The healing journey for Susan Walsh started when she was 42 years old.
“Suffering from PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and childhood trauma,” she began what she described as her “healing journey in psychosynthesis therapy.”
She also started painting.
“When I went to therapy I ran out of money at one point,” Walsh said, noting she was raising two sons on her own at the time.
She told her therapist she could no longer attend sessions because she could not pay.
Rather than have Walsh take that step, especially with her making progress, her therapist suggested taking a couple of the self-taught artist’s paintings as payment.
With brushes and paints provided by some friends who had taken art classes, she got to work.
“That’s what started it for me,” she said.
Before that, Walsh had completed one acrylic painting, when she was 21 years old.
“I didn’t know what I was doing so I put it away,” she said.
The therapy sessions continued for four more years.
“It was great – I got my life back,” Walsh said.
Back to class
She left home when she was 14; quit school in the eighth grade. In her early 40s, Walsh told her sons she was going back to school, where she earned a diploma in therapeutic recreation from the Nova Scotia Community College.
“I just hit me – I am not so stupid after all; teachers used to tell me I was stupid,” Walsh, one of 14 children, said.
“We didn’t always have the things other kids had and teachers just seemed to pick you out.
“It took me all those years to realize I wasn’t stupid,” she added.
Walsh wasn’t even going to go to her graduation until an instructor called her, informing her she would be graduating with honours.
“I couldn’t believe it,” she said.
Her educational journey continued at StFX, where she graduated with a bachelor of arts last year at the age of 58.
“I got the ring,” Walsh said, with a laugh and wide smile, as she showed off the silver X-Ring, which was a gift to her.
She described the art classes she took at the Antigonish university as some of her favourites.
“I was encouraged to allow my images and ideas to flow. I am currently working on a series of paintings which tell a visual story of my years in therapy, a story of my healing,” Walsh said.
Describing making art as cathartic, she added it is also “deeply relaxing and rejuvenating.”
“I believe if more people had the opportunity to express themselves in a non-threatening creative environment, a healing within the psyche would evolve, allowing people of all ages to reclaim productive, creative and peace-filled lives,” Walsh said.
Always an artist
Looking back, she said she has “always been an artist, always been creative.”
“What I realized – after I looked in my journals – I always doodled with a pencil,” Walsh said.
She has also penned poetry and wrote songs, including many of the folk variety.
“That was just a natural, organic thing for me,” she said.
Walsh, who taught herself to play guitar, is well-known as the children’s performer Sunshine Sue.
“I only know five chords but children don’t care; they just want to have fun,” Walsh said, with a laugh.
She is “so engaged and so in love with painting” that she can carry out the artistry for seven or eight hours at a time.
As for her inspiration, Walsh said ideas for her paintings – much like her songs – “just come to me.”
“I just put a canvass down and all of a sudden I will feel something – I don’t know where it comes from, I really don’t know,” she added.
Walsh joked she didn’t want to “sound like some mystic.”
With her creations – she draws and works in acrylics – she recycles a great deal. She noted some of her paintings are on panels “people threw away.”
“There’s no mistakes; you just paint over it,” Walsh said of her artistic approach.
That’s why she has so much build up on many of her canvasses.
“People ask why my paintings have so much texture; is that deliberate?” she laughed.
“I say ‘no, it all started from a mistake.’”
Some of those ‘mistakes’ were on display recently at the Tall and Small Café in downtown Antigonish, where Walsh had her first-ever exhibition.
“It is about reclaiming the creative child within each of us,” Walsh said of Leisure with a Difference.
She added she selected paintings for the show that reflected her “different interests” in creating art.
“I like to use mixed media and materials, but as I develop and read about different artists, I realize my challenge will be to simplify what I put into painting,” Walsh said.
She created Polar Warning – one of the pieces in the exhibit – after reading “yet another story about the plight of the animals.”
“I was collecting books about polar bears for so long and reading about them,” Walsh said, while gesturing towards the painting which shows a polar bear with the Toronto skyline as the back drop.
“I just don’t want to paint pretty landscapes – I don’t. I want to make a statement,” she added.
As for another painting in the exhibit she talked about, Walsh said she did it “for absolute total fun” shortly after her mother’s death during the summer.
“I used to do singing telegrams years ago and I thought about flamingos, how people stick flamingos on people’s lawns … I was thinking what if the flamingos were alive and could talk and they were walking around saying whose birthday is it and where,” she added about Happy Birthday to Who?
“They don’t know where they are supposed to go … It is just so silly,” she laughed.
When asked what she would like people to get from her art, Walsh said “to see something beautiful.”
“Because there is a lot going on in the world right now; let alone what is going on in your direct family. I think people are just inundated with stuff,” she added.
During the exhibit, Walsh described herself as a “fly on the wall” while visiting the café.
“I come in and I sit over there some days and I literally eavesdrop. Isn’t that terrible? It is not like I am going like this [cupping her ear], but I see people, I am observing people.
“People are walking around and saying ‘I feel so good when I look at these pictures; they are so happy and so colourful; they are so rich,’” she added.
Along with bringing joy to others with her artistry, Walsh wants to help by offering people the benefits of psychosynthesis.
“It is getting more and more known, but it is not mainstream yet; it is not like you are diagnosed with something; you are more or less looked at as a person with all kinds of ability and potential,” Walsh said of the therapeutic approach.
“It is really about relaxation, about yourself and your will,” she added.
In a thumbnail, psychosynthesis is a comprehensive approach to self-realization and the development of human potential, which aims to help people reach their full potential and discover their true spiritual nature.
“I want people to know more about psycho-synthesis because it is not a well-known therapy. It’s all about you, your potential; it is about the soul,” Walsh said.
In November, she will lead psychosynthesis workshops at the Gabrieau’s Bistro Hawthorne Room in Antigonish.
“The groups will be at least six people, no more than 12. I am not teaching art. My workshops focus on awareness of self, relaxation and guided imagery,” Walsh said of the Discovering Self workshops.
She added participants will learn about centered mind and regain personal power over feelings. Using experiential exercises, they will develop new skills and a realization that we can ‘choose’ to feel and act differently, according to Walsh.
The sessions will take place November 4, 11, 18 and 25 (Tuesdays), from 6 to 8:30 p.m., while on Wednesdays (November 5, 12, 19 and 26) they will take place from 1 to 3:30 p.m.
For more information, including cost for the workshops, contact Walsh at [email protected]
Words of wisdom
Her first exhibit came on the heels of a really difficult period for Walsh, including a summer at the bedside of her dying mother – “walking into that door at St. Martha’s everyday with my guitar, sitting at her bed and singing to her.”
“I always remember her saying, ‘they are beautiful dear; don’t ever apologize; they are beautiful.’ That’s what she always used to say to me.
“I thought I could feel mom’s hand right on my back just pushing through the door,” she added of her decision to move forward with Leisure with a Difference.
Walsh continues to learn from her experiences, including taking wisdom from others, such as her mother.
“If we just sit down and compare ourselves to others, we are just going to continue sitting and all of a sudden the years go by …”
Walsh said she also thinks about her daughter’s road to recovery after almost being killed in a car-pedestrian collision last December.She spent most of that winter accompanying her daughter on her healing path.
“She is an artist; she almost lost her arm. She actually almost lost her life,” the mother said.
Because of the injuries, Walsh said she will be “challenged for the rest of her life.”
“All because of someone going through a red light,” she added.
For Walsh, life is about “sharing beauty.”
“Since Mom died I keep asking myself what I want to leave here. I want to leave beauty, I want to leave joy.
“It might be on canvasses that people never buy, but it gives me joy …” she said.