Finding solace and purpose through creating works of art
By Ilan Preskovsky
Susan Kaplansky was an American-Israeli artist who believed deeply in the healing power of art. Born and raised in America before moving to live with her husband in Jerusalem, Susan wanted to establish an art centre for at-risk youth in honour of her dear friend, Yuval, who passed away in his early thirties. Tragically, before her vision could be realised, Susan herself died of cancer a short time later. The Yuval and Susan foundation – or as it is more commonly known, Susan’s House – was established in 2002 through the hard work of her husband, Eyal, and their friend, Avital, to finally fulfil her vision.
Located in the centre of Jerusalem, Susan’s House is a warm, welcoming place for at-risk