Molding Clay and Shaping Lives

Reflections on Basic Art Therapy by Jaroslava Sickova-Fabrici

What child doesn’t like mud?  I grew up in the Southern United States in mostly small towns of farming communities. I remember the warm feel of the summer’s clay between my toes.  Making mud pies was a favorite past time with my sisters, especially after a spring rain—and long before cable and the Internet.  Playing in the mud was soothing, bonded me to my sisters, and most of all, fun.  Who knew it could be part of a healing process back then?

Clay therapy became part of my vocabulary in 2004.  I was aware of creative arts therapies.  Though not a therapist, I am a music educator and have worked with children and youth in crisis for many years.  The therapeutic and healing power of music and the arts in general have been an important part of my professional life.   New healing arts appropriately grow with each new twist and turn of academic study as sculptors like Jaroslava Sickova research, study and apply knowledge and techniques in the space of their own neighborhood.  This is what makes Basic Art Therapy so special.   It documents the work of a social worker and therapist who not only has the intellectual stamina and drive to understand the power of her art form, but who began in her own house to create a loving laboratory in order to make a broader contribution to her students, her institution, her country and to our world.

My first encounter with Slava and her husband Jan was in the early 2000’s.  I was conducting a survey trip to Slovakia for the first time while researching people doing transformative work in their own communities.  “You have to meet Slava?” was the directive I received from my source.  Soon thereafter Dr. Vivian Nix-Early (co-founder of BuildaBridge and music therapist), Jason Nicholas (BuildaBridge European Liaison), and myself were returning to Slovakia to visit Terra Therapeutica, a therapy studio within a sculpting studio, within a home.   She graciously invited us to share our work with her students.   Since then we have visited between Philadelphia and Bratislava in mutual respect for the restorative work we are called to do.  So why is this book and the work and friendship of Professor Sickova important to others, but especially to me, and the organization I lead.

In 1997, Dr. Vivian Nix-Early and myself co-founded an arts education and intervention organization based in Philadelphia called BuildaBridge.  Our passion is to bring hope and healing to the most vulnerable children, youth and communities in the toughest places of the world and to engage artists in serving their communities.  Since our founded we have worked with several thousand children through holistic (arts integrated) programs and trained over 350 artists to engage teaching and therapeutic arts with children through our annual Institute.

Recently, we have begun to discuss dropping the term “arts organization” from our marketing materials.  We engage the “arts for life sake”, we ask artists to be mentors, and we lead children in making art with concrete outcomes in mind.  This kind of language sometimes leaves us betwixt and between the art world and the social service world where the important relationship may not be seen between the two.  I mention this dilemma, because Basic Art therapy, in the English translation, brings to life the important work of art and the therapist in transformative healing, in a well researched and easy to read volume about what could be a very difficult subject.  Learning of the author’s journey, reading her journals of actual cases, and viewing pictures of art provides even the novice an opportunity to reflect on their work and relationships with students—as artists, educators, healers, even social workers.

Sickova’s history and especially definitions (Chapters 3 and 4) simply and clearly provide the core concepts of a field that is growing and beginning to influence other fields of practice.  I was reminded that work with vulnerable children is a process that takes patience, time and caring relationships.  Her cross-cultural understanding through cases in the US and with vulnerable populations in Europe provides a clear understanding of the universal pain of war, discrimination and poverty.  From our experience around the world, the power of making art with a caring mentor-artist, goes a long way in providing healing of the past and hope for the future.  Sickova’s book and her work it represents is an encouragement to the many artists who seek a life of restoration and reconciliation of the world’s most vulnerable populations—but who may not become professional therapists.

Do I still play in the mud?  Well, yes I do, though it has taken the form of concrete and dry wall plaster as I restore an old house.  Each time I mix a back of concrete or “mud” a drywall joint, I am reminded of the slick, dirty, messy mud between my toes over 50 years ago.  It is a healing and renewing act into the joys of my childhood.  Not too long ago Jan (Slava’s husband and accomplished sculptor) and Slava visited our house in Pennsylvania.  While Slava busied herself in preparing an important lecture for a group of our artists, Jan came outside to help us “sculpt” a retaining wall.  He was fast, accurate and professional.  I learned he used to earn his living as a bricklayer.  Who knows, I may begin sculpting with clay.  Until I do, I am thankful for therapists like Slava who forge ahead into the depths of an important work and contribute to the growth of BuildaBridge and our mission through encouragement and partnership.

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