Growing up I was repeatedly told I had NO artistic ability. About three years ago I attended a ‘Nurturing Arts’ class near Santa Rosa, California. To my surprise I discovered through a simple process that I could indeed apply brush with color to paper and find my way to a rendering pleasing to myself (although I was reminded that the artistic product was not the goal). I was touched by the process of ‘Nurturing Arts’, in which our guide Mary Bowen, led the group through a focused, quiet process in a peaceful atmosphere. This interview and conversation explores the background and story of this approach to the Arts.
Mary lives on the outskirts of Santa Rosa, California. Entering her home you see that walls have been removed so that her large living room has become a large work space for gatherings. The materials: paints, brushes, paper, pencils, and clay are well organized around a large worktable. Mary, a long-time schoolteacher, and now retired Waldorf teacher, tells her story. “I came from an artistic family. My Aunt Esther was an art teacher and had a house full of art. Growing up there were no art classes in the K-12 schools I attended. But in College my elective classes, wherever possible, were in the arts – sculpture, weaving, painting, and drawing along with educational studies. In 1985 I learned of a Dutch Anthroposophical Art Therapist, Maria de Zwann offering classes in Berkeley. After I attended the first six-week course I knew this was what I’d been looking for in my art classes. Then began a long process of study with a committed group in Berkeley for the next five years. That study eventually culminated at Chartres Cathedral where twelve students graduated. Nurturing Arts has slowly grown in Sonoma County as myself and my colleagues have offered classes and training in the county, throughout the U.S. and in Britain and the Philippines.”
This conversation was conducted in person with Mary Bowen and Theresa Melia, and with two of her colleagues, Anne Haendiges and Denise Sachs, joining us via Zoom.
Sean Casey: What is Nurturing Arts?
Mary Bowen: Nurturing arts provides a time and space, and a guide to help people discover what lives in their higher self through the arts; through painting, sculpture, and drawing. It’s a social art with groups held over time.
Denise Sachs: Can I just add to that? There’s a connection made between the human and their outer world through the experience of the arts. By paying attention to the outer world our inner world is opened as well. The experience is also between each person, so everyone in the nurturing arts experience is part of the art. We create something through art together.
Sean: It seems that the word nurturing is important. People may have an idea about the word arts, but the word “nurturing” - what is the significance of that?
Mary: There was a group of about 12 people who named Nurturing Arts over time. Many names were suggested. We explored lots of thoughts about a name – we didn’t want to call it therapy – which would indicate we have an agenda.
Anne Haendiges: I just looked up the definition of nurture – it says: “care for and protect someone or something while they are growing- to help or encourage or cherish the development of a hope, a belief, or an ambition.” And in a way, I feel that’s how we work with the creative process. The arts are very nurturing for the inner life and the soul.
Denise: We used to joke that Nurturing Arts is Waldorf education for adults who didn’t get to go to a Waldorf school.
Anne: I think part of why it feels nurturing is the way we work, taking people through a process that’s harmonizing. The thinking, the feeling, and the willing-doing parts of life become more integrated.
Denise: The way it’s led is an unfolding for everyone to touch into. You can still get triggered, feeling your art is better or worse than others – but this approach to art can be a great equalizer.
Sean: Is it too presumptuous to say that anyone can be an artist?
Mary: No it’s not presumptuous at all. It’s the premise we work with. Anyone can come if they’re open and trusting in the process.
Sean: And would the space that is created for Nurturing Arts help people become open and trusting?
Mary: Yes I think it supports that. There is so much distraction in the world. We remove that distraction and bring a person to themselves.
Sean: Bring them to themselves, is that to be a little more in touch with who they are – with what they are actually feeling?
Mary: Yes. Yes, I think a lot of people now don’t really know what they are feeling.
Anne: I think it can bring them beyond their feelings to a deeper place – feelings can be chaotic and all over the place. Nurturing Art can get beyond that and quiet the chaos.
Theresa Melia: Mary starts every Nurturing Art class by inviting us to be social with each other. She holds us as a mother teacher. We feel ourselves become present in the group and that’s a jumping-off point for trust. Mary starts us off with joyful funny games and songs – to help adults relax. It really works.
Mary: That point about trust is really important. Before every art exercise, I have to let people scribble, or put white on the page, or breathe. There is always this entry.
Denise: There is the individual doing their art, but a big part is understanding that we are universal beings, part of a collective.
Sean: To help the reader – could you take us through a process that helps the individual produce the art. Where do we go after the group energy develops?
Mary: First of all, the practitioner has a theme, but you have to have a lot in your backpack because things happen and you have to respond to the moment. Anne, tell us about the process you just led.
Anne: The process can be a bit different with different practitioners and situations. But there is an underlying process for every session. Every session starts with coming together and warming up to the space and ourselves. Then we take what’s offered and make it our own. We immerse ourselves in a color, or warm the clay with our hands or explore shape and form with the pencil lines we draw.
