Tova Speter: 2013 AHN Awardee

“I believe that engaging in the artistic/creative process is inherently therapeutic. Just by allowing yourself to imagine and to express something visually, you are relaxing your mind, releasing an idea into the world and opening yourself to the possibility of shifting perspective. Art can also serve to start a conversation -- with others or with yourself. While I am personally most excited to help others actively participate in the creation of artwork, I also feel strongly that the artwork created serves an important role in the reflection, dialogue and storytelling that can contribute to a path of positive change.” – Tova Speter

Arts & Healing Network is delighted to present one of the 2013 AHN Awards to artist, art therapist and muralist Tova Speter. We are deeply inspired by her dedication to art as a healing catalyst. In particular, we really appreciate how she weaves communities together to create murals that empower and strengthen communities all over the world. We applaud her immense talent, sense of playfulness and creative vision.


To learn more about Tova Speter and her work, please visit her web site. You might also enjoy the video about her Esperanza Mural and the video about her Argentina Mural. Lastly, you might enjoy this recent interview with Tova about her public art piece, “Play Me.”


Below is an interview with Arts & Healing Network Director Mary Daniel Hobson with Tova Speter from November 2013


Mary Daniel Hobson: Can you tell me a little bit about your background in the arts and how you got interested in art therapy and mural making?


Tova Speter: Though I had an interest in the arts instilled in me from a young age, I never would have guessed that it would turn not only into my career path but also into my passion in life. I always loved engaging my creativity -- first through craft, then through ceramics and finally through drawing and painting. Growing up with an aunt who is an artist has always been inspiring, opening my eyes to a variety of media and styles; but while I knew how participating in the arts made me feel good, I had never heard of art therapy nor made the direct connection between art and healing. In college I majored in psychology and minored in art and thought I would combine the two and pursue a career in the field of advertising. A brief advertising internship quickly influenced my decision to change course, noting that using my creativity to "manipulate" other people was not really the path I wanted to follow. A friend suggested combining the psychology and art in the field of art therapy, and I decided to enroll in an introductory course offered at Lesley University. Something clicked immediately as I found myself loving going to the library to read as much as I could about the field. Within a year, I enrolled in a Masters Program in art therapy, sincerely excited by the idea that I can use my interest in the arts to help other people and that I can help spread that "good feeling" I had always felt while making art.



Mary Daniel: Why do you believe that art can be a catalyst for healing and positive change?


Tova: I believe that engaging in the artistic/creative process is inherently therapeutic. Just by allowing yourself to imagine and to express something visually, you are relaxing your mind, releasing an idea into the world and opening yourself to the possibility of shifting perspective. Art can also serve to start a conversation -- with others or with yourself. While I am personally most excited to help others actively participate in the creation of artwork, I also feel strongly that the artwork created serves an important role in the reflection, dialogue and storytelling that can contribute to a path of positive change.


Not everyone is able to express themselves through words alone. My work as an art therapist offers an alternative mode of self expression, and it is not only for "artists" as some think. Even those who do not consider themselves "good at art" can benefit from taking some time to explore and process in a new way. It can be focused on a specific directive or just a cathartic release; it can act as a metaphor for problem solving or help build self-esteem. Art-making reaches a deep place within oneself that is not necessarily rationalized and filtered in the same way that we are prone to do in our general interactions.


Mary Daniel: You have done so many wonderful mural projects around the world. How did you first get interested in mural making? What do you especially love or appreciate about this way of working?


Tova: I painted my first mural in college when I noticed a boring white wall outside the laundry room where students gathered and had nothing interesting to look at. Painting large turned out to be fun, so when I graduated early and found myself with some extra time, I decided I wanted to try to volunteer locally to paint another mural. I called city hall and explained what I wanted to do, and they laughed at me. They kept transferring my call until someone at the department of education connected me to an elementary school that might be interested. I went once or twice a week to paint while school was in session and was rewarded daily with the wide-eyes of the students witnessing my work.


The transformative moment -- the moment when I decided that mural-making would be a part of my future, occurred when a kindergarten student got kicked out of class. His teacher brought him into the hallway where I was working, clearly frustrated with him, looked at me and asked if he could sit and watch me for the last five minutes of class while she returned to the classroom. I said “ok,” and this young boy in a negative mood just sat and said nothing. After a few minutes I asked the student if he wouldn't mind helping me since I had so much to do and he was sitting there anyway. He begrudgingly agreed and painted a section green for about one minute before the bell rang. The interaction was over, though as it turned out the experience lasted quite a bit longer. Later that day when the class walked by I overheard the student telling his peers that he helped me and the other students teased him for making up lies. He encouraged them to come and ask me, and suddenly I was surrounded by kids asking if the student reallyhelped me paint. I said yes and that it was so helpful and pointed to the section that he worked on. The way those students viewed that young boy immediately shifted from disbelief and teasing to awe and excitement. Simultaneously I witnessed a shift in the way the young boy carried himself, from a bent posture and somewhat sad expression to standing tall with pride and accomplishment. I decided that day that I would keep painting murals, but no longer paint them on my own. Since then I have completed over 35 collaborative mural projects -- engaging communities to discover their hidden artistic potential, to have the opportunity to express their voices (too often otherwise unheard), to connect with each other in a creative shared experience and to develop pride in their work, in each other and in themselves.


Mural making allows for the opportunity for a diverse group of people to work together toward a common goal. The playing field becomes level and everyone has an equal voice in the art, even if they don't always have the luxury of an equal voice in their daily lives. The shared experience offers a unique bond between participants. The significance of their experience is magnified by the virtue of murals being a public work of art. That their work is on display and often publicly celebrated adds the element of public validation and appreciation, as well as the shared experience of what it feels like to contribute positively to your neighborhood and know that something you participated in made a difference.


