Bringing Something New: A Center for Biography and Social Art

by Leah Walker, from Anthroposophy in America e-news, July 30, 2011

A new initiative has a lengthy background and a central place in anthroposophical work

As many descriptions as possible of how human beings really develop—what I would call the positive natural history of human development—must be disseminated in an understanding way.  Wherever we can, we should describe how this or that person developed—we should be able to give a loving account of development, as we have observed it.  The study of life is needed, the will to an understanding of life…

—Rudolf Steiner, How Can the Soul Needs of Our Time Be Met

 Bringing Something New:  A Center for Biography and Social Art

By Leah Walker

Like many endeavors born of Rudolf Steiner’s teaching, biography work has developed relatively quietly for several decades.  Now its role is growing, resonating with the needs of individuals and groups, and its strongly practical nature is coming to life:  as a path for self-development and a vehicle for group process and progress; as a tool for healing relationships and building community; as a doorway into the great mysteries.  Those of us vested in this spiritual-scientific work have found ourselves immersed in a new art, social art, an art that illumines the sacred space between us.  Through this work we shed light on our own unique unfolding and develop eyes and ears for the other, which is of real significance.  And we come to recognize along the way, sometimes suddenly, that we tread the path of all humankind:  in the life story of the individual we meet the universal.

Into the much-needed effort to explore and express this remarkable connection comes the Center for Biography and Social Art.  Today, the depth of longing in the human being is great; our understanding of the human being, however, does not keep pace.  Too often we settle for confusion and loneliness.  Rudolf Steiner offered a deeply moving picture of the free human being.  From the Center for Biography and Social Art comes an endeavor to illuminate that picture as living experience, and a commitment to support teachers, hearten parents, encourage public servants, heal healers, and find lost souls.  We hold this vision:

Inspired by Rudolf Steiner’s spiritual-scientific worldview of anthroposophy—wisdom of the human being—the Center provides leadership in social renewal and is a guiding resource for understanding the process of becoming in the human being and the universe.  At the heart of this work is the picture of metamorphosis, out of which meaning may be found and trust in existence may arise.

Out of Our Longing

In the study of biography we attend to birth moments for their inspiration, and because initial experiences often contain within them teleological information.  Like the human life, an entity’s formation may be told in recalling birth moments, and in so doing we witness “becoming.”

Simply speaking, the Center for Biography and Social Art springs from a training program offered here in the US for the last fourteen years, guided by Signe Schaefer and Patricia Rubano.  The program, initially offered by Sunbridge College, now in its fifth cycle, celebrates thirty graduates.  Origins may be traced further to Signe’s work in England, where she and her colleagues explored gender and related topics, and sustained a long study focused around the archetypal feminine.  With her interest in biography sparked, Signe returned to the US, bringing with her the question of how to develop the work here.  It was clear a training was needed, but how and led by whom?  And then one day Maria de Zwaan passed by the window.  Signe had heard of Maria’s work as an art therapist in Holland and California.  Suddenly, the way forward came together and the training was initiated.  Much is owed to Maria’s contribution:  she introduced a level of artistry, improvisational depth, profound nature observation, and joy that greatly enhanced the many concepts and exercises that have accumulated over the years.  Others have made significant contributions, particularly Margli Matthews, Brigitte Bley-Swinston and Christopher Schaefer.

The training, and now the Center, live within a larger, worldwide context.  Biography and social art is situated in the General Section of the School of Spiritual Science, and there is an International Biography Trainers’ Forum, of which the training, through Signe, is a member.  In Europe the work is more strongly established, and an international conference has been held there in alternating years since the 1990’s.  This year’s conference, Living in an Awareness of Karma, was hosted at Emerson College in England.

More than a year ago, a group of 22 graduates of the US training gathered in Spring Valley, New York, and out of our gathering came the will to develop this new and independent Center.  To that end, six of us met last fall, for just one day, long enough to share our visions for the Center; long enough to walk in the cool autumn air and allow it to whip up ideas for out-reach, a website, fund-raising, our first public event; long enough to experience a bit of conflict, which we took as a sign that what we were doing mattered.  Over the winter months we searched for words to express our intention and arrived at this statement:

The Center for Biography and Social Art seeks to celebrate the threefold human being—body, soul and spirit; encourages reverence for the uniqueness of every life journey; illuminates the mysteries of human life in earthly gesture and spiritual depth; and practices authentic human encounter.  The Center fulfills its mission through adult education programs and events, research, professional networking, and community and client support.

Our First Public Events

If it is true that an initial experience sets the tone for all future experiences, then we could not have hoped for more!  On March 31-April 3 of this year, the Center for Biography and Social Art hosted its first public workshop, The Magic of the Triptychon.  The light-filled spirits of our presenters Rinke Visser and Josien de Vries, from Holland, were a delight; and the depth of the material!—nothing short of a living biographical experience of the chakras.  In a time when technological advancement mesmerizes, it is inspiring to see social and spiritual innovation of such sophistication.  (Please see the following article for a full review of this workshop.)  Rinke and Josien presented another workshop, Karmic Resonances, in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, and this too was a fulfilling experience.

Conference 2011:  Truth, Beauty, Goodness

While last year’s group met for a brief day and a half, this year’s group, twelve of us, circled round and worked diligently for three full days, on professional development and the Center’s further formation.  We chose to concentrate on the seven-year phases of the second half of life, and carried specifically the question:  Can we find a real reflection from early life experience of truth, beauty and goodness in what are called the Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn years (42-63), and perhaps even beyond?  We worked with Rudolf Steiner’s lecture of January 19, 1923 (Dornach), where he speaks of truth being linked to the pre-earthly, and the problem of untruth that breaks that tie; beauty which, in the present moment, allows us to remain connected to the pre-earthly/spiritual while living fully in the physical world; and goodness as key to developing inner power, “as living seed, for a spiritual world in the future.”

