On the morning of the day she met Annie Geselle, Colorado-based art therapist Kendra Schpok never would have imagined the words she’d be saying to her husband that night.
“What do you think about moving to Alaska?”
Alaska was not on Schpok’s radar — truth be told, it wasn’t even on her bucket list — and her job as an art therapist, while challenging, was one she really enjoyed.
But one meeting with Geselle in Boulder this spring quickly set Schpok on a new trajectory, reorienting her toward Juneau, where she has now landed as the new director of the Canvas Community Art Studio & Gallery.
Juneau resident Geselle, the Canvas’ founder and former director, had arrived to Boulder to receive treatment at the Mapleton Center for Rehabilitation following a traumatic brain injury she suffered in February 2010 after falling on the ice near her home. While there, Geselle was also actively seeking someone to take on her position at the Canvas, and had contacted her alma mater, Naropa University, to get the word out to alumni via email. Schpok received her master’s in art therapy at Naropa, so she got the email about the job, but had no intention of applying.
Instead, she wanted to talk to Geselle about how she got the Canvas off the ground, hoping to use the information to one day start her own community art studio.
Over the course of a two-hour conversation and many cups of tea, Schpok became increasingly intrigued with Geselle’s description of the facility, especially its focus on community integration through art. By the end of that day, she’d decided she needed to apply for the job, provided her husband agreed to the possibility of moving, which he did.
“I decided I really had to try and apply for it because it’s kind of my dream job,” Schpok said.
Schpok has now held the position for three weeks. She said she’s especially pleased to have come into the job through Geselle, who has done so much to make the facility a success, and to be joining longtime Artistic Coordinator MK MacNaughton and a creative team that already works so well together.
“They are an amazing group of people,” Schpok said. “They are so talented, so dedicated, so compassionate, and they combine that in a way that just makes this place come alive. So it’s a huge honor to be invited on to that team.”
“They got all this going, they grew it, I’m sort of the relief pitcher,” she said.
From Geselle’s perspective, Schpok is a perfect fit.
“I’m thrilled and also relieved,” Geselle said, adding that the Canvas is lucky to have found someone with Schpok’s combination of skills.
“i really am excited for the next phase and whatever she will bring to it,” Geselle said. “It has always been one of my dreams to bring in more of the element of art therapy.”
At the time Schpok met Geselle, Schpok was working with severely abused and neglected kids, a job she says she found very rewarding, though exhausting. Initially hired as a primary therapist, she developed a proposal to start a creative arts program through the facility, joining forces with a music therapist and a dance movement therapist, to provide a range of creative opportunities for the kids, some of whom lived on site.
Previously she worked in a psychiatric hospital leading art therapy groups several times a week, and in a community art studio working with a variety of populations, including adults with mental illness.
The focus of the Canvas’ day habilitation program is on clients who experience developmental disabilities, but Schpok said she feels much of her experience is translatable, including the idea of exploring identity through art, and of breaking down existing social barriers.
“The great thing about creative art therapy in general is that you really get to see people’s strengths no matter where they are, wherever they are,” she said. “You see their strengths, you see what they are capable of doing, you really see how much potential they have, how much capability, and how competent they really are.
“I think so much of what happens in treatment is people get so focused on what they aren’t able to do, or what they’re struggling with, and they forget to see how able they really are. And that piece, I think, is pretty translatable to the REACH artists who are working (at the Canvas), because often people see them as what they can’t do, what they’re not able to do,” she said. “In the studio and as artists, we really get to see what they can do.
“And it’s fantastic, what they can do.”
She also said the community integration aspect of the Canvas’ mission was a huge draw for her, and that it serves as a model for other communities to follow. The Canvas helps bring arts into the community, while at the same time integrating people of all levels of abilities and talents, including those that traditionally might have been marginalized.
“The arts are powerful for bringing about that change,” Schpok said. “It’s a creative space where everyone meets as artists and it helps those perceptions disappear. There isn’t an expert anymore, everyone is an artist and everyone has something they can offer that is unique, that you can learn from that’s going to further your art, that’s going to inform or influence you. ... And that’s a great thing about a community art studio.”
Schpok said she doesn’t foresee trying to make any big changes, noting that it’s already a healthy and vibrant operation.
“I think my perspective on it is just being that person that can hold the big picture and make sure that all of those pieces are really working together — and they are really working together. They are working great together.”
The Canvas offers a day habilitation program through REACH, a local nonprofit that serves community members who experience disabilities. The REACH program includes a wide-ranging series of art classes, from pottery to painting to dancing, and puts an emphasis on creativity, self-expression and inclusion through shared art experience.
The facility also operates a busy schedule of community-wide classes in the evenings. Current offerings include expressive mixed media with Chris Taylor, Zumba, and the newest offering, stained glass with Joel Abbot and Tasha Walen. (For more see www.canvasarts.org.)
The Canvas also hosts monthly Friday night poetry slams, actively participates in First Friday art openings, and frequently organizes kids’ arts activities on the weekends, as well as other events.
Schpok said she doesn’t really feel daunted by the challenge she’s taken on, but that she’s still working on getting her bearings.
“There’s a learning curve, that’s for sure,” she said. “And I have my moments where I feel like I’m cranking up to the top of the hill on the roller coaster. I’m not sure if I’ve gone down the first hill yet, I’m probably somewhere just looking over the edge. So there are moments when I feel daunted. But it’s also really exciting.”
Schpok said she plans to continue to practice her own art once she gets settled in town (she and her husband are currently looking for an apartment downtown), and that for her, art is about more than making something beautiful. Personally, she finds the greatest source of energy and inspiration at the point where spirituality, psychology and art convene.
“Something mysterious happens in that alchemy of creating, that’s somehow very transcendent,” she said.
“(I like the idea of) using art as a way of getting to know ourselves, or gaining reflection, catching a piece of who we are when we’re creating — it is a really nice way of getting a picture of who we are.”
Schpok became interested in psychology at a very young age. Her mother was a psychiatric nurse, and Schpok remembers reading issues of Psychology Today, as well as other books around the house.
“It was the ‘70s so it was the ‘great human potential’ movement, and I read a lot of those books,” she said.
But she didn’t gravitate to art therapy until she was in her late 30s.
She got her bachelors degree in art, specializing in glass and ceramics, then moved to Vermont and worked several jobs, including waiting tables, while practicing her art.
Ten years later, she went back to school and got her masters in art therapy, and practiced it for eight years.
As director of the Canvas, Schpok has taken on a more administrative role than she’s used to, but it’s a change she says she ready for after years of direct service.
“I think administration is a creative endeavor,” she said. “I like that organizational piece. I like looking at something and thinking, ‘How do we put together a system that will make this more efficient and make it easier for everyone to interface and make it work better?’ I love to do that stuff, I think it’s really fun.”
Schpok said she feels very lucky to have crossed paths with Geselle, and to have had her support in getting the job. She hopes to get her back into the building when she’s ready.
“I think there is a great role for her here,” Schpok said. “She holds all the history of this place in many ways, and she had that initial energy and momentum it took to start something like this and grow it to the size it has become — it’s huge.”
As for Geselle, she says she can’t really see herself staying away, but that she is still figuring out her limitations since her accident. She isn’t sure what her future role at the Canvas will be — whether it’s volunteering or something else — but she knows she does want to have one.
“I’m still learning what it is I can and can’t do,” she said. “I’m going to just keep feeling it out and do as much as i can.”
She said she’s been stopping by more frequently.
“It feels weird not to be there.”
• Contact Arts & Culture editor Amy Fletcher at email@example.com.