Using art to help people heal
How the Augustana art program and volunteering at a Camrose women’s shelter helped an international student from Taiwan find her calling.
By BEV BETKOWSKI
Teresa Yu was always the kind of kid who doodled on her school notebooks, sketching out quick still lifes of her water bottle or a pen lying on her desk.
She couldn’t know back then, as a schoolgirl in her home of Taiwan, how her blossoming love of art would one day help her bridge the cultural worlds of East and West, and reach the hearts of children living in women’s shelters thousands of miles away in Alberta.
But that’s what happened after Yu arrived at the University of Alberta’s Augustana Campus in Camrose four years ago to study visual arts. And now armed with a Bachelor of Arts after graduating Sunday, she plans to keep sharing the solace she’s found through pencils and paint with others.
“I am moving away from my art being this personal thing. It’s no longer about me as an artist, but about leading people to become artists of their own work, to express their own feelings and create their own stories,” she said.
On track to study medicine, Yu gave it up after a month, confessing to her parents that she wanted to study visual art instead. Arriving in Canada as an international student at Augustana Campus, Yu had the chance, for the first time, to test herself creatively and, as an introvert, push herself beyond her comfort zone.
“It was very scary at first, because the way of teaching in Canada is very different from Taiwan. There, you don’t really challenge a teacher. Here, we have class discussions, students can raise their hands anytime to question or challenge a professor. And that really stood out to me. I felt safer as time passed, to speak up and improve my skills as a good communicator.”
To her delight, the same idea applied to her art studies. “We were not put into a mould. My professors really understood me in terms of my style and level, and they challenged me accordingly.”
Yu uses her art to voice the struggle she feels in reconciling two different cultural worlds. She’d grown up in the traditional, conservative backdrop of Taiwan, but had been born in the United States and visited family there many times over the years, so she knew both cultures. She felt, at times, that she didn’t completely fit into either world.
“I felt a tendency, when I was asked in North America, to say I was from Taiwan, so I could get away with not fitting in. But in Taiwan, I said I studied in Canada and avoided saying I was raised in Taiwan, so I wasn’t expected to fit in there, either,” she explained.
Using art to deal with what you can’t deal with
Yu expresses her feelings in charcoal sketches and oil paintings, both mediums that call for a careful, deliberate hand. “Art is a way to express myself so I can deal with what I can’t deal with at the time. It’s a slow process with painting, you have to make layers. With drawing, you have to be careful and have a slow hand motion. It calms me down and lets me rethink my experience.”
And it’s that feeling that Yu went on to share with children staying at a Camrose women’s shelter.
Wanting to learn more about Canada’s respected reputation for social services, Yu signed up in her first semester for a Community Service Learning class and also enrolled in a class through the U of A’s Peter Lougheed Leadership College. She soon found herself a placement, designing an arts and crafts program for children at the shelter, and ended up staying on for the next four years as a volunteer, well after completing her class requirements.
Making something as simple as a pretty card for their parent, then sharing it around the shelter and being praised, was a feel-good experience for the youngsters.
“Art is good therapy because it is non-verbal and it doesn’t require them to talk about what they are afraid to talk about. But it relieves negative energy and builds their confidence,” Yu noted. “Many of the children were able to build trust and express their emotions.”
Yu is moving on to the Art Institute of Chicago to study for a master’s degree in art therapy—a field where she hopes she can continue to help children, as well as immigrants, given her own cultural roots.
“Being raised in western and eastern ideologies, I have an understanding of how to cope with some of those conflicts and ideas.”
But she’ll also take lessons with her from her time as a student at Augustana Campus.
“I’ll never regret coming to the U of A,” she said. “It was a very good starting point for me as an international student, the friendliness of the people here was helpful for me. It encouraged me to grow out of my shell and I was glad to challenge myself. They made me who I am today.”