A History of How the Center for Biography and Social Art Came to Be
by Signe Eklund Schaefer


The Center for Biography and Social Art began germinating many years ago. Seeds were gathered from distances of space and time, sometimes consciously, sometimes by apparent serendipity. Now the garden is blooming with vibrant colors, an abundance of forms, and rich scents. There is a winding path through the flowers and I find myself now, in the spring of 2011, resting on a bench pondering how this garden came to be. The story could be told from many points of view; this is mine.

In the early 1970’s as a student of Waldorf Education at Emerson College in England I first heard the picture of seven-year life phases as indicated by Rudolf Steiner. Something lit up in me, a recognition, perhaps even I could say, a call to a life work ahead of me. Every time I encountered this material I became more inspired — I felt I was being given pieces of the puzzle of what it meant to be a human being. And there were ever new pieces that appeared: temperaments, soul types, relationships, and life between death and rebirth to mention only a few.

Many ways of working with developmental phases were being explored in those years at the Netherlands Pedagogical Institute (NPI) in Holland, under the leadership of Bernard Lievegoed, and this work was also coming alive at the Social Development Center which was founded at Emerson College in 1975 by Coen Van Houten and my husband Christopher Schaefer. This was a time of experimenting with how to share ideas and questions about the human being in ways that honored dimension and meaning, in ways that served connection and awakened interest, not only in oneself but also in the other. Soon  the Social Development Center began offering biography workshops, and these drew participants from all over Europe and the English- speaking world.

The idea of life phases was simultaneously being popularly addressed in best sellers like Gail Sheehy’s Passages. Adding dimension to the research presented there on what her subtitle referred to as Predictable Crises of Adult Life, the Newsletter of the American Anthroposophical Society began publishing regular articles by George and Gisela O’Neil on many different aspects of human life (much later collected by Florin Lowndes and published as The Human Life.) I would eagerly await the arrival of each new installment and then devour the material. I was on fire with the idea of human development – these perspectives were so much deeper, so much more alive than what I had learned in psychology classes in college. Even as a mother of young children, I think I stayed up all night reading Lievegoed’s Phases: Crisis and Development in the Individual as soon as it appeared in English.

At this same time in my life and still living in England, as I was deepening my relationship to anthroposophy, I was also exploring questions of gender. I felt the emerging women’s movement and anthroposophy had much to say to each other. My friend Christa Horner (now Kaufman) and I invited others to join us in participating in that conversation; and before we knew it there were two women’s groups meeting weekly to share our experiences and questions of what it meant to be women on a spiritual quest in the 1970’s. As the years went by, these groups multiplied until a core of us (who met regularly for seven years and still get together when we can) named our work Ariadne — after the maiden in Greek mythology. We began offering workshops and classes, published a newsletter and did an incredible amount of research – into history, mythology, feminism, psychology, spirituality, and ourselves. At that point we were all stay-at-home mothers with young children, but we knew we were training ourselves for some future work in the world. In time, much of our research was published in Ariadne’s Awakening, with chapters by Margli Matthews, Betty Staley and myself.

In all this work with feminine and masculine we were searching for wholeness in the human being. We were interested in how an individual’s life journey was also a picture of the larger story of human becoming. The themes of life phases, gender, individual development, the evolution of consciousness, and relationships were completely interwoven for us. And it was not only ideas that drew us; we were also searching for new ways of meeting, for practices that would engage people in questions of meaning, and for exercises that fostered genuine interest in others. It was a heady time of exploration, and we pursued our questions with passion and commitment.

In time I began teaching in the Foundation Year at Emerson College. After eight years in England, my husband and I decided to return to the United States to work with the Waldorf Institute in Detroit, which then moved to Spring Valley, New York and became Sunbridge College. By the middle of the 1980’s I was directing Foundation Studies and teaching many different subjects. One of my favorites was always my block with Human Development. When I could spare the time I offered weekend workshops on gender questions, life phases, relationships or parenting questions. In the late 1980’s I was part of a group that met weekly at 6:30 in the morning, to develop what we then called The Center for Life Studies. Through this we also offered workshops and evening classes, and eventually Patti Smith and I edited a parent support book, written by parents, called More Lifeways.