Sean: You mentioned this first process of bringing people together. Is it that you take the individual out of where they usually “are” and put people in a slightly different “state?
Anne: Yes. People are full of the life they were just living when they arrive. We invite them to step out of that – and be present with the space and with each other.
Mary: That’s what we are here for. People need a rest.
Anne: We also need refreshment. All of the arts have a particular effect on different elements of us as human beings. The Nurturing Art experience can work on you.
Sean: Can you say more about that Anne?
Anne: For instance when you’ve got clay in your hands and you’re making a sphere, it’s the most balanced, still form. When someone is compressing the clay with their hands this brings stillness into the body and psyche. You press the clay and create an exterior form that can work the same way in your interior.
Sean: So the outer movement of the hands with the material is reflected inwardly?
Anne: Yes. But there has to be a connection. There has to be attention
. So then there can be a harmonizing of the intellectual understanding of what you are doing with your feeling. They can come into harmony. It’s the same with painting. Different colors have different effects on the body. The way
we paint even affects our breathing.
Sean: Can anyone say more about that?
Theresa: Everything is set up on the tables to allow painting to begin. A board, a little cup of water, a sponge, a cloth, a brush, and the paints are lined up in small glass bowls. The first thing we do is pick up the sponge and submerge it in the water. We watch the sponge slowly absorb the water. Then we take the paper and the wet sponge and slowly flow the wet sponge across the whole paper. We breathe quietly, all in silence, nobody is chattering. We wet the paper stroke by quiet stroke, all done in silence. We then smooth out the paper with the soft cloth as if smoothing a resting place. Then you’re ready to begin - your whole body has changed. You’re quiet and centered. Yahoo!!
Sean: Would it be fair to say that you begin with a ritual? What was just described, is that a ritual?
Mary: But we don’t want to make it holy.
Anne: The person leading it has to be present – mindful. It's a practice in mindfulness for all involved.
Mary: May people just want to be told what to do - especially Waldorf teachers who are so burnt out. (laughter!) - Please just tell us what to do!
Sean: About the artistic product at the end – does it matter?
Mary: First of all there are no mistakes. When we say that, people say “oh, thank you."
Sean: There is a relief in the sense of no judgement?
Mary: Whatever you do is perfect - we talk about that.
Theresa: I have to say the painting paper that Mary uses is newsprint, and newsprint, as it dries, the paint color fades quickly – so there is an Andy Goldsworthy aspect. What you just painted will gradually disappear.
Anne: It’s very much about the process.
Denise: But I have to jump in. This is not “process art.” Especially in California, there is a lot of “process art” where anything goes. But here everyone who comes is encouraged to do our best and most beautiful. The viewing of the art at the end of the session is both an individual and group process. We interact with each other and we see our unique individual expression, born out of group social work.
Mary: I sometimes say what we do is descriptive
, not prescriptive
, what might that mean?
Mary: The end part that Denise is talking about is where we view all the works at the end of the session. Then we get to describe, for example, which picture has more red, or how the process felt for us.
Ann: It’s not a critique.
Mary: Over the years you can come to the point where what we do is impressionistic,
In other words, it leaves an impression. As I sit here I contemplate all the different things in nature I’ve been exposed to. Twenty-five years ago when I first went to Nurturing Arts we drew a snowdrop flower. Now I look forward to the snowdrops that are going to bloom in my neighbor’s yard. We bring in nature, in a Goethean sense.
Theresa: Nature observation is powerful. Where you have observed something so closely that you can draw or paint it, you know it more deeply. You see the form, the shape, the colors, the details, the gesture. You can begin to perceive the living being of the plant. A plant is transformed for you. Even common flowers you have seen by the wayside for years, invite us to see them and know them as if for the first time.
Sean: It’s transformed your relationship to the plant?
Theresa: That relationship has deepened and transformed.
Denise: It can be transformative between the people in the group. I remember particularly being with a group at Chartres.
Anne: Observation also helps you just to see things. At Chartres, we were told to draw two bases of the columns which were side by side. Only then did I realize they were different.
Sean: Perhaps you paid attention in a more precise and active fashion?
Anne: Yes. You get to know something really differently when you draw it. You have to look closely.
Sean: Denise, you were careful to say this is not “process art”. Can you speak a bit more about that?
Denise: I think Mary addressed that a little bit. There is something like a guiding intelligence that the facilitator enters, in an improvisational way, that creates something for the group. There is direction, but it is not prescriptive. So there is freedom, but not just anything goes.
Anne: We could say that Nurturing Arts is a process,
but not processin
Mary: That’s great. I think we also have to start with Rudolph Steiner, that this work comes out of Anthroposophy.
Sean: Ah, that was my next question. Did Steiner actually write or lecture directly about working with art? Or did he create a stimulus that others took up?
