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  Healing Through Art Banner  

Richmond Times Dispatch


Saturday, November 29, 1997


and picked up by The Associated Press

The counseling, healing power of art

Jo DiPerna was a first-time mother with an 18-month-old baby when she was diagnosed with malignant melanoma eight years ago. The illness was a terrifying chapter in DiPerna's li8fe. But even after the skin cancer was surgically excised, the depression that followed her cancer diagnosis remained. That's when DiPerna decided to try counseling and learned about the healing power of symbolic art and poetry.

Through mandala art, an ancient art form in which symbolic images are drawn in a circular frame, a powerful counseling tool has evolved. Michael H. Brown, a licensed professional counselor in Richmond, often uses mandala art to help clients study and understand their behavior, beliefs and life experiences. 

Clients express their feeling through symbolic images, then they write poems to illuminate the symbols. The person's artistic ability is unimportant, Brown said. Mandala art simply gives clients a tangible device to focus their attention, much like a magnifying glass amplifies and limits what is studies.

"Counseling is a difficult process because it asks us to look inside and connect to those things that are fearful and painful," said Brown, president of the Association for Spiritual, Ethical and Reli9gious Values in Counseling, a division of the Virginia Counselors Association. Brown has created about 3,000 mandalas since he learned the technique in 1973.

Mandala, which means circle in Sanskrit, and symbolic art focus "our attention not on the outer world of activities, but on the inner world of meaning and significance," he said.

Through mandala art, personal difficulty is converted to creative energy, and issues may then be explored from a higher point of view through what Brown calls a spiritual level of awareness.

Aan exhibit of mandalas and poetry created by Brown and seven of his counseling clients is on display through June at Richmond International Airport. Brown mounted the exhibit at his own expense, after learning from a friend that space was available on a temporary airport construction wall that will come down next summer.

DiPerna's contribution to the show is a mandala called "Little Boy," which she created four years ago when her son was 6. The mandala shows the silhouette of a small boy looking into a vast, star-filled sky.  The accompanying poem tells the story of a child who weeps alone in the dark, in loneliness and despair. But with the dawn comes the "miracle of healing." When DiPerna read the poem to her son, she said he replied that the poem could have been written for anyone, because "everybody has thoughts like that."

And that's one value of the airport project, according to DiPerna, 44 an office manager in a Richmond pediatric practice.  "When you create art and poetry, you hit on universal themes without even meaning to."  The exhibit, just outside the US Airways terminal, is titled "Symbolic Art: Path to the Heart and Soul."

Kaja MacDonnell, another client whose work is included, said the exhibit is aptly named.  Mandala art, and the meditation that precedes its creation, provided MacDonnell, a loan office with a Richmond mortgage company, "a direct line to the unconscious...I know now that if I go into that process of meditation, create the mandala art and then write about what the mandala means that is the most honest I can be with myself," she said.

"If I'm trying to make a decision–a job choice, for example–it immediately takes me beyond all the static you have when making those decisions...It's a much quicker way to get to the essence fo the matter."

MacDonnell, 40 learned about mandala art about six years ago, when Brown conducted a workshop in Williamsburg as part of an Earth Day celebration. Since then, mandalas have also become a great communication tool for her husband and children. The technique can be especially helpful with young children, she said, because they often have difficulty expressing their feelings with language.

MacDonnell's 8-year-old daughter, Kirsten, began drawing mandalas when she was about 4.  The half-hour or so that it takes to collect thoughts and convey them in a drawing is a great method for decompressing sometimes explosive feelings. 

"Kids sometimes get so charged they can't even talk," MacDonnell said.  "Then, after that release time, they can talk about it and they're not shielding their emotions anymore...They're no longer captivated by the emotion and we can discuss it."

That's essentially the way Brown explains in on an instructional video about the exhibit. The video's been shown on MediaOne cable television since the exhibit began last month. Brown hopes the exhibit will inform people of the tools that exist "to reach into the heart and soul" and remind them of the inner serenity that's always available.

"Those who are in their busy lives catching planes and traveling may pause a moment and be touched by the spirit of inspiration," Brown said.  "And remember, really, what life's all about."




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