Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Elana Wolff Interviews Artist Regine Kurek (Part One)

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Elana Wolff Interviews Artist Regine Kurek (Part One)

Regine Kurek, born and raised in Germany, holds a degree in anthroposophical Art Therapy from the Kunststudientstatte, Ottersberg, Germany and a diploma in Biographical Counselling from the Goetheanum, Dornach, Switzerland. Regine emigrated to Canada in 1983 and in 1989 established in Toronto, Arscura, a school for art in social and healing fields, based in anthroposophy. Anthroposophy, meaning “wisdom of humanity,” is the name Rudolf Steiner gave to the modern spiritual path which seeks to connect the spiritual in the human being with the spiritual in the cosmos. The mission of Arscura is to cultivate this connection through art.

Arscura graduate Elana Wolff gets Regine talking about the Arscura initiative, its birth and growth, the evolution of her own arts path, the mission of art in contemporary society and the series of books she’s currently working on.

EW: How did you come to choose the name Arscura for your art school and the name Art for Life for the main program at Arscura? What is your conception of the term art for life?

RK: It wasn’t a conceptual thing. I worked for seven or so years developing art workshops and processes before Arscura was actually incorporated and the program was named. Arscura comes from Ars, meaning ‘art’ or ‘skill,’ and cura, meaning ‘cure’ or ‘care’. It became consciously named as a process program by combining these two words. There’s also an overlapping meaning — scuro in Italian means ‘dark'— suggesting that what was in the dark, or in hiding, becomes unveiled, comes to the fore, and therefore becomes integrated in the process of healing. An Arscura art process becomes more of a life-long thing, something you do for more than a given time — not just for two or three years in the program. So what is implied in the name Art for Life is something that heals life, but also something that is life-long.

EW: A life-long attitude or learning....

RK: Yes. Once you learn what this work is about, after you finish the program, you don’t not do it anymore. The art is always a tool for attitudes or skills in life. After I emigrated to Canada in 1983, I worked with developing workshops. From 1989, when Arscura was incorporated, to 1995, roughly, there was one program — the Art for Life program. Then, in 1997, I added the Biography program — Life as Art. In 1997, I also shifted everything from night classes to day classes. I really wanted people who were willing and able to do a day program.

EW: Students more seriously devoted to seeking creative expression and learning artistic life skills....

RK: Right — students on a deeper search for creative self-expression and open to the idea of art and creativity being, in a way, our mission. Yet my idea was also, from the beginning, not to impose too much of an art school flair — like you have to be gifted in a certain way, or have so many courses of life drawing behind you. I support the idea that everybody is an artist, you only have to do it. And if you do it for two or three or four years on a weekly basis, you are — we see this all the time. Then again, I’m not saying that everything is art. We have to work at it. By potential, as human beings, we are artists. But only if we take it up as a practice. That’s when it becomes serious. That’s when it becomes a disciplined program.

EW: Arscura is billed as a school for art in the social and healing fields. You are cautious about using the terms therapy or therapist in your descriptions, yet we meet up with these terms and have to ask ourselves, What are we practicing here? What are we working towards? Can you speak about the relationship of art to therapy in Arscura terms.

RK: The Arscura initiative is founded in spiritual science — the work of Rudolf Steiner and others who saw art as having arisen out of the spiritual streams and mysteries of antiquity. If we look back to the mysteries, art and science and healing were one. They were not seen as separate. That was the mystery. Then there’s the whole idea of the human being as a threefold being — head, heart and metabolic system — corresponding to thinking, feeling and willing. The healed human being is the one that stands in integration. Not just as a head, nor just as a doer and never thinking, nor not just as a feeling being who is constantly lost in emotion. The healer, the inner priest, the therapist, the teacher, in the end are all one person. If we are whole, if we are balanced, then we are reaching to these archetypes. The training is, in the end, the hope is, that each of us has a little thread, a little connection to each of these aspects, and then we see to which one we lean more strongly.

