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Embracing diversity through creativity

A photo of Sister Jean Hasenburg and Matt Pratt, an art therapy student at Mount Mary UniversityOften, our world can feel divided. By crossing the invisible boundaries society has created for us and experiencing lives very different from our own, we can conquer that division and even embrace our differences. One example of this took place recently in Milwaukee when Sister Patty Rass, an art therapy professor at Mount Mary University in Milwaukee, brought two diverse groups together.

Sister Patty teaches a course called Human Growth and Development. It is a required course in the first year of the Master’s in Art Therapy Program at Mount Mary University. Throughout the semester, the students study development from birth to death, with particular emphasis on how they, as art therapists, will be able to meet their client’s physical, cognitive, emotional and social needs through the creative process of art making in each stage of life. Each week, the course focuses on a different developmental stage.

Since many sisters at Notre Dame of Elm Grove in Elm Grove, Wisconsin, express creativity through writing, either through poetry or prayers, Sister Patty thought it would be a wonderful experience for her students to read some of these writings during the week they learned about aging. The hope was for students to better understand the aging population and to utilize one practice art therapists call “response art.” Response art is the process of creating a piece of art for the purpose of exploring, deepening and sharing the emotional experience the therapist has had with another. The students were instructed to connect to the sister’s writing on an emotional level, reflect on it and then respond by creating an art piece. The students were told to imagine what this sister may be feeling or expressing through their poem or prayer.

School Sisters of Notre Dame and Mount Mary University art therapy students combined forces to make writing and art about the process of aging

All seven sisters and six of the students were able to attend the gathering. There was a lively exchange between the students and sisters as they shared a cup of coffee and cookies. It was a wonderful opportunity for the sisters to continue being educators as they played a significant role in these student’s art assignment. It was a mutual experience, with both groups benefitting.Seven sisters sent their writings and 22 students created response art based on the sisters work. Some of the themes of the poetry were physical aging, pain, letting go, seasons of life, death, darkness and hope. The response art creations that came from the activity included paintings, drawings and even ceramics. As an end to the project, Sister Patty organized a gathering at Notre Dame of Elm Grove in Elm Grove, Wisconsin, for any of the students who wished to meet the sister who wrote the poetry and the student could present their art pieces to them.

Sister Marie Regine (Gina) Redig recalled of the event, “Meeting with the art therapy students was the highlight of my day. I was touched by the sensitive way my writing was translated into art. Starting a new friendship with a young student from China was a special delight.” The student Sister Gina talked about, Sin Leng Lei, had similar feelings, “I really enjoyed the experience of making response art with Gina's poems, handing it to her, talking and listening to her stories, I really appreciated it!”

The students met living examples of “aging with grace” and were awestruck by the stories the sisters shared. Many of the students said they would appreciate more opportunities like this and would like to stay connected with the sisters. Creating this experience of an intergenerational diverse community proved to be very successful. It is a glimpse of what richness the School Sisters of Notre Dame in Elm Grove, can expect in the future as they relocate to the Mount Mary University campus. This activity was a great example of interacting with people who are not like you in age, race, gender, or any other way, can enrich your life.


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