Puzlkind – the Healing Potential of Jigsaws

Puzlkind screenshot
Screenshot from "Peace by Piece with Poetry and Puzzles" workshop with poet Esther Cohen

Some of us did not pray when The Pandemic began. Some of us puzzled.

Many artists frequently work from home. I’m one of them. When Covid19 hit in March 2020, my friends were NOT surprised to hear that I continued to paint.

But, learning? Co-designing and releasing puzlkind, a multi-player jigsaw application with voice chat…?

“People I could have foreseen building an app??? SJ, you don’t even make the short list,” said a friend of three decades.

Shall I back up a bit?

In 2011 I had moved from Seattle, Washington to Seekonk, Massachusetts and found myself in a small town, carless and recovering from physical injury. Thankfully the local library offered handy recreation. And I fell in love—with their jigsaw puzzles! No batteries required and totally silent, this old-fashioned mode of re-creation/creation simultaneously occupied my active fingers and soothed my anxious mind.

Some months later, when healed and functioning, I finished a totally surprising and very orange painting called “This Is a Life Worth Living.” This painting resonated with friends and strangers alike. In that same chapter of life, I found myself spending many hours in hospital waiting rooms staring at tattered copies of People magazine as my partner’s mother’s life dwindled. I yearned for something aesthetically pleasing and possibly communal. Some way for us to connect in our suspended state of longing. As an experiment, I decided to transform my new painting into a 1000pc jigsaw puzzle. And so began a multi-year odyssey. The filmmaker/painter became a puzzle zealot.

Puzlkind logo

Solo jigsaw puzzle assembly offered me easily digestible lessons: incremental progress, the importance of breaks, changing perspectives. When a film curator wrote me a letter describing how said puzzle helped her through chemotherapy I was thrilled. I began to make mini-puzzles for the infusion units at our local hospital. Cognitive distraction from simultaneously chemotherapy seemed potentially useful.

I continued to expand my designs and found joy in round puzzles. Local retailer Kurry Davis Jacob and I began hosting public Puzzle and Pie Happy Hours. During these casual encounters I observed magic happening.  Co-creation seemed to improve people’s moods. Or was it the strawberry rhubarb pie?

In 2018 advanced practice psychiatric nurse, Beverly Waldman Rich, invited me to perform a short puzzle assembly workshop with her highly stressed junior level nursing students. Bev and I were equally amazed when the students opened up about their vulnerabilities and self-doubts. After puzzling together these students felt relaxed and heard, which seemed to have a salubrious benefit! A year later Bev brought me to Rhode Island’s Bradley Hospital as a “puzzle specialist” for her doctoral research. I ran one group puzzling workshop with a cohort of clinically depressed adolescents to see how mindfulness training could improve their affect. We were astounded when, after an initial session, our initially antagonistic teens bounded from our conference room to their parents arms, joyfully declaring their future plans: veterinarian, surgeon, artist… Somehow puzzling together had seeded self-esteem. Of all the mindful activities offered, the participants rated my puzzle workshop as their favorite. Dr. Rich was excited to continue this exploration of puzzling and behavioral modification.

Having found her research in a footnote of Jane McGonigal’s ‘SuperBetter’ I reached out to Dr. Xiaomeng “Mona” Xu at Idaho State University to help me understand the neurochemical processes. We secured a small grant to hold a larger puzzle workshop for her community for Spring 2020. In the meantime, other organizations hosted my workshops. I offered sequential writing exercises in tandem with puzzle assembly. And, of course, pie. The applications for this model seemed endless and exciting – social justice and faith-based organizations commissioned puzzles, university professors and municipal teams hosted me for workshops, and library programmers invited me to puzzle with their inter-generational patrons.

Early workshops and key collaborators

Each workshop allowed me to observe people entering that well-adored “flow state” – and doing so together.

And then came COVID-19. No amount of hand-sanitizer was enough to keep us together.

I shared my frustration with Michael Ferrier, a dear friend and veteran multiplayer game programmer (Puzzle Together, Remote Viewing Tournament, War of Conquest).  Mike suggested the metaverse as the new home for my puzzles and attendant workshops.

I resisted.  I prefer the world in 3D, not pixels.

He ignored me, wise soul, and showed me a skeletal version of a multiplayer jigsaw puzzle application in June of 2020. We performed a beta test and voila. I was converted.

December graphic designer Ruth Chung joined our Puzlkind journey to promote peace – well-being – via co-creation, connection, and inclusion. Jigsaw puzzles for joy and justice.

As homage to my 2015 “puzzle and pie happy hours” we built an in-app Happy Hour and scheduled our first one on Pi Day, March 14, 2021.

I received my first of many lessons that day:

Be prepared to answer all questions and explain EVERYTHING.

Ten minutes before the event I received a phone call: “Sarah Jane, can you send us the Zoom link?”

“It’s, um, not on Zoom. It’s an app. “

“A what? Hold on, let me move find the browser “

This was a preview of many onboarding experiences to follow.

Explaining to non-digital natives that an app is not a Zoom session.

Explaining that giving microphone access will not necessarily invite the FBI into your living room.

Explaining that the microphone actually picks up that whole conversation you and your boyfriend are having about laundry.

Cardboard jigsaw puzzles had been the perfect intergenerational platform for co-education. No batteries required, no instructions needed. And suddenly I had made a deep dive into a world that seemed to create barriers left and right.  I had made something that required me to learn how to bring the public to a new place. I needed to learn how to make a game to bring people to a game.

Veteran game designers chuckled when I shared my conundrum. They said, “Let us teach each other to help support the differently-abled in the virtual world.”

But how?

This morning I found my notes from a fall workshop co-hosted by ReImagine End of Life and Holistic Underground run by Mazin Jamal and Raquel Najera. In BOLD LETTERS I had printed:

TAKE FOCUS OFF SELF AND FOCUS ON SERVICE

“ASK – WHO IS COMING? and WHAT DO THEY NEED?

Ask yourself, Do you want to invite them? Or INCLUDE THEM?

Here in the U.S.A. many of us pray daily to create MLK’s Beloved Community – Equity, Solidarity, and Access.

Can a humble jigsaw puzzle app bring about that magnitude of change?

Sarah Jane Lapp

Sarah Jane Lapp has made images for stage, page, screen, and bean, producing essay-films, hand-drawn animations, short plays, jigsaw puzzles, music videos, telematic productions, anti-fascist greeting cards, and photovoltaic solar installations. Compassion and comedy = her favorite forms of renewable energy. You can find out more about Sarah Jane and her work on the web at cinemagoat.com and puzlkind.com

And finally, an invitation:

Puzlkind and Poze

A summer solstice celebration of change with humanitarian change agent, Dr. Cornelia Walther

Monday, June 21st, 12 noon EDT

Meet us inside the Puzlkind app! (available for iOS, Android and on Steam)

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