The problem with the terms therapy and therapist is that they tend to be associated with particular outcome. Therapy is a noun — it’s a fixed thing, an outcome, aim-oriented. Healing is a process, an ongoing non-boxed-in thing. I’m never totally healed, I’m always on the way. And ‘therapized’ goes very much with the idea that there’s some specialist out there who ‘therapizes’ you, who omnisciently knows what is, and what should be, what your picture shows, and what your problem is. That’s why I revert to the term healing. The closest I came to a word I might have used was a number of years ago. Somebody took a class with me and suddenly had some major breakthroughs. One day she came to me and said she’d found a university in New York where they had a new program called Arts Practitioner. It’s probably still out there. I looked at it at the time and couldn’t believe it. That’s my program, I thought, yet I couldn’t easily go out and appropriate that name.

EW: Arts Practitioner — the notion of praxis, of practicing. Well doctors have practices and lawyers have practices. The work and the learning are ongoing. Just because a person holds a degree doesn’t mean they’re practiced.... This brings me to the question of the pedagogic foundation at Arscura. For me, the Arscura mode was an awakening and I had to go through a period of unlearning. I’d come from a university environment where teaching and learning were quite narrowly cognitive and scientific in the positivistic sense. So the whole phenomenological approach at Arscura was new to me — the emphasis on experience, the life-world connection, the working towards awareness of oneself and others — intersubjectivity and empathy — learning through encounter. Were you taught this way in Germany?

RK: This does come through the arts training I took in Germany. Through Waldorf education as well. The emphasis is on the experiential process, not the other way around — not to have the concept and then to do something that formulates the thought. But to engage with the phenomena, whether charcoal or black and white and to really allow that to speak, and then not to close your mind — as you know we’re not falling asleep, we’re observing. But we’re observing something coming into being rather than a pre-fab or a cognitive process that we want to be confirmed. In a way, this mode is also based in the arts in general. In the arts people don’t so much set out with a pre-conceived idea — even though some people do think that if I do art I need to have a concept....

EW: Well I did, and I wasn’t the only one. A number of us felt impelled to bring our ideas to the materials. It took a while to break free of this bias and just encounter the medium, be receptive, observe what emerges, interact with what presents. That was a huge thing — to move from a place of preconception into a place of open encounter. It’s not obvious....

RK: But it also has to do with how everything has become in the last four or five hundred years. Of course I can’t prove this, and we still have people who think we’ve always been the same, just a little more stupid. But if you read books on the development of consciousness, you see that consciousness has changed. And if you’re now fifty or sixty years old, you see this in the world too. I don’t want to say that we should go back to what we had, but if we do look, we see that there was much more of an intuitive consciousness. Consciousness was much more informed by what comes inside, also by what comes through, what comes from God, whatever we call it, from intuition or whatever. Yet now, by being so filled with concept, we already know all the answers to everything. What we’re trying to do at Arscura is to come to the phenomena and open up to new experience. We’re not the first to do this. Modern art opened the door. Look at Kandinsky, at the beginning of the twentieth century...

EW: Kandinsky overlapped with Rudolf Steiner.
RK: Many of these artists knew Steiner. Kandinsky came to his lectures. Mondrian, Der Blaue Reiter — these people who broke through the tradition of the nineteenth century, academia — you know what they did? They went to Africa, to Polynesia. They wanted to have experience in the world again — to be moved, to be shaken up — and not just cognition.

EW: This reminds me of a quote I found on the net — you said somewhere that the experience of “art can be terrible.”

RK: Yes.

EW: The full quote is: “Art can be terrible. It is not always fun, but it is honest, necessary and essential for our survival. There cannot be enough written about this truth and there can never be enough courageous souls to make art for life as a fact of wholeness.” This statement reveals your passion and commitment to art. Also your view of art as a life-long process of unfolding, a creative engagement that is crucial for healing, for integrating the shadow side — the dark, unknown and frightful aspects of the self. Can you elaborate on your idea and experience of art as terrible, and why you see art as essential to survival?

RK: You can look at the terrible in different aspects — in the soul, as a result. People turn away from much contemporary art because they find it so yucky — so repelling. We talk about the terrible mother, a kind of Plutonian force, or in the archetypes — the devouring beasts — and in art the outcome can be disturbing, often intentionally so. The artist may want to put a face to the terrible that’s in the world, that we often try not to show, to contain or conceal in order to be decent. So to intentionally show the terrible is one thing. In the context of the school, in one’s own art process, it’s different. Steiner talks about the necessary ugly — for out of the ugly comes beauty. I’m sure it happened that you did a piece that you found awful — just terrible.

EW: Many times — not only aesthetically unpleasing. But also frightening, because I met up with something I’d created that I didn’t know was in me.

