more selective, whydoncha? It remains challenging to be a PERSON as a woman.”
I open with this post because it was a perspective on gender dynamics I honestly hadn’t seen before. There’s much online chatter out there about tradwives, birth control, the Madonna-whore complex, slut-shaming, but very little engagement with the complexity of being a woman in modern life. Women have to navigate simultaneously being too much and not enough. Being crazy, but also needing legitimate help, wanting to be stable but also not wanting to be boxed in. Whatever it is that we do, women are taught shame, shame, shame, shame. Knapp has seen the systemic implications of that shame—she worked in the weeds of the criminal justice system, advocating for the end of solitary confinement and the installation of more cameras to hold male guards accountable for their behavior in women’s prisons. She’s also testified as a licensed therapist and a survivor.
“In all that I do, I try to express myself any way I can, without fear. I identify with the Wild Woman archetype. I want people to know they can put themselves out there for all of their flaws and eccentricities—I have a “no shame” approach to my art and work in hope others feel comfortable doing the same. I want to create an environment of what I like to refer to as ‘creative anarchy.’ It’s important that people who are looking in see others who don’t operate the way everyone else does.”
Over the phone, Knapp told me: “In all that I do, I try to express myself any way I can, without fear. I identify with the Wild Woman archetype. I want people to know they can put themselves out there for all of their flaws and eccentricities—I have a “no shame” approach to my art and work in hope others feel comfortable doing the same. I want to create an environment of what I like to refer to as ‘creative anarchy.’ It’s important that people who are looking in see others who don’t operate the way everyone else does.”
Knapp refers to the Jungian concept of the “Wild Woman,” detailed in Clarissa Pinkola Estes‘s The Women Who Run with Wolves. The archetype represents women who have been told they aren’t right, improper, a woman who doesn’t meet the requirements of civilized culture. And “crazy girl” isn’t just a pejorative label to her, it’s a reclamation. “It’s important to me to remain open about being bipolar, but not to glamorize mental illness, rather to decrease the stigma. I want the fire that burns inside of us as women to create change.” As a means of creating that change, Knapp acquired the space at 16 Cypress Avenue for Healing Arts Gallery in 2021, after being an essential worker during the COVID-19 pandemic. Being an “anarchist” or being unconventional is often framed as being outside of the system, refusing resources. But Knapp has created her own resource system with Healing Arts Gallery, a part of her larger project Art Therapy Place which she founded in 2020. Art Therapy Place is a community-based counseling center and art gallery bridging the gap between creative work and mental health therapy.
There’s long been an association between mental illness and creativity, to the point where bringing it up feels almost cliché. Van Gogh, Sylvia Plath, Zelda Fitzgerald…none of these figures had access to modern psychiatric care, and the debate over whether they might have made better art had they had therapy is not an easily solvable one. Art therapy can be a gateway for people who might not lean into a more traditional therapeutic setting or want to explore another means of healing. The gallery displays artwork of Art Therapy Place clients and community members with a focus on “healing through the arts.” Knapp has witnessed the process of exhibiting works helps their clients continue to integrate and reflect on their healing process. Exhibiting artwork assists their clients in building an artist’s identity has shown to increase their self-esteem and motivation, among other benefits.
Knapp is open about the different things she’s tried in her own journey. “Psychedelics inspired my artistic process, which is the subject matter of a series I am working on and why I wanted to include psychedelic assisted psychotherapy into the Art Therapy Place offerings.” Art Therapy Place has provided Ketamine Assisted Psychotherapy and Knapp believes in the healing potential of psychedelic medicine. Knapp was first exposed to art therapy in adolescence, “I did art therapy at age fifteen, and I didn’t really consider myself an artist at the time. I was a troubled teen who got institutionalized.” From the trauma of that institutionalization, Knapp was able to move forward and was inspired to create She Was, a series of burnt woodcut prints or “pyrography” works. One of the most striking is a portrait of Knapp, hands clasped in prayer, eyes turned upward. Her figure is a separate woodcut over a wooden backdrop, creating a shadow behind her. It’s Knapp’s eyes that really move me in this piece—how full of fragile hope they are and how much larger her shadow is than her body.
“It’s an unconventional form of drawing, and people have these different associations around burning and shadows. I think of the shadow as evidence that you were there.”
Knapp continued making pyrography wood burnings through college and into her adult career with Secular Transcendence, a series exploring her religious upbringing, and Take the Stand, documenting her work in the courts.
“I just saw a wood burner at a hardware store one time and picked it up. I got to be friends with the guys at the hardware store,” she said, laughing. “It’s an unconventional form of drawing, and people have these different associations around burning and shadows. I think of the shadow as evidence that you were there.” The material of wood is an organic one, and the reliefs have a sense of permanence to them when she burns them in, similarly to a tattoo artist working on skin.
Her interest in organic materials carried over to one of Healing Arts Gallery’s signature activities, a nest-making workshop. “Some people haven’t had a safe place in their life. Creating a nest helps people explore the concept safety in their lives, resourcefulness and the use of coping skills,” Knapp said. “I set the gallery up like a forest, and for the nest-building sessions we do, people can forage in it. Participants were asked to make a safe place or nest for themselves engaging their five senses. The workshop provided organic, sensory and decorative materials to build the personalized nests. It’s meant to bring up a feeling of hopefulness and somewhere to come back to.” She drew inspiration from the existing art therapy “Safe Place” project and theories of attachment. “I wanted clients to be able to get back into their senses, stay grounded, and be in a safe, playful environment. A lot of the materials we ended up using were from the trees on our block.”
The use of trees surrounding the gallery to make nests is a perfect metaphor for what Knapp is doing in her therapeutic practice, activism, and creative work. So often, mental health counseling is individualistic, focused on bettering yourself, healing yourself. By expanding her art therapy organization into a gallery space, Knapp engages with the reality that most people require community to heal. When the nuclear family, wage labor system, or patriarchal relationships have abandoned or failed someone, often they simply end up slipping through the cracks. Art offers a form of community that has a radical part to play in the healing process. Knapp hopes to expand Art Therapy Place and Healing Arts Gallery and use the nest project to assist diverse populations. Knapp is in search of collaborators, grants and funding to provide the nest-building workshop for sexual violence survivors people directly impacted by incarceration and potentially the residents of an emergency relief migrant shelter that opened across the street from the gallery.
“I try to balance advocacy and self-exploration,” she said. What sets Knapp apart is that balance between her self-reflection and her activism. Often, creatives have to choose one or the other. But Knapp has found balance with the Healing Arts Gallery. She and her staff offer art therapy, dance therapy, mƒusic therapy, drama therapy, and multilingual services. Talk therapy or psychoanalysis can only take you so far sometimes. Healing through creativity, outside of an analyst’s couch, can sometimes be messy. But, at the end of the day, messy also makes for great art.
The Art Therapy Place Healing arts gallery is seeking funding and collaborators and participants for the Nest-building Project. Connect with Brittany Knapp and their team with interest in our upcoming projects, exhibitions Creative Arts Therapy services on Instagram or at arttherapyplace.com. Follow Brittany’s personal artwork and projects at @brittanyknappart and brittanyknappart.com. Arts Gallery is at 16 Cypress Avenue in Brooklyn, NY.
Emma Riva is the managing editor of UP. She is the author of Night Shift in Tamaqua, an illustrated novel that follows a love story between 24-hour-diner waitress and a Postmates driver. As an art writer, she is particularly interested in working with international artists and exploring how visual art can both transcend cultural boundaries and highlight the complexities of individual identity. Emma is a graduate of The New School and a Wilbur and Niso Smith Author of Tomorrow. She lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.