A Garfield Park-based artist started playing with clay when she was three or four years old in her native Nebraska. Now a professional ceramics artist, Shalom Parker recalls making clay storyboards for the county fair.  

Twelve years ago, her interest in arts brought her to the city of Chicago to pursue a career in studio art, specializing in ceramics.  

She created a show of ceramic plates that represent her family history, with each plate representing one of her ancestors. The collection showcases her family’s origins: a Black lineage on her father’s side and a German from Russia lineage on her mother’s side. Each plate has a different set of hands representing the work her ancestors did.  

Creating this collection allowed her to experience some of the therapeutic effects of artmaking. 

“I was exploring the role of family and understanding my own identity,” she said. 

In the next 18 months, Parker will explore how to bring this type of healing to a city-run mental health clinic in partnership with another artist. Parker is one of 10 artists selected for the Chicago Arts & Health Pilot for Creative Workers. The program pays and trains artists to become certified community health workers, blending arts, health and healing.  

Parker is “first and foremost a person,” she said. Throughout her life, she has continued to bring in ceramics in her many professional endeavors. An artist, teacher, abolitionist, entrepreneur and arts therapist, Parker finds many ways to use art as a healing tool.  

“In high trauma situations, the part of your brain that processes trauma is actually visual, not verbal,” she said. “When you’re doing [art], it allows you to access that part of your brain that is not able to verbalize what happened to you or the impacts that trauma had on your life.”  

Art provides an opportunity to begin to process trauma and overcome isolation, reasons why she applied to the city’s program.  

“We can all be on different journeys and having different experiences, but we can use art to find the commonalities in our healings.”  

At the end of the month, she will start Malcolm X College’s community health worker program. Starting in January, she will be placed at one of the city-run mental health clinics with another artist. Together, they will work with staff to imagine and propose arts therapy programming to implement at the clinic.  

“Shalom was very excited about the peer-learning model and one [candidate] who wanted to learn from others who are doing this kind of work,” said Meida McNeal, program manager for the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events.  

She brings prior experience in arts therapy and a sensitivity to engage with communities in an intimate way, McNeal said.  

 Parker works as an art therapist for the Chicago Justice Torture Center, leading ceramics programs for survivors of torture and families of victims of torture at the hands of the Chicago Police Department. It is the only organization that recognizes domestic torture, she said.  

“I ran a ceramics group about grief and healing,” she said. 

 In it, she asks participants to imagine what their grief would look like if it was in a container. Thinking about their grief and creating an art piece that represents it helps them process and express it, she said.  

“What would it feel like? What would the texture be? Could you open it? Could you close it?”  

As a result, participants can begin to overcome isolation and reconnect with others, as they begin to find “the words” to express how they feel. 

Parker’s own artmaking process has allowed her to experience healing on a personal level.  

When making her show of ceramic plates, she learned about her family history. Her grandfather, an Air Force pilot from rural South Carolina is visually represented through her art as a man saluting. His job led him to live in France, where his first two kids were born, far from the cotton fields where Parker’s great-grandparents worked. They are represented through hands that are picking cotton. A blank Black plate represents her great-great-grandfather, whom the family believes was enslaved.  

Shalom Parker represents her grand father, an Air force pilot, in her ceramics plate show | Courtesy of Shalom Parker

These experiences inspired her to bring affordable access to ceramics programs for youth and adults to her community. In years past, she ran the arts and technology program for the East Garfield Park organization Breakthrough, providing them with a safe space, arts programming and the opportunity to meet other community members.  

She also sells handcrafted ceramic products, made in her Garfield Park home, through her online business Our Hands Ceramics. Her top product is a finger- tracing meditation mug, so “while you’re drinking coffee, you can trace the pattern with your fingers as a form of meditation.”  

When she starts the city’s program at the end of the month, Parker said she knows her life will be different. She will work individually with clients to continue their healing journey while attending school and running her online business. Later, she will shift to part-time employment while continuing to attend classes and training at mental health clinics.  

She will learn first-hand about what city run mental health institutions offer to their communities. There, she will work with an artist from a different discipline to figure out how to work together and propose a therapeutic arts program.   

As the city’s program is part of One Nation One Project national initiative “Arts for Everybody,” she will be part of a larger effort showing the innovative potential for arts in health in 18 cities in the U.S. 

Parker also sees an opportunity to diversify the arts field. The program creates opportunities for artists and healers who have traditionally faced barriers to specialized training “to use their art as a form of healing,” she said.  

“Because of my experiences, I have the ability to help figure out ways that we, as a city, can find more pathways for artist to get into healing occupations.”