We enjoyed very much a line taken from the film Shrek:  “Beauty ain’t always pretty” and looked for real experiences of this in our lives, such as the shining eyes of an elderly woman nearing death.  We renewed our skills in tried and true exercises such as telling a fairy tale as a group through individual pastel drawings, and we tested new ideas for their value as social art activities, for example, sculpting a human form with copper wire.  In small groups, we explored the four most commonly used biography charts inspired by other biography workers:  Gudrun Burkhard, the O’Neils and William Bryant.  Taking the lives of Laurens Van der Post and Jane Goodall as examples, we considered benefits and limitations of each chart and discussed various attributes such as clarity and accessibility of esoteric phenomena.

And at this conference, the Center for Biography and Social Art initiated its first formal collaborative research project:  Older and growing:  Freedom, creativity, and challenge in the years beyond 63.  Given the number of people now entering “retirement age” coupled with the lengthening average lifespan, we feel compelled to explore this period.  We know it can be remarkably productive, and, for many, extremely difficult, but what can we say explicitly about planetary influences, spiritual growth, artistic expression?  Our intention is to meet with persons who are currently in this period of their lives and work to deepen our understanding of their inner experience.

As our days together unfolded, the conference itself became a remarkable example of shared responsibility and collaboration.  It is really quite something to experience a shared common vision fulfilled by individual contribution.  There was the one who led the opening ceremony and spoke our daily verses, those who prepared weeks in advance and carried full sessions, the two who planned and guided discussions, the three who led us in song, the one who brought exactly the right poem, those who asked vital questions, and all who held the space.

None of us knew, coming into this work, the impact it would have on our lives.  In conversation, we found one example after another of how biography and social art lives with us naturally.  Its use enhances our professional and volunteer activities, family life and spiritual growth.  We are already bringing biography and social art to homeless populations, patients who are mentally ill, couples’ groups, faculty and parents of Waldorf schools, and open workshops.  And we feel the need to do more.  It is our hope that biography and social art will be recognized broadly and used practically across widely diverse populations and in any environment.  (If you are interested in bringing this work to your community, please visit our website for a list of services and suggested topics.)

Although it is a gift that we, as a group of professionals, are spread across North America—from Seattle to San Diego to Greensboro to New England and into Canada—it is also a challenge.  In order to create greater cohesion and consistency in the field, we are in the process of forming a professional association of biography and social art practitioners.

A Gala Celebration

Our conference included an evening of celebration of the founding of the Center.  The room, made golden by strands of little lights and forsythia, was in truth lit by the smiles on our faces.  We were nurtured by conversation among the Center’s extended family—special guests, program faculty, graduates and current students.  We displayed our work:  exquisite fiber art vessels each an expression of a planetary phase of human development, watercolor paintings of the life trees, pastel drawings from work with the evolution of consciousness through art.  In the middle of the room, lay a white cloth upon which, together, we created a mandala of shells, seeds, rocks, and crystals.  At a certain moment we circled round this lovely centerpiece and spoke verses aloud, such as:  When you bless another, you first gather yourself; you reach down below your surface mind and personality, down to the deeper source within you—namely the soul.  Blessing moves from soul to soul (John O’Donohue).  The following morning, as we got back to work, the mandala remained, a visual reminder of the gift of artistic social activity, a symbol of another birth moment for the Center.

We know now that the Center for Biography and Social Art has been gestating for years within the hearts of those of us who love this work and we do love this work!  We love the human being, the connection between people; we love social richness, conscious speaking and active listening; we love questions.  The Center is a gathering of forces and resources, working from the inside out, radiating to communities and people in need.  The “center” also finds its existence at the periphery:  the center is the individuals doing the work, being the rays themselves:  social artists and community participants—all persons who engage actively in self- and social-development.  The Center does not yet occupy a physical location, although one day it may indeed.  The thing is:  social art happens in the world.  It is practiced wherever people come together.  The center for biography and social art exists where people gather, work, live, converse, struggle, grow—the center is human consciousness.

Self-development in a Social Context

To work with biography is to deepen one’s reverence for the life journey.  The challenge of self-development is both wrenching and rewarding:  can I take on a deep study of my life patterns, find meaning in the inherent intelligence of my biography, and take increasing responsibility for directing my life purposefully?

Social art implies that a studio exists between people; indeed this will be increasingly the case, if we choose to treat it so.  What a remarkable development it is:  to understand that the human meeting is an artistic medium.  As Goethe wrote, “What is more quickening than Light?  Conversation!”  Our natural environment is human encounter, the social dynamic, where two or more are gathered.  Clearly, the individual and the social environment are interdependent.  But it’s not easy.  We know all too well the difference between a light-filled conversation and one where light is absent.  How do we work it out, this “individual life together”?

We are just beginning to illuminate the mystery of the whole—the “more than I” as Goethe expressed it.  In the future as we strive to sustain our humanity, biography and social art will be a real source of healing and regeneration.  The Center for Biography and Social Art encourages the purposeful heartfelt work of knowing self, honoring other, and serving world.  From formal educational settings to parking lot chats, we seek to be a champion of being human.

To learn more about the Center for Biography and Social Art,
please visit: and direct inquiries to Kathleen Bowen at:center4biography (at)

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