A Little Background
Graphic Design My formal art training began in the 80’s with Graphic Design on the East Coast. I quickly discovered that the precision required for that profession was not a good match for my more “expressive” inclinations. That realization and the barren winters of the Mid-Atlantic sent me out west to the University of Arizona to finish my degree in fine art.
Desert Sensibilities Once my eyes adjusted to the expansive skies and the open landscape of the Southwest, my sensibilities were indelibly changed. That is reflected in my love of the desert’s burnt sienna and blazing oranges, deep midnight blues, majestic sunrises, and curious creatures.
Art Therapy Although I got my degree in fine art, for many years I’ve built a career in Art Therapy, a field of psychology that capitalizes on art’s ability to simultaneously heal and help us express parts of ourselves that we can’t otherwise access.
My best friend since grad school Gioia Chilton (also an artist and Art Therapist) and I made our mark in the Art Therapy world by developing Positive Art Therapy, an approach that integrates Art Therapy with Positive Psychology, the science of wellbeing, and happiness (see our textbook here).
Creative Wellbeing Workshops (CWW) In 2010, Gioia and I formed a company, Creative Wellbeing Workshops, which uses creativity to help people and organizations experiencing high levels of stress. This includes doing traditional Art Therapy with private clients as well as training frontline providers, non-profit organizations, and corporate teams on how to manage stress, reduce burnout and compassion fatigue and be happier. We also teach on the topic at the George Washington University Graduate Art Therapy Program.
Mandalas I kept up a limited art practice over the years but returned more actively to it in 2005 when my brother, ‘T’ (short for Theodore), died of cancer—I started making small circular mandalas drawings to cope with my grief (learn more about mandalas). Then after years of making these mini-mandalas, I was asked to illustrate The Miraval Mandalas Coloring Book for Miraval Resort in Arizona, where I ran workshops on wellbeing, creativity, and using mandalas for meditation and meaning.
Artist/Art Therapist. I still wear my art therapist and my artist hats in tandem and probably will always do both. I am also still in the desert—I live part of the month in Tucson (with my husband KC and a couple of cats Benzo and DeeDee) and the other part in DC with my twin sister Jenny, and Jenny’s two boys, Chris and Ian, my mother Lee, and my stepmother Xenia. I would say that all of them, except for the cats (some would challenge this), are also artists in their own ways even though they might not agree.
First – Twin The irony of being a twin is that although it’s unique, you are also genetically exactly the same as someone else and you could arguably say that you are literally conceived at the same moment in time and space as someone else. It calls to question all sorts of challenges around identity, individuality, being existentially alone or collectively connected, etc.
Second – Not Artist, Art Therapist My mother is a painter, and from the time that my twin Jenny and I could talk, she let us experiment in her studio. Although you could say that I had some talent, but I was by no means a prodigy.
In fact, I was always ambivalent about being an artist. When I was younger I had a good friend, Len Parker, who spent all of his free time drawing elaborate fantasy characters inspired by artist Frank Frazetta. Then in my twenties, I dated another consummate artist, David Moyer, who invented a painting technique called Farbelism. Everything Len and Dave did was in the service of their art. Not only did I not have that kind of passion, but I also didn’t particularly like what felt like the solitary life of the artist and I had no clear message that I needed to communicate through art.
When I discovered art therapy, a field that uses art to help others, it combined my artistic sensibilities with a way to connect with others. But I stopped making art regularly because for me it had been so fraught with ambivalence and perfectionism.
Third – Death and Mandalas In 2005, my brother ‘T’ died of bile duct cancer within 6 months of being diagnosed. Although Jenny and I were 40 at the time, we had somehow escaped major loss. I got stuck in grief and couldn’t seem to get out. I realized that like the proverbial physician, I needed to heal myself and that, logically, I should be using the tool I offered to my patients—art. I needed to make art! But I couldn’t imagine getting back into the relationship I’d had with it before in which everything I made had to be perfect.
I started making small 4 x 4 inch mandalas, little circular drawings I called art thoughts. Sometimes, even though some of these ‘thoughts’ were just disorganized scratches, they did for me what art can do—they helped me get out what was stuck inside and work through my grief.
Fourth – Watching Others Do Art and Make Beautiful Things Throughout the many years that I’ve been an art therapist, it never ceases to amaze me what stunningly powerful art people make. This realization comes from a deep appreciation for the unique ways that people express themselves in the art process—even the simplest sketch tells the story of the person who made it.
It’s also been eye-opening to see how consistently people who are self-avowedly not artists seem to enjoy making art. For example, my sister Jenny took up making mandalas and now regularly does art on her own. She takes great pleasure in doing so and is happy with many of the pictures she’s made.
This was intriguing to me, having had such a conflicted relationship with art. I realized that I really needed to revisit my assumptions about being an artist and, if nothing else, have more fun making it!
Fifth – Making Art for the World One of the ways that I found more fun doing art was illustrating the coloring book for Miraval (now titled Coloring Creates Wellbeing: The Desert Mandalas Coloring Book).
Although coloring books are usually not considered ‘high art’, they testify to how healing art-making can be. Most people coloring them find it deeply relaxing and they’re often really pleased with what they’ve done. Learn more about the benefits and science of coloring.
The coloring book became a springboard for a series of drawings and paintings that, whatever their designation—art or play or both—have been an avenue for me to get back into being a ‘fine’ artist.
Sixth – Pushing Past Convention In the backdrop of all of has been two inspiring characters, my aunt Joan (Susannah) Sadler and my husband KC.
Susannah switched to her middle name when she was 70 because she wanted to shed the conventions she’d been constrained by, including a name she never liked. She also took up art and photography and created a daily blog of photos accompanied by poems, Joan’s Stones, (go check it out, it’s still up!) which she was still posting to literally days before she died at 95. She taught me how to age well and continually reinvent myself (HERE is a post Gioia and I wrote about her at CWW).
KC, the other unconventional character in my life, unlike me, has no infatuation or preoccupation with identity and art. You could call him a scientist, entrepreneur, maker, and manifestor, but more than anything he just lives by the motto “experience, create, and then discuss … if you feel like it”.
KC continuously pushes me to go beyond the limits of my conventions, find out what might be possible, and then figure out what is congruent and right for myself. You can probably imagine how a call for that kind of psychological flexibility and adventure could impact my art.
Seventh – Artists/People Who Inspire My Art
- Vincent van Gogh
- Egon Schiele
- Gustav Klimt
- Carl Jung
- Kathe Kollwitz
- Alice Neel
- Kimler Corey
- Janet Mathias
- Gioia Chilton
- Jennifer Wilkinson
- Lee Wilkinson
- David Bowie
- Brian Eno
- Val Kilmer
- Joan Semmel
- Marion Seawell