During all this meandering on my life journey, I was gathering ideas about a training I felt was needed if what was beginning to be called biography work was to grow in North America. I saw such a strong need in the culture for the kinds of genuine, non-virtual, exchanges that this work could invite and facilitate. There were isolated individuals who had in the meantime trained at the Social Development Center in England and who were offering biography workshops around the States: Lee Sturgeon-Day, Elaina Rose Lovejoy, Rosemary Glover, Joseph and Patricia Rubano to mention a few. Gudrun Burkhart had also studied there, and she then developed trainings in Europe and Brazil; she also gave a workshop in Spring Valley and began writing biography related books (Taking Charge). And then there were others like Beredyne Jocelyn (Citizens of the Cosmos) or William A. Bryant (The Veiled Pulse of Time) who were also contributing in their own ways with inspiring developmental pictures of human life. Nevertheless, it was difficult to see how, without a training, the work could really grow beyond the activities of a handful of people.

I kept feeling there was a missing piece in what was needed for an American biography training connected to anthroposophy. For many years I had heard about a woman in Holland named Maria de Zwaan, who had a program in her home called Vanya, after the hero of a wonderful initiation tale. Maria is an art therapist by training, and by the 1990’s she was also offering courses in what she called Nurturing Arts in California and at Sunbridge. Finally I was able to meet her and experience her particular magic as a teacher. Here was the missing piece! And she was willing to be part of starting what wasthen called the Biography and Adult Learning program at Sunbridge College. The program began in June 1997 as a twelve-week part-time professional development course for people working with adults in a variety of ways. Maria’s participation in the first two cycles of the program introduced a level of artistry, improvisational depth, profound nature observation, and joy that greatly enhanced the many concepts and exercises that had been accumulating over the years.

Joseph and Patricia Rubano were also part of developing the first course, and to the great benefit of the program, Patricia has continued on as co-director with me. Margli Matthews, director of the Biographical Counseling training in England has also been a regular and much valued contributor to the program, as has Brigitte Bley-Swinston with painting and drawing. These two and other artists and visiting faculty have greatly enriched the learning process for all of us. And, of course, each participant who has come to the program has been involved in shaping and growing the work.

After the second cycle of the program, we decided to change the name to Biography and Social Art, to more truly reflect our aims and practices. Through four cycles we continued to be a program of Sunbridge College, but last summer (2010), with the beginning of the fifth cycle, we realized that we had grown strong enough to become an independent entity.

And so, at last, we come to the founding of the Center for Biography and Social Art. There is now a group of program graduates who have formed a board with Patricia and me, and we are building an imagination for the Center’s development. The evolving work will encompass much more than the training program, although this will, of course, continue as a central activity. Workshops for the public and professional conferences are now being offered as well. Kathleen Bowen, a graduate of cycle four and an intern in cycle five, is now the Center Coordinator and has taken up the multiple tasks involved in building an organization.

One new aim of the Center is to create a professional association that will link people who are active in biography and social art work, whether they trained in our program or not. Our graduates are now bringing their experiences with the program into their work as adult educators, counselors, art therapists, nurses, and in the growing field of death care. Others have opened their own studios where they offer classes and private consultations. There is work going on in homeless shelters and prisons, in community building activities and schools. We know we have like-minded colleagues from the Nurturing Arts work in California and from Arscura in Toronto, Canada.

In fact, for many years the program has been connected to other biography trainings around the world through our participation in the International Biography Trainers’ Forum, which meets annually in Dornach, Switzerland. Forum members represent trainings in England, Holland, Germany, Switzerland, France, Brazil, Russia, Japan, The Philippines, Australia, Israel, Romania, and the USA. Work is going on in many other countries as well. The Forum has begun certifying trainings on behalf of the School of Spiritual Science of the Anthroposophical Society at the Goetheanum, a certification which our training received in 2009.


While the full flowering of the Center for Biography and Social Art still lies in the future, there is already abundant sprouting life. Many seeds have been gathered over the years – from anthroposophy, feminism, art therapy, adult education, psychology, history, mythology, and well-considered life experience – and these seeds have been nurtured with art and keen observation, through speaking and listening, by research and practice and honest review. The Center flowers are blooming brightly, and new seedlings are being planted by many hands. I feel incredibly grateful for all the life, renewal and growth.