Toby Israel Ph.D.

Design on My Mind

Nurture the Phoenix

The art and place of well-being

Posted Mar 07, 2017

Courtesy Atlantic Center for the Arts
Source: Courtesy Atlantic Center for the Arts

“Every therapist is an artist,” Andrew Purchin remarked. He should know. Andrew is an interdisciplinary artist practicing painting and performance art around the world and psychotherapy in Santa Cruz, California. I met him at the Atlantic Center for the Arts (ACA) in New Smyrna Beach, Florida just as he arrived to take part in their world-class, three-week Master Artist Residency.

Andrew was relishing the opportunity to retreat to ACA after an intense period of work with his patients. I was taking time there to study ways art and design might be a catalyst for community. After a brutal U.S. election, Americans seem to be searching for ways to recharge and re-connect.(1) Can art + design + psychology = a formula for our phoenix to rise from the ashes?

If there is one oasis by design(2) where spirits can take flight it is the Atlantic Center for the Arts. Founded in 1977 by Doris Leeper, an internationally known sculptor and painter, as well as a visionary environmentalist, ACA is an artist residency facility hidden among 68 acres of palmettos and scrub oaks. Use your mental machete to cut through the green thicket and arrive at a haven that includes an art gallery, library, dining hall, artist living quarters and painting, sculpture, dance, music/recording studios.

Carefully designed to sit respectfully among nurturing tropical greenery, this secluded campus is a heart of light not darkness.(3) ACA’s wood and glass buildings soar. Weathered boardwalks and benches placed between studios encourage interdisciplinary conversations while wildlife such as local turtles crawl beneath (or sometimes on) the raised walkways. This artists’ community was specifically designed to have a symbiotic relationship with the environment.(4) I climbed up the spiral stairway to ACA library’s crow’s nest to look out at Turnbull Bay, observe and write here about the transformative, healing power of art and the environment.(5)

Besides Andrew, twenty-six other associate artists have come to Atlantic Center for the Arts from around the country to work with a renowned master visual artist, poet or composer.(6) Why?

For some, like Andrew, it’s about rejuvenation. Back home, he sketches between patient appointments as a way to calm and center himself. However by removing himself completely from daily obligations, he and the other resident artists gain extended time to immerse themselves in their own, unique creative journey under the guidance/encouragement of a master.

Isn’t that what a therapist (a Master Artist?) does as well—provide 'space' for each patient to immerse their 'self' in their creative journey in order to uniquely grow? But do therapists’ and your physical space (like ACA’s) help hold, protect and nurture the spirit as it grows?(7)

Here at the Center, the dining room building is the community gathering space where, together, artists break breakfast, lunch and dinner bread as they share ideas and pass around poignant, personal stories. Under that space’s wooden cathedral ceiling, one poet told me he was there to complete his poetry collection about his father who’d died when the writer was only sixteen. For an ACA composer, the residency formed a crucial part of her career transition because she’d quit academia to concentrate on composing. One visual artist revealed how painting had provided him with the path out of addiction years ago. For another poet, art was a primal expression of his soul: “I just need to write.”

Nevertheless, no artists here were "lying down on the couch": This residency was about growing artistic excellence, not art therapy. Yet isn’t lush, tended creativity often born from a psychological seed? Great artists, skilled psychologists and inspired place-designers all water the nascent, often hidden, beauty in my (and your?) psyche. Thereby they transport us beyond the amnesia caused by the monotony of daily life. They help us unearth the deepest parts of ourselves. Perhaps that’s why I hear from so many therapists who want to study design and so many designers who want to study psychology.

Psychology, design and the arts all offer a magical path toward our most fully-expressed human cores—cores which, when shared, can bond us together in a deep sense of community. Here at ACA, I relish the way paint splashes full of energy across canvass, metered words fly gently like feathers and the sound of frogs and musicians’ fiddles all shift the tight residue of my days revealing the best of that which resides deep within me and others at this beautiful place.

Yet Atlantic Center for the Arts' efforts aren’t just reserved for those of us attending this privileged retreat. As part of its mission, the Center’s programs also focus on community interaction via outreach presentations, workshops and exhibitions in the belief that creativity is inherent in us all.(8) For example I sat in on their 'Art and Wellness' monthly meeting to hear about this newest of ACA programs.(9) Their team’s fiber artist, expressive arts therapist, visual artist and community arts worker all spoke with passion and dedication about ways they use the arts to heal. I was humbled hearing about the “creative care-giving” they were doing with homeless teens, Alzheimer’s patients, and with a neighborhood where one resident had been shot and killed in the street that week. To me these arts-design-psychology professionals appear like angels that help people soar above the challenges that grind us down. 

Coincidently in the nearby town of DeLand, a mural of an angel painted in an alleyway has become a hugely popular work of participatory community art.(10) Kids, the elderly, tourists and even brides go there to stand in-between the angel’s two huge, white, painted wings. Imagine yourself against that wall. Slip on those wings. Steady yourself. Look up. Take gentle flight. Nurture the phoenix.


1. Apropos of the presidential election, in his project The Curious End to the War Against Ourselves, Purchin set up a participatory arts experience outside both the 2016 Democratic and Republican Conventions to “guide people to find calm and compassion for themselves and those they disagree with.”


3. ACA’s first buildings were designed by architect Will Miller. Subsequent buildings were designed by Charles Rose and Maryann Thompson of the Cambridge, Massachusetts firm, Thompson & Rose Architects.

4. ACA Annual Report, 2015.

5. Those whose work on the transformative power of place has influenced me include Professor Clare Cooper MarcusEsther M. Sternberg, M.D. and Sarah Susanka, FAIA.

6. Master Artists in residence at ACA during the February 2017 period during which I observed included composer/ performer Derek Bermel, poet Heather McHugh and visual artist Joan Snyder.

7. For suggestions on ways to attune the design of therapeutic offices to the therapeutic process see my “Design On My Mind” post 'The Incredible Shrinking Office'

8. ACA website and ACA Annual Report, 2015.

9. A national ‘Arts and Wellness’ organization, the National Organization of Arts in Health(NOAH) was formed in 2016.  It supports arts in health administrators, artists (visual, performing, creative writing . . .), architects and therapists. Its mission is to promote the incorporation of the arts as an appropriate, integral component of health care by 1) demonstrating the valuable role of the arts in enhancing the healing process, 2) integrating the arts in the planning, design, and operation of healthcare facilities, and 3) developing and managing arts programming for health care populations.

10. Barb Shepherd, the editor of the Beacon local newspaper, utilized the arts as a catalyst to create community in DeLand. Purchasing a series of derelict buildings she helped revitalize its downtown by creating spaces for the vibrant shops and restaurants that now form ‘Artisans’ Alley’ there. With Shepard’s permission, artist Erica Group painted human-sized angel’s wings on the side of the Beacon building. Now dubbed “DeLand Wings,” the project is meant to “promote more engagement with our family, our communities, the arts, landscapes and the elderly.”

About the Author

Toby Israel is an environmental psychologist who studies design psychology.

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