In addition, the brainstorming element in determining the mural's design is a key component of my work. My role is that of a facilitator - soliciting ideas, making sure they are heard by all, and leading the group through a process that allows them to be the decision-makers. I do not design the murals as "the artist," because it is not my intention that people regard the mural as something an "artist" came and did. I know I've done my job if people are empowered by the process and describe the mural as something they designed and they created, almost forgetting that I was there. That is what I love -- giving that gift to a community to be able to decide for themselves what they want to share in their mural, and then helping provide them the tools to complete the work on their own. Their ownership of the artwork, both individuals taking pride in their personal ideas and contributions as well as the entire community celebrating their shared vision, is what I appreciate most in the work.


Mary Daniel: Could you share the story behind one of your mural projects? How did making the mural bring the community together?


Tova: Each mural carries its own special story and special place in my heart. I am often asked if there is one mural that stands out or if I have a favorite and the answer is that they each grew to have their own special/favorite moment. The uniqueness of each community and each project is so powerful and telling of how this work can have such varied and wide-reaching impact. I encourage readers to learn more on my website. Read through the stories and view the pictures capturing the mural process -- they are all worthy of being shared with a larger audience.


Mary Daniel: Tell me a little bit about your own creative practice of working on recycled wood. Do you find working this was to be therapeutic?


Tova: My own style of artwork developed after I graduated from graduate school. Partly by luck, partly by circumstance, I explored a new style of painting that has remained an inspiration for the past ten plus years. I had discovered three large planks of wood in the dumpster outside my apartment and "rescued" them, knowing they would be perfect for something. As time went by, they sat in my room, constantly asking me what my plan was. Months later, I realized that the reason I could not decide what to paint on them, was because they were so beautiful already, just in their natural state. It reminded me of the art therapy work I do that is based in the belief that everyone has talents and special qualities that they positively contribute to the world, though some might not realize it yet and might benefit from some support to highlight their strengths. With that framework, I began painting artwork inspired by the natural grain pattern of the wood, highlighting the inherent beauty and hoping to cause a shift in perspective through my artwork. Every line I paint is a line that is naturally there, I just choose which ones to bring forward or push back with vivid colors and contrast. I also always leave at least one line natural and unpainted, to remind us all of our roots and that this beauty was inside us all along.


I began this work as a recently graduated art therapist with little money to spend on canvas/materials and a love of nature and sustainability, and I discovered that painting on found/scrap wood allowed me to take something that had been designated as useless and to use recycled paints from my mural projects to transform it into something of purpose. It is definitely therapeutic for me to go into my studio and create art that is very much in line with my motives in my clinical work as well as in my community work -- looking at something disregarded, offering some color and helping highlight the natural beauty it always had but often went unnoticed.


Mary Daniel: What excites you most about your work right now?


Tova: One thing that is currently exciting to me is my recognition of how much things have changed since I started on this path thirteen years ago. When I tried to explain to people the work I wanted to pursue and the goals I hoped to achieve, I received a lot of skepticism -- that this all could be a hobby maybe, something to do on the side, but not a viable career. Back then, art therapy was not nearly as understood and appreciated a field as it is today. Back then, it took a lot of effort to convince a partner why and how a community mural could be a healing experience. The trajectory of the field of art and healing excites me -- that there are more people who are beginning to understand the connection between the two, and that the positive impacts of collaborative art-making are being felt by communities I've worked with and beyond. I've received emails from strangers asking if I would share my story with them because they want to pursue similar dreams. Their enthusiasm excites me. To know that there are others with similar interests, eager and enthusiastic, and that even though I am part of the "next generation" I can already begin to inspire those who are coming after me -- that is part of the work I had never anticipated and for which I am quite excited to be a part.


Mary Daniel: What advice do you have for other artists who would like to use their creativity to build or heal community?


Tova: Do it! With so many challenges facing our communities, art has proven time and time again to be a powerful force for change. Creative collaboration can unite communities, build relationships, showcase talents, highlight strengths, give voice to the people and transform perspectives on the endless outcomes that are possible when we work together toward a common goal.


The way I started was to volunteer in order to build the proof of concept and be able to show visually and through testimonials that my work made a positive difference in communities. After only a few projects, it was clear to past and prospective partners that what I had to offer was innovative, worthwhile and impactful. I knew I was on to something when partners started reaching out to find me rather than my needing to find and convince others. There is definitely a need for artistic facilitators to bring art-making to the greater community. And there is always room for more creative spirits -- share your talents, share your stories and share your passion for arts with those around you.


Mary Daniel: Is there anything else you would like to share?


Tova: One of the most rewarding aspects of my work is that I bear witness to an individual's or a community's transformative moment through their engagement in the artistic process. I never know exactly when it will happen, but it almost always does. The moment when something clicks and suddenly they shift from telling me they can't and asking me how -- to their taking control, making decisions and clearly enjoying the experience. It might come towards the end of the process, it might come after they step back and realize what they just did, it might come at a quiet time with a certain color or brush stroke or it might only come after they are publicly thanked and appreciated (often for the first time). Though they don't always recognize it themselves, it is a spark I see and one that I cherish and preserve.


My international murals came out of my desire to combine my passions for travel and art. I have found that I am so busy when I am home, that I often don't have time to volunteer. I started facilitating international mural projects on a volunteer basis, helping partners raise funds to cover the costs of materials, and then utilizing the opportunity to get to know a culture/community in a new way. I have found that engaging in the artistic process is extremely rewarding in the glimpse it allows into the creativity of a community. These projects especially are a prime example of using art as a language that can connect us all.


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