Mary: All of Steiner’s work is woven into what we do. I sometimes tell people that it’s Steiner, Dr. Hauschka, Ava Meiss, Marie de Zwann, as the originators and now our California group proceeds further.
Sean: Is that a lineage so to speak?
Denise: And Ita Wegman also.
Sean: So is this sort of the inspiration and the history so to speak?
Anne: I think the Anthroposophical picture of the human being is the basis of our work. But Steiner wrote and lectured a lot about the Arts – and that also underlines the way we work with, say, colors and sculpting.
Sean: But did you have an individual or group of individuals teach or create an environment, to learn more about art or about themselves, or both?”
Denise: Maria de Zwann didn’t say,” I’m going to create Nurturing Arts now.”
Mary: It was asked for...
Sean: Can you say more about that?
Mary: If someone asks for something – someone on the street asks for a dollar, you try to respond. It’s the same with this. I began holding little groups. Then someone asked me “Can you train me?” I said, “What did you have in mind?”
She said, “You know, a weekend workshop.”
I said, “No, it will be a 5-year training.”
She said “Okay.”
Then I asked Maria, my teacher, about it.
She said, “How many people are asking?”
I said, “Twelve.”
And Maria said, “I’ll assist you”.
Sean: To go back a little bit. Did you initially ask for training?
Mary: I was part of a group that evolved into a training.
Sean: What was it – if you can recall – that attracted you to the training?
Mary: It was a destiny
. That’s all I can say looking back on it. I can see there was no question for me. This is absolutely what I must do. It was a conversation with myself. I saw her name (Maria de Zwann) on a brochure. It said she was an Anthroposophical Art Therapist. I said “this is it.” I’d always been interested in Art Therapy. But everywhere I I Iooked it wasn’t what I wanted – just you know, “throw the egg at the wall”.
Sean: So the art therapy that you’d experienced or seen – was that all about getting your feelings out?
Mary: I’ve had art therapists come to Nurturing Arts and they marveled at what we do, but then they say, “but what we’re doing is also good for people”.
Denise: I think it’s interesting that an important difference between art therapy and Nurturing Arts, is that Nurturing Arts can keep us healthy in our soul before any crisis or trauma.
Mary: We use to talk about it years ago. You know people go to have a massage or a beautiful dinner and they feel better. But when you come to Nurturing Arts, it’s an inner massage and inner nourishment.
Sean: Is there anything I’ve missed, something you’ve not expressed?
Anne: I’d like to say a little more about what Denise was saying about this being hygienic. There is this great word “salutogenesis.” This word defines the origins of health. It’s about focusing on factors that support human health and well-being rather than the factors that cause illness and disease. So I think Nurturing Arts supports this wholeness and health that our souls respond to.
Sean: Just to follow up on that, people think that you’ve only got to eat right and exercise to stay healthy, but are you saying that without considering all aspects of a human being, that perhaps we can just, well, dwindle?
Mary: Wither, dry-up, die – but Nurturing Arts can feed us.
Anne: Yes. Our souls can plump up a bit like the sponge we use.
Mary: Especially with all the sensory input the world brings, what we’re doing is cleansing the senses, slowing the breathing, focusing attention, and sharing the social life.
Sean: I was in a class three years ago, and well, I was the person in school that got negative teacher feedback in “art” classes. So it was good for me to step in and not be judged.
Mary: You had a little taste – but not a full meal.
Anne: You can meet yourself in a strong way in Nurturing Arts. Sometimes we don’t like what we meet. I was always getting up and going for a little break to get a drink or use the bathroom.
Mary: I should also say that people who’ve got mental problems or deep psychological problems, do need other kinds of help.
Sean: This work assumes a certain level of balance in the person?
Mary: Yes. We all need help, but I’ve been very careful about the extent of help I can offer.
Sean: There is one other question. Has Nurturing Arts given you a greater appreciation or understanding or feeling for the art we’ve had over centuries? We say we have a civilization and we have all these artistic forms accumulated in our civilization, paintings, sculpture and so on. Does that make any sense?
Theresa: Somehow art appreciation is different for me. Those famous people who’ve done great works, somehow that greatness can diminish the inner process and experience of Nurturing Arts. Art history is full of products
– Nurturing Arts is full of process
Denise: But we do use great art and artists as a foundation for a lot of our work.
Mary: We study their biography so the human element is brought in. For example, why did Vermeer paint all these women? Well, he had all these pregnant daughters who show up in his paintings.
Theresa: How about sharing some of the various themes you work with in Nurturing Arts?
Mary: Nature studies, festivals, fairy tales, stories, mythology, human consciousness through art history, life-phases, and personal biography.
Sean: That’s a lot right there! – thank-you all so much.
For those interested in classes or upcoming trainings please contact Denise Sacks at 650-526-8035, e-mail address Support@soulturning.com or Mary Bowen M.Ed. at 707-540-4254, e-mail address Nurturingarts@sonic.net