Susan Walsh is a talented artist, therapist and former children’s entertainer (Sunshine Sue) living in Antigonish. She shares with us her journey from trauma to healing through art because, as a mature student, she often heard other older people say, “I wish I could go back to school.” She would like her story to inspire others.
Art and Healing
Susan has always been a doodler. When she went to therapy at the age of 42, her therapist encouraged her to use that incessant drawing in her sessions to help express emotions. The drawing eventually spread beyond therapy and into daily life. As a single mother on low income with two little boys, she could not afford art materials. An elderly woman gave her a package of paints and some brushes, and she found old ceiling tiles downstairs in the house she was renting. And that is how her art began.
From ceiling tiles, she moved on to placemats, boards from kindling piles, and old painted canvases from Frenchies and the Salvation Army. Susan even got permission from her landlord to paint anything she wanted on the walls, bathroom pipes, etc.
Her artistic process continued to evolve when she took some art courses. She explains where she finds her inspiration: “The psychoanalyst Carl Jung realized that images and dreams that come to us are full of information and insight from the core of ourselves- our unconscious and the collective unconscious that we exist in. If you can work the images that you receive through your psyche and through your hand physically, the physiological and psychological meeting of the two can be profound, especially for people who can’t talk about their trauma. In her final year at St FX she did a Directed Study to produce eight paintings, and those are some of the paintings in the “Art of Resilience” exhibit from 2015 (youtu.be/JIa4vwN1lgQ ).
Some of Susan’s paintings show some dark places, but if you look closely you always see a glimmer of light and potential. She says, “Psychosynthesis is the name of the therapy I was involved in, and light is very prominent there. You bring the sun in psychologically when you are doing guided imagery. If things get tough and you have scary images coming in, the guide / therapist will tell you to shine some light on it and bring in the sun.
It always transforms what is happening”.
“What I learned from therapy was that WOW colour, shape, quiet, blank pieces of paper – I would just put images and feelings, onto the paper. Just with big dashing, scratching, kind of angry. Anger can come
out in colour and shape and form on a paper. Learning that I could do that and that I had the capacity within me to – and that I was allowed and that it’s not about hanging something on the wall to sell. It’s just about expressing myself.”
Learning at Any Age
Susan’s curiosity and persistence eventually enabled her to attain a Masters of Education in Counselling Degree at Acadia University at the
age of 62. This accomplishment was an amazing feat for someone who left school in Grade 8 and suffered panic attacks every time she walked into a classroom. In her forties, Susan graduated from NSCC in Therapeutic Recreation, and her mother said, “you don’t have to stop here.” She did not stop there. She received a BA from St FX at the age of 57, and then took the plunge to go to Acadia. These are feats of courage in overcoming the personal obstacles of trauma and economic challenge. Susan insists that none of it would have happened without good counselling.
She adds that the most valuable and validating thing she learned in the Masters program at Acadia came out of her research on trauma and learning: “Many educators are getting more sensitive and responsive to students’ backgrounds, disabilities, histories of trauma etc. Communities, government and educational institutions are becoming more trauma informed. More classrooms are welcoming displaced people from war torn countries, so trauma is no longer an unspoken word in the classroom. The suffering of new Canadians in our classrooms is opening the door for those of us who have been traumatized in our own homes and communities. I believe that my journey might be an inspiration to other fearful adults who linger in the shadows of their own dream for education. It is my hope that
other learners will feel safe enough to take the leap”
You can find works by Susan Walsh as part of “The Art of Healing” exhibit in Port Hawkesbury at the J. Franklin Wright Gallery, August 29 – September 30, 2018 with traveling exhibits later in the fall. Susan is currently workshopping a story telling series for Arts Canopy for persons with dementia. She says “we have lots of laughs and people rediscover their own stories through the process.” Recently she had an exhibit of her paintings at the Tall and Small Café in Antigonish and was the featured artist at the Antigonish Art Fair in July. She has started her therapy practice in Antigonish. You may contact Susan at firstname.lastname@example.org