Art therapy

  • Alexis Bacharach<br>Mill Creek Enterprise editor
  • Monday, March 3, 2008 11:56am

Judith Campanaro throws her head back and howls at just about any obstacle or misfortune that gets in her way.

About a year ago, the Mill Creek artist, teacher and therapist crossed the threshold of her Seattle-area apartment, which she hadn’t actually seen before moving north from Arizona.

“I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry, so I laughed,” Campanaro said in stitches. “I just sort of stood there, looking at this tiny apartment and turned to my cat, ‘This isn’t going to work. I think we’ll have to downsize.”

It was the beginning of a new chapter for Campanaro, who’d lost a brother, two uncles, her mother and father, and suffered a heart attack over the course of two years.

“While my new apartment wasn’t exactly what I had in mind — I was used to a more comfortable lifestyle in Arizona — getting rid of a lot of my things turned out to be a very cleansing process,” she said.

A daring approach to life’s unexpected wrinkles has served the 61-year-old divorced mother-of-two very well.

Had she stuck to a plan, Campanaro might never have been a teacher or a masseuse or an art therapist with two master’s degrees in counseling. She’d never have ended up in Mill Creek, where she teaches drawing and painting through the city’s Parks and Recreation Department in addition to her work as a therapist.

“Life is what happens when you’re busy making plans,” she said. “I don’t have a lot of money — spent all my savings on a trip to Italy after my father died — but I couldn’t be happier.”

Most of the major career developments in her life are the result of informal conversations with strangers or a stubborn response to suggestions she couldn’t accomplish whatever it was she intended to at a particular time and place.

Campanaro was born and raised in California, where she married at a young age and gave birth to a son and daughter. She’d always been a gifted artist but never considered teaching until a group of parents from her children’s school propositioned her to offer a series of after-school classes.

“I was just a parent volunteer — no degree, no teaching certificate,” she said. “But the parents told me they didn’t care whether I had a college education. Their children always came home from school excited about whatever project we’d worked on that week in their classroom.”

She established the Hobbit School of Art in the mid 1970s and worked with hundreds of school-aged children for many years until her studio was reduced to a parking space by a drunk driver.

A little voice began nagging at Campanaro to enroll in massage school. She told the instructor, “I know I’m supposed to be here, but I have no money to pay for tuition.”

Having never been confronted with such a situation, the instructor shrugged his shoulders and told Campanaro she could stay.

“I eventually paid for my training with the insurance settlement from the drunk driving incident,” she said. “How crazy is that?”

She’d started pursuing a career in the legal field with a high-profile law firm in Los Angeles, but gave it up to work as a masseuse for the then L.A. Raider’s training camp in Scottsdale, Ariz.

She struggled to keep a straight face, describing how giant, football players would stand in front of her table, rip off their towels and wait patiently for her to react.

Apparently, professional football wasn’t exciting enough for Campanaro. She took a job with an international hotel and resort company and moved to Jamaica.

“They offered me an apartment in the resort, but I chose to live among the people in a shanty with no running water or electricity,” she said. “It was good because I got to know the children there and started teaching art classes again.”

It was after she returned to Arizona that a casual conversation got her interested in art therapy, a form of counseling that utilizes the artistic process to help patients identify and deal with emotional trauma.

She did some research and inquired about the certification process with a local professional, who told Campanaro — then in her 50s — that she was too old and not to bother.

“Well, that was the only motivation I needed,” she said. “I found a university and, with only one year of college under my belt, got a degree in psychology and two masters in counseling.”

As a therapist, Campanaro treats a range of problems, from the psychological affects of abuse to the emotional trauma of cancer patients trying to navigate the dying process. She sees the stories of her patients’ lives through their paintings.

After her father died, Campanaro needed a change of scenery — a place to start over.

She moved to the Seattle area, and happened upon Mill Creek one day completely by accident. It was the town’s country atmosphere and the peaceful nature paths that told her she was home.

“It’s like every journey I’ve taken led me to this profession,” she said. “This is what I was meant to do and this place — Mill Creek — is where I was meant to be.”

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