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Tribute for Vija B. Lusebrink

Vija Bergs Lusebrink 2016.jpg

Vija B. Lusebrink, 97, celebrated art therapist, professor, author, artist, colleague, and mentor passed away on June 12. Her passing is sorrowful for countless art therapists across the US and abroad. Her impact on the world of art therapy is expansive and profound. It is amazing that a person who dealt with so many challenges as a young adult evolved into a master art therapist, professor, and author.

Her journey from war torn Latvia to the United States was harrowing both during and in the aftermath of WWII. Yet she, along with her mother and sister, made it to the US. During the early years of her life in the US, Vija received a BS in chemistry, an MFA in painting, and raised three daughters. 

Vija found art to be vital to her life. Living in California offered her numerous opportunities for involvement in arts, healing, and human potential workshops, which included learning from noted thinker John W. Perry and renowned art therapist Janie Rhyne. What evolved from these encounters was a passion for learning about and conducting art therapy, which led her to take a position at a hospital for those suffering from mental illness. 

At the hospital, she realized that she had a desire to teach others what she learned from conducting art therapy with the patients. In 1974 she applied for and received a position at the Institute for Expressive Therapies (IET) housed at the University of Louisville in Kentucky. She taught there until her retirement in 1995, which included nine years as its director (1986-1995). She was proud to have taught over 400 students through two decades at UofL.

While at UofL, she completed a doctorate degree where she explored her theories on various levels of artistic expression. These studies included the seeds of the Expressive Therapies Continuum (ETC), which she refined with her colleague, Sandra (Kagin) Graves. Together they published a 1978 article on the topic in the Arts in Psychotherapy. In her book, Imagery and Visual Expressive in Art Therapy (1990), Vija delved more deeply into the theory of the ETC. This framework was a major advancement in the field of art therapy as it is one of the first theoretical perspectives that was rooted in the theory and practice of art therapy.

The ETC is now taught in numerous graduate art therapy programs here and around the world. Vija developed and maintained strong ties to art therapists in Latvia through advising research projects, co-writing papers, and teaching. In April of 2018, she gave a final lecture to the art therapy department at the University of Riga, the city where she was born. 

In addition to the ETC, Vija had three other areas of inquiry that fed her intellectual curiosity: levels of expression across the arts therapies, the importance of symbols in cross-cultural studies of art therapy, and imagery as healing.

In understanding imagery and its link to healing, Vija subscribed to the use of visual journals. For students, she called these ‘doodle diaries’ because she did not want students to think too hard about the journal entries and wanted the entries to be spontaneous. She theorized that these images, over time, would open the unconscious world of the individual. She encouraged the use of dream journals as well. In her own experience journaling her dreams and then drawing them, led her to realize she might have cancer, a carcinoma, on her back. Without the use of the dream and doodle journal, she may not have sought treatment for this lethal disease.

Recently, Vija studied advances in neuroscience and how these advances underscore the significance of the ETC. She authored several articles on this subject. It is unbelievable that she recently penned a final article on the ETC during her 96th year.

Vija worked tirelessly for American Art Therapy Association (AATA) through three committees: Education, Standards, and Research. She also was instrumental in the formation of the Kentucky Art Therapy Association (KYATA)and often offered lectures and workshops for this group. Upon her retirement from UofL, KYATA honored her with bestowing a research award in her name for deserving students.

For her significant contributions to the field of art therapy, AATA awarded Vija the Honorary Life Member (HLM), its highest honor, in 1995. There is little doubt that Vija made a major contribution to the field of art therapy. Her brilliance, her sensitivity, and her warm, lovely smile will be missed by many. She will not be forgotten any time soon.

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