Therapist finds art a creative way of helping others

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 19 January, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 19 January, 2008, 12:00am

I always enjoyed art at school in Pennsylvania in the US, and I always had fun whether it was drawing, painting or sculpting.

When I was young I attended an after-school art programme. The subject was in clay and my teacher was a famous ceramicist. She inspired me to create even at that young age and she eventually moved me from a class of my peers to a more advanced one.

At the time, I saw art as something to do but later it was much more - a chance to express new ideas and emotions.

Allied to that is that I'm Jewish and that's a very important part of my life. It provides me with a value system and an ethical way to treat others and the world.

One of the greatest of the Jewish lessons for me is the concept of tikkun olam, which literally means 'healing the world'. Many people think this is about engaging in acts of loving kindness and service.

In fact, it's more than that. It teaches that when we connect to others in Godly ways and complete good deeds, then we contribute to the world's ongoing creation. Our acts literally bring God's presence into the world.

In secondary school it took me a while to get into the rhythm of the intense art classes and formal critiques. But art making and the art studio always felt like a much-needed safe space away from the hectic school environment.

In high school, my favourite teachers were Mr Metz, my art teacher, and Mr Smith, my English teacher. Mr Metz encouraged me to pursue my own way of making art, helping me to infuse my views on social justice and spirituality. He also helped me discover my skills and artist's voice.

Mr Smith was a tough teacher who was frequently sarcastic but very intelligent. I credit him with helping me learn how to search literature for deeper meaning and hidden symbols. When I look back, I see how both helped to prepare me for a career as an art therapist.

Other than academic work, I did cross-country, track and field. I was also involved with school shows, both backstage and performing. They were fun and helped me to build confidence.

I never thought I had to win though. My parents taught me that it was important to try my best and be satisfied with the results.

I'd learned about art therapy in middle school and knew it would be perfect for me. My parents had a friend who had a friend who'd done it and it seemed like the most amazing career.

It was also important to me to have a career that allowed me to help people and also make art.

I also wasn't sure if I could make it as a professional artist and was concerned that it would limit my ability to really help others. When I learned about art therapy, I knew it'd be the best career choice.

I went on to do my bachelor's in psychology and studio art at Syracuse University in the US. I then obtained my master's in art therapy at the George Washington University and now I'm studying for a PhD in social work and social administration at the University of Hong Kong.

University was great. By the time I left high school I knew I was ready for something else. Through most of my senior school year I felt that I wasn't doing as much as I could and that the skills I knew I had were not being developed.

College let me develop as a person, leader and artist. I met different people who influenced me and helped me to shape my world view. There were amazing opportunities, and even though I had a passion for social action before college, it was there that I learned how to put it to service.

Though I took full advantage of the opportunities available on campus, I didn't always take a wide breadth of coursework. I wish I'd taken basic courses in what I thought were boring subjects, such as economics.

Art therapy has been completely worthwhile and I can't imagine doing anything else.

Every now and then, when I'm leading a workshop or working with a client, something happens and I think 'they didn't teach me that!' School is great for a solid foundation, but you can never be fully prepared for the range of human experience.

I decided to come to Hong Kong because I knew someone here and thought I'd try it out. I wanted to learn more and it's given me new perspectives on life and new skills as an art therapist.

I think students need to be respectful of teachings offered, but also to challenge them and view them critically. We all need to learn the history and foundation, but learning is ongoing and not stuck in time.