Congregation of the Sisters of Mercy

Congregation of the Sisters of Mercy

Congregation of the Sisters of Mercy

Art Therapy

This is the time in my life that  I regard was providential in leading me to a qualification in Art Therapy in the ’90s. During a sabbatical, I chose a course in Eco Feminist Spirituality being offered by the Grail Institute in Loveland,  Ohio.  Doing voluntary time, one day weekly outside of the course, was a requirement.  I chose a Half-Way House for women out of prison in Cincinnati, for which I was interviewed and accepted.  It was a wonderful awakening and enriching experience for me.  There were close on 30 women there, some teenagers, all at various stages of completing their sentences, being given much professional help and yet with hours of free time, spent mostly in the basement quaffing coffee and cigarette smoke. Me too!  I was an enigma among them, to be ignored at will, maybe ‘doing time’, but why only one day a week, and my strange accent?

A painting by Phyllis Surlis rsm

Gradually, I gained acceptance, especially when I introduced them to chunky coloured crayons and paper.  I loved colour myself and colour could be beneficial.  Using the sides of the thick crayons to career carelessly across the paper, to do no one thing in particular, was a freeing experience.  Gradually, the women began to own the experience.

One drew mermaids out to play in water.  She ordered me to put in rocks so that one mermaid could haul another on to her sleek, scaly self.  A merman thought I perhaps!  Another drew a house she would own upon leaving here.  She had had a stroke so her house was not grounded, walls did not even reach the earth.  She asked a friend to hang curtains, colour did not matter.  Another invited me to go see her art creations in her living quarters upstairs, pictures of experiences and life that she was missing ‘here’.  Boundaries prevented me from satisfying my curiosity.  Making Mandalas after a brief introduction, one woman who loved her art experiences drew three concentric circles, depicting life before prison, life in the Half-Way House and life after release which showed a small candle and with her fingers she dispersed light in all directions! She proclaimed: “This is the story of my past, my present and my future!” My mandala was anaemic by comparison!

Pratt Insitute Main Building

Each one of us taking the Eco Feminist Spirituality course was invited to present our experiences volunteering to a gathering of the the Grail Institute Women in Loveland.  When I described mine with the women in the Half-Way House, one woman complimented me on doing Art Therapy.  Art Therapy! I liked the music of that!  And so I got to do a Masters in Art Therapy in Pratt Institute in the School of Art and Design in Brooklyn and New York!  I became a registered art therapist in The American Art Therapy Association.

 Another Phyllis Surlis painting

Upon returning to Scoil Íosa Convent School in Ballina, I did Art Therapy as a Staff teacher and then as a volunteer for another 16 years.  Teachers availed of my courses and I was happy to share the wonders and benefits of Art Therapy which I had stumbled upon in the Half-Way House for Women in Cincinnati, Ohio.


Phyllis Surlis rsm
Western Province

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