Perched on a stool in the woodshop at Sunnybrook’s Veterans Centre, it’s hard to imagine Susanne Watson-Bongard anywhere else. The art therapist radiates confidence and enthusiasm, surrounded by residents’ birdfeeders, tables and model airplanes and with the fragrances of cedar and poplar in the air.
But it wasn’t a direct path to Susanne’s career choice and passion. “In my last year of high school, I was diagnosed with OCD and major depression,” says Susanne. She spent a short and unhappy time studying kinesiology and knew she needed to make a change. She transferred to fine arts at York University, then received a postgraduate degree in art therapy at Western University in London, Ont. Now she spends her days with residents in the woodshop, amid industrial machines and a happy jumble of projects that are being sanded, finished and painted.
Some residents, in their earlier days, built their own houses. Others enter the woodshop and are less confident. “I often hear, ‘Oh, I haven’t done that since high school. I can’t draw myself out of a paper bag.’ I think of my past, when I was dealing with depression, and I encourage residents to try and get past the self-doubt as amazing things can happen.”
Susanne recalls her first day on the job, when a veteran in palliative care announced that he wanted to make a rocking horse. Together, they came up with a unique design. He passed away shortly after, but not before Susanne could show him the piece. His wife brought the rocking horse to the funeral home to share with family and friends. Another resident had a passion for making birdhouses. “He was so confident, at ease in his knowledge, and he said, ‘I will teach you.’ Now I am passing that skill along to other residents and seeing the joy it brings.”
Joy is obvious in the woodshop as Susanne proudly displays the residents’ work. “Art keeps you balanced; it can change your life.”