Ecstatic Places

By Jan C. Nadav, Director of Education and Interpretation

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Creative Journeys 2012
Photo by Dona Laurita

In late December, my beloved dog died of old age and, in response, I found myself reading everything I could about the canine-human connection. Amy Klingenberg, Mizel Museum’s genius database manager and in-house dog expert, suggested the author Jon Katz, who quickly became my favorite writer on the subject. In one of his books I came upon a rather obscure reference to an article by an environmental psychologist, Louise Chawla. Katz explains that this article was a significant key to understanding his own enduring connection to animals and nature throughout his life. Similarly, when I read this a light bulb went off in my head, illuminating my mission as Mizel Museum’s educational director, especially as it relates to Creative Journeys Summer Camps.

In an article called Ecstastic Places, Chawla writes about the ecstatic memories of childhood places, and “unpacks” the original meaning of the word ecstatic from the ancient Greeks. We typically use this word to describe overwhelming happiness or joyful excitement. However, the roots of the word (ek statis), are related to “standing apart” or “standing ourselves.”

Chawla uses the word to describe a penetrating memory or experience that affects a child who goes on to become a creative adult. Such memories are diverse, but often involve similar themes—a genuine fondness for a place where one has felt “comfortable, secure and well-loved,” a place that often, but not always, included nature “imbued with life.” These memories often offer a center of calm that lasts a lifetime. For Katz, in his otherwise troubled childhood, it was his tank of fish.

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Creative Journeys 2012
Photo by Dona Laurita

Chawla’s idea is that such environments offer children a sense of vast potential and openness to discovery. They are a landscape that beacons and transforms; a territory that can belong solely to oneself. Chawla writes: “We do not need to consciously preserve these memories; we know that we can never lose them… they are like radioactive jewels buried within us, emitting energy across the years of our lives.”

The late Michael White, one of the founders of narrative therapy and a pivotal teacher/friend of mine, called these “sparkling moments”—lived memories that have a quality of timelessness because they are continually shaping our lives.

Many of us resonate with some version of “ecstatic place” from our childhoods when we experienced that internal location where our spirit was animated. My ecstatic place was an overnight camp devoted to musical theater and community-building. The experience has reverberated throughout my entire life. It’s not just the visceral memory of the Wisconsin landscape (I can still smell the grass), the music (I remember every lyric), my familial buddies (still some of my most beloved friends), or even the values imparted (an enduring focus on social justice). That would have been enough. It’s something more that lives within me at my core that continues to yield inspiration, even clarity.

I see now that the idea of “ecstatic place” is the optimistic impulse underlying our camp program: the desire to provide children with a safe environment guided by the creativity, commitment and skill of remarkable working artists in varying disciplines. We have seen that through careful programming that brings the expressive arts together with compelling content, we are offering children a place to tap deeply into their own ingenuity and the spaciousness of their own vision.

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Creative Journeys 2012
Photo by Dona Laurita

As we head into our fourth season, it’s clear that our teaching artists also experience this concept of “ecstatic place” as a generative laboratory to explore innovations in art education. In fact, several camps have incubated new programs and initiatives at the museum. For example, Dona Laurita, a long-standing artist-in-residence in photography and mixed-media, went on to develop a program with the museum called Stories Matter, which was recently the recipient of a prestigious award from the National Endowment for the Arts. And, as a natural outgrowth of Monica and Tyler Aiello’s popular, scientifically-inspired art camps, they are now exploring teaching content that involves how different cultural groups have perceived the cosmos throughout history. This coming summer, most of our esteemed artists-in-residence are returning, along with several new artists. We can’t wait to see what their work seeds, both for the campers and for the future of the museum.

It seems sweeping to suggest that one or two weeks at a day camp with an inspiring adult mentor has the potential to radiate across a life. But you never know. We will push on as if it might.

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