January 24, 2012

Ink Therapy

by Rachel Anne Buckmaster (MA 2010) 

Sitting quietly with paperwork in her hands, Regina waits for the final physical actions that will visibly announce her dedication to a new life. An emotional transformation, however, has already been months in the making.

Regina is a client of Sacred Transformations, a Chicago-based not-for-profit founded by SAIC alumnus Eric Dean Spruth (BFA 1990, MA 1992). The organization is dedicated to helping people transform tattoos or scars from negative experiences into marks of positive artistic expression. Regina's unwanted reminder of an abusive past was the tattooed name of a former boyfriend. Soon it will morph into a fairy that instead symbolizes her mother and the ability to fix problems. 

Sacred Transformations provides free services to people seeking recovery from various experiences—gang affiliations, abusive relationships, violence—by transforming physical marks into personal, positive images. The rite of passage marked by the new tattoo might take hours, but the overall process can take weeks, as applicants must be driven to initiate contact, demonstrate personal reflection through a five-page essay, and commit to a series of meetings with volunteers and designers. The client's determination propels the collaboration from the start. Often being in charge of a project is itself a new experience for the client, and the ownership of the results can be empowering. Spruth says the key is that the marks, like the past, are not erased, removed, nor hidden—but transformed. 

As a young boy growing up in the Chicagoland area, Spruth stopped speaking. He had decided he "had little to say aloud," and as a result was segregated from his grammar school peers. Much of his educational experience while exiled as a "daydreamer" occurred in the solitary safe havens of the library and the hallways, where in his isolation he had quiet time to gaze at artwork on display through an art-exchange program. An innocent misunderstanding became a pivotal moment when he incorrectly overheard an explanation given to his concerned parents—and the potentially confusing label of "autistic" became instead a prideful recognition of his "artistic" ability. 

Visiting the Art Institute of Chicago as a child was "a magical experience" for Spruth, who still sparkles with the memory of standing in front of The Rock by Peter Blume, thrilled to "see diversity, collaboration, and transformation depicted and displayed in the museum." His experiences in the museum gave him a thirst for literature and appreciation of how art can communicate on a deeply personal level, concepts he continues to explore though his work as an art therapist for the Cook County jail system. 

As a young adult, he received strong peer support and was nurtured through more creative teaching and testing approaches at Moraine Valley Community College, excelling and earning an associate's degree that encouraged him to then apply to SAIC. He received a full scholarship to complete his BFA, a prestigious honor based upon both physical challenges and artistic merit that was extended to support his subsequent MA in Art Therapy in 1992. The interdisciplinary curriculum at SAIC allowed Spruth to exhaustively study several media and create personal paths that ultimately merged in the Art Therapy program. There he had the opportunity for public interaction through artistic exchange, and solidified his intuitive belief that art has both therapeutic and communicative value. Building upon the foundation forged as an adolescent, solidified through his education and participation in countless volunteer activities, and explored through his many years as an art therapist, he wanted to use art to help empower and encourage others. Continuing the interdisciplinary approach he sharpened at SAIC, he picked up an entirely new medium—tattoo art—and founded Sacred Transformations in 2006. 

In addition to directing Sacred Transformations, Spruth lends his energy to the transformative, healing power of art as a volunteer through other outlets (such as Art Insights at the Art Institute of Chicago and work with the National Gang Crime Research Center) and brims with enthusiasm for helping others to realize their own potential and determine their own gifts: "There are incredible possibilities that exist simply from being alive," he says. Sacred Transformations has completed more than 100 tattoos and continues to accept all applications, but for Spruth the true joy is witnessing people realize their own strength. "Visibly we help to alter the physical marks. But the mental and spiritual scars that are reworked through the process are the truly rewarding transformations."

"There are incredible possibilities that exist simply from being alive."