When David Bass, a senior majoring in Human Development and Family Studies, registered for an online art therapy course in January, he had no idea just how much his life was going to change.
Days later, his mother, for whom he had been a primary caregiver as she battled through illness for nearly 20 years, passed away.
Since returning home to Lebanon, New Jersey, from the Iraq War in the late 1990s, the Air Force veteran spent nearly all his time caring for his mother and, as Bass said, it became all that he knew.
“It was my normal,” Bass said. “And I don’t mean that in a negative way; it just consumed all of my time to the point that I didn’t really have a social life and balancing my everyday responsibilities was tough.”
To be closer to his ailing mother, he sold his home and moved in with her. The change allowed for the necessary continuous care, but the proximity provided Bass with a bit of extra time, which he used to enroll in community college using a veteran’s affairs grant.
After earning an associate degree, Bass decided to continue his education online at Penn State. Bass, now 56, said the Penn State World Campus not only offered him the opportunity to earn a degree while staying close to his mother, but also the chance to be a part of “something bigger.”
“When I enrolled, I thought ‘wow, I’m a Penn Stater,’ and that meant a lot to me,” Bass said.
In an effort to graduate ahead of schedule, Bass decided to enroll in courses for the 2019 summer session. As he was looking through his options, one course caught his eye: AA 120N, Introduction to Art Therapy. Inspired by his time spent caring for his mother, Bass intended on pursuing a career in the health care field and he felt the course was a perfect fit.
Taught online by Erin Carter, lecturer in the Penn State College of Arts and Architecture, and developed by the college’s Office of Digital Learning, Introduction to Art Therapy is designed to introduce undergraduates to the philosophical, pragmatic and historical bases of the human service field of art therapy, with emphasis on current applications.
A core component of the course is weekly journals kept by the students, which include visual representations of their reflections on course content. As Bass progressed through the course, the grieving process after losing his mother became intertwined with the course work. To him, the course was therapy.
“These simple weekly tasks of art slowly became my voice, my healing and the reflections of this new norm for me,” Bass said. “Each week I challenged myself to speak through a different medium of art by creating puzzles, single-line drawings, videos, origami and more. Eventually, I realized that I had healed from feeling lonely and empty from my loss and sorrow, and the final project was now more about creating this art piece to reach out and touch others with a simple message of being there for others.”
Bass’ piece “The Air” is a glass bowl filled with colored stones, small air plants, a 12-inch flexible wooden art doll holding an air plant and a card that simply asks, “Whose air have you been today?”
“I hope that anyone who walks by and views the piece is moved to practice small random acts of kindness, such as opening a door or simply smiling at somebody,” Bass said. “Just let someone know that you are there for him or her and, even if it’s for just a moment, you’re willing to be the air they need to keep going.”
As he was finishing the course, Bass accepted a case management internship position with New Bridge, an organization that provides counseling, housing and education to at-need people in the northern New Jersey area. Propelled by the personal growth he experienced in the art therapy course, Bass said a career that focuses on helping others is naturally the next step.
“I made a promise to my mother that I would never put her in a nursing home and while I’ve healed from her passing, that promise is still there. Now I’m choosing to help other people who really need it,” Bass said. “In a way I’ve rediscovered who I’ve always been and that is in large part because of the art therapy course and Penn State.”
Bass’ art installation, accompanied by a framed poem he penned, is on display at Summit Medical Group’s Berkeley Heights Campus and Carter has sent a summary of the project along with photos to the American Art Therapy Association in hopes they will feature it on their blog. Bass is on track to graduate in December.