RK: The process takes you down into this other side that we don’t normally show, also that we don’t normally even know about or see in ourselves. The other aspect is the habitual thing — you hear this in Term Two or Three at Arscura, “I’m always doing the same bloody thing,” or, “I like everybody’s work except for mine. I just hate mine.” We see our own habitual stuff that we can’t come free of. We may have some notion that it’s there, but the art holds up a mirror, right? That’s why we need it.

EW: Is this the survival part of it?

RK: Yes, because something gets cleared out. It’s like daily or weekly hygiene. It’s a hygienic process to face ourselves again and again and not to think that because we’ve learned a little bit of process that all our stuff is gone. We have to have the humbleness to see that it’s there, that it is part of us. And just because we’ve done a process once, or twice, or many times, it’s not finished. It’s never finished. It’s not that we’re ever getting away from the underground stuff. It’s part of our reality. Like you used to say, “The beasties — they’re always there, all the time.” And maybe you’ve become more familiar with them and less scared, less horrified, but they’re part of the journey.

EW: I still have these little creatures showing up in my work — animals, half-humans. When I started this work, I found these things disturbing. Now less so. They come up, maybe they don’t come up as much. Maybe I’ve made peace with them.

RK: You know in my conception, we go through this astral world, this soul world, that has these creatures in it and we can get caught in it the more attention we give it. The more we can say, “Okay you guys are there, Hi, How are you,” then move forward, through the astral world, there’s more of a freer space.

EW: Well, there’s the other thing too — of creating art that we want to be beautiful. Most of us want to create something that’s aesthetic and pleasing.

RK: Yes — to self and other. We need feedback from others. We want to hear, “I like that,” or, “That’s beautiful.”

EW: Maybe we’ve grown up with the notion that art means beauty, as in "the pretty." The idea that art can be ugly and terrifying and shocking is disturbing, an anathema to most. But then there are people who create art specifically for the shock value. Is that manipulative, untruthful, I don’t know....

RK: If it’s just shock for shock’s sake. But if we think, rather than that art is beauty, that beauty is beauty and the beast, there can also be the terrible beauty. Right? Beauty can be in an old face. So it also has something to do with our definition of what we’ve come to, in recent centuries, around what beauty is. In the olden times, art was beauty. It was always showing the beauty even when there was something disturbing — the beauty in a temporary disturbance. It’s fairly recent to leave the disturbance as is — without redemption. So in the twentieth century or so, we’ve kind of left the shit out on the canvas rather than showing a bit of a transformation. And this is our time — I mean, we came to this annihilation. In the twentieth century, we came to the horror of seeing this for what it is. So there is also a huge amount of courage in leaving the redemption out. If you just think of your own doing, you always strive to make it pleasing. I think it’s not just a bad thing for an artist to leave something unpleasant there. It’s also a sacrifice.

EW: I remember an exercise — we had to paint what terrified us most, and leave it like that — unredeemed. I couldn’t do it. I found it too disturbing to face my terror and leave it out there — as a sacrifice or whatever. I wanted to make corrections. And I was the only one in the group who insisted on doing so. That exercise was very revealing to me — of certain things in my biography.

RK: Yes, our biographies are authentic with our striving, if we allow them to be.

EW: That leads me back to the question of the conception of Arscura. You spoke of how you came to the name Arscura and how the Art for Life program evolved after you emigrated to Canada. But if you look at your own biography, wasn’t Arscura a work that was indicated and built up from much earlier — in a kind of destiny picture, if I can call it that?

RK: It was both, honestly. Another former student wrote a PhD thesis titled The Arts as Catharsis and the Crucible, and two other artists and I were part of her research. There’s a section in the thesis where she uses a heuristic process to show how biography reveals one’s life work and how this is built up in the life cycles. She was also trying to have me discover this. I had these interviews with her where she asked me leading questions — basically showing my life, and how it unfolded in this way. From childhood I wanted to be an artist....

Part Two of Elana Wolff's interview with Regine Kurek be on Open Book on January 13th.

ElanaWolff has published three collections of poetry with Guernica: Birdheart (2001); Mask (2003); You Speak to Me in Trees (2006), winner of the 2008 F.G. Bressani Prize for Poetry. She is also co-author with the late Malca Litovitz, of Slow Dancing: Creativity and Illness, Duologue and Rengas (Guernica, 2008). Implicate Me: Short Essays on Contemporary Poems is forthcoming with Guernica in spring 2010. Elana divides her time between writing, editing and facilitating therapeutic art.


As a graduate of Arscura both Art for Life and Biography programs I am really grateful to read this interview. The interview demonstrates that the school itself not only provides opportunities to become engaged in art as process but the program itself is alive , growing and developing too!

Regine is a master teacher with both highly developed artistic ability and an intuitive pedagogical imagination. Jef Saunders is an experienced compassionate therapist. The learning that takes place itself creates a living experience that continues to grow for years after the training is complete.
In a sense the training is like planting a seedling!

I would love to see examples of processes illustrated,perhaps a twelve step process ( one of the third year processes) with all twelve steps shown so that the readers of this Open Book could enter into the images and let them speak!!!

Elyse Pomeranz
Waldorf Teacher at the Toronto Waldorf School

No doubt about it, Elyse, Regine is a "master teacher with a highly developed artistic ability and an intuitive pedagogical imagination" -- perfectly put. I like your idea of presenting an illustrated example of a twelve-step Arscura process to Open Book readers-- maybe it can be arranged! In the meantime, interested readers can visit the Arscura website and check out the courses and photo galleries.


Just read Part One of your interview with Regine. Good for you! And great to see that so many people are reading and commenting on it. I tend to be a little more skeptical about the healing power of art -- and not because some artists are scumbags. Rather, sometimes, the true artists seem to get consumed by their art and tend to destroy the other relationships around them. But there are many levels to this and for the majority I would think that what is being said is true: most feel more fulfilled in some sort of artistic endeavour than in not pursuing such endeavours.

I wouldn't dispute Emil Sher's point that many fine artists were/are despicable people, Karen. We know that some of the great innovators and literary luminaries of the twentieth century held and propagated painfully shameful views, but I wouldn't want to say that these artists practiced 'art for life' in the sense that Regine Kurek uses this term. Neither would I say that Regine believes in "the absolute redemptive power of art." She holds that art is a force for healing, integration, and transformation-- yes. Even a necessity. But she also says explicitly that "just because we’ve done a process once, or twice, or many times, it’s not finished. It’s never finished. It’s not that we’re ever getting away from the underground stuff. It’s part of our reality." In other words, art is not absolutely redemptive. In fact, sometimes we "leave the disturbance as is — without redemption." Glad to hear you've enjoyed this interview and are looking forward to reading Part Two.

Elana, I found this interview truly fascinating. I am skeptical, however, about the belief in the absolute redemptive power of art. As Emil Sher points out, many fine artists are despicable people, even though they practise "art for life." But I am being a bit argumentative, here, because I find Regine fascinating to listen to, and a marvelous individual and teacher. Like John, I can't wait for the next installment. You are an excellent interviewer. Karen

Thank you for your appreciative words, Mariongedalia. In part two of the interview, Regine speaks very personally about healing-- through integrating dark experiences and frightful aspects of the self by painting and drawing.

An incredible and enlightening interview which has opened my eyes to the healing possibilities of art. Am looking forward to readng part two.

I agree, Karen-- the notion of "terrible beauty" is very powerful-- it forces one to consider what Regine calls "temporary disturbances," "sacrifices," and the "unredeemed"-- so that the beautiful in art is not just about the pretty or the pleasing. It's far more inclusive.

The concept of "terrible beauty" is what sticks with me - how a face weathered through age or illness can appear to be so interesting and beautiful. I think that one of the attractions to being a photographer is having the ability and freedom to photograph beauty. That perception of what beauty is, becomes such a personal vision.
I look forward to reading more of the interview.

I won't speak for Regine, as she directly addresses the personal work of "digging in the dirt" in Part Two of the interview, but yes, not "blanking out unpleasant associations" is part of integrating the darkness for health and wholeness. Thank you, John.

I find this quite interesting... It's easy for anyone who's done creative work to understand what Regine is talking about when she refers to go going into the dark stuff. If you commit yourself to not blanking out unpleasant associations, an artistic practice reconnects you with the good and bad you've experienced.
There's a song by Peter Gabriel about healing titled "Digging in the Dirt" where he refers to this urge to "find the places where I've been hurt." I'm looking forward to Part Two.
John Oughton

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