September 10, 2009

Review: The Book that Catapulted Me into Authenticity

I think I was about 26 at the time, which places this story about eight years ago in history—the world's history, and art therapy's, and my own.

I may be getting the date wrong, but I do clearly remember the context: the chronic stress of being bad at (and miserable at) my job in scholarly publishing, and the acute stress of a close family member being suddenly quite ill, and the particular sensory details of one hospital waiting room where I would be spending nine hours waiting to hear that things would be okay, and the library book I read in its entirety during those hours—which happened to be Art Is A Way Of Knowing by Pat Allen.

How I actually came across this book is lost somewhere in the ephemera of time. But what matters is that it created a definitive dividing line in my experience, marking the crossing of a transformation threshold. Before I read it, I had no idea there was such a thing as art therapy, but afterward, I understood that I had to follow this path. Note: this wasn't "hey, this might be a viable career option." It was a calling; a vision; a beacon of purpose in the midst of so much chaos.

The front cover of Art Is A Way Of Knowing doesn't say anything about art therapy. The subtitle is A guide to self-knowledge and spiritual fulfillment through creativity. Inside is a patchwork quilt of information and stories and art images. It was 1995 when Pat Allen offered the world this intimate and sometimes painfully honest reflection on her path to, and through, art therapy as both a career and a means of self-understanding. For me, this offering was a divine gift at a time when I had no choice but to be reborn, but also had an utter lack of clarity about what that meant. Pat's book gave me an instant mentor: a flawed, uncertain, struggling, and deeply honest woman whose artwork spoke as expressively as her storytelling.

I encountered Pat Allen at an art therapy conference two years ago. It was my first conference as a grad student, and I was awed and humbled by everything I was learning, not to mention the experience of seeing so many art therapy pioneers in the flesh after having known them only as author names on journal articles. I couldn't help approaching Pat to tell her how her book had changed my life (although I was determined to avoid uttering such a sophomoric phrase). I stumbled through some words of gratitude, and she gracefully replied that she always appreciates knowing how her work has been received, because birthing a book is a long and painful process.

That exchange was the highlight of my graduate life up to that point. It was recently eclipsed by an unexpected high-five from Bruce Moon. But that's a different story.

You can visit Pat Allen's virtual studio here. I also recommend her second book: Art Is A Spiritual Path.

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