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The Healing Arts

Don Seiden's creative approach to therapy.

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By Mike Sula

In some ways Don Seiden thinks of his work as prophetic, so when the last antelope's legs gave out he was scared. For three years he'd been sculpting a group of life-size antelopes from thick steel rods and copper tubing, then stuffing them with assorted scraps of material. He'd gradually attached identities to the individual animals--his daughters, wife, ex-wife, best friend--and by the time he was nearly finished with the seventh antelope, the last and the largest, he was thinking of it as a self-portrait.

"I picked him up and was going to move him to another area," he says. "And as I was holding him he just started going down. He literally just bent under and down, down, down he went and I couldn't get him back up again. Everything else stood and I didn't do anything different that I know of in terms of welding him together and I was freaked out. I mean, at my age--I think of my art as being very symbolic."

Seiden--who's 72--grew up in Edgewater and graduated from IIT's Institute of Design. He began teaching sculpture at the School of the Art Institute in 1962 and a year later was hired to teach art to mental patients in the psychiatry department of Rush Presbyterian. "In those days they didn't have a lot of medication to sedate people," he says. "So it was pretty wild."

Though the practice of art therapy began coming into its own after World War II, it was still uncharted territory in the midwest when Seiden started. Guided by a few books on the subject and by psychoanalysts on staff, he began figuring it out for himself. "I knew enough about what art was doing to my brain and I could see how people were taking things in their own way. I tried to help lead them into ways of thinking and feeling about what they were experiencing. If a person was confused I would try to have them do something that demanded a certain kind of order and organization through the material."

Seiden, who eventually chaired the sculpture department at SAIC and then worked in the art education department, began to draw on his experiences at the hospital to teach his art students, and vice versa. In the early 70s he introduced an "Art and Psychology" class, initiating discussions between psychologists and artists. The class caught on and Seiden created more until he had developed a 36-hour certificate program in art therapy. The trouble began, he says, when he tried to upgrade it to a master's program. The administration was behind him, Seiden says, but the faculty was vehemently opposed. "They did not want psychologists invading our school. Some of them went so far as to say, 'If you take away my neuroses, I won't have my art anymore.'" After seven years Seiden prevailed, and the program's first class graduated in 1981. Though he put more energy into practice than publishing, many of his students have gone on to write articles and books and regard him as an unsung hero.

Seiden practices calligraphy when he writes checks and believes that art should be integrated into all aspects of life--the three-story yellow, green, and pink house on Pratt Avenue in Rogers Park that he shares with his wife, Jackie, is a monument to his creed. The rooms are meticulously (and sometimes creepily) arranged with an overwhelming assortment of the couple's work. Jackie's baby-doll installations stare quietly out of corners and cupboards. Her antique corset collection hangs above their bed. A large table bears a load of talismans and amulets Seiden fashioned from copper, wood, and other materials. They're made to be handled; the ones shaped like wickedly embellished handguns are hefty and balanced and feel thrillingly dangerous, a sensation Seiden attributes to magic. The backyard between the house and his studio is occupied by an enormous grazing rhinoceros he sculpted from sheets of aluminum foil.

"Anybody and everybody can and should do something that relates to art," he says. "Art is biological as well as psychological. Conflicts are expressed in art, but sometimes they're resolved in very unique ways."

Hanging on the wall in the studio are a number of boxlike wall sculptures Seiden made in 1994. Each shows a face that looks a lot like Seiden's smushed up against a piece of Plexiglas. He says about six months after creating these pieces he was hospitalized for an asthma attack, something that hadn't happened since he was a youngster. In response, he began working on a series of photographs of the sky. "I hung them on the wall and in a sense tried to breathe into them. I did other photographs that were very spatial. Then at the same time I tried re-creating symbolically the structure of my lungs by using chicken wire. They made me feel better, made me feel like I had some control." But when the antelope collapsed he couldn't help but wonder if it was the forerunner of another crisis.

He says he grappled with the meaning of the antelope's fall for a few weeks; feedback from others helped change his point of view. "I had people come in and say, 'Oh no, he doesn't look like he's dying. He looks alert, like he's sniffing the air.' It finally got through to me that nothing's going to happen to me because of my art." Seiden calls the group of antelopes The Family; at this Sunday's free opening reception for his showat Peter Jones Gallery, he plans to arrange them so that the membersof the group address the reclining patriarch.

"It got to be a narrative," he says. "Here was drama. This was theater. I realized that not only was he alive but very possibly the work of art came to life because of what happened. A happy accident so to speak. I could make up any story I wanted. Or anybody else could make it up."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Robert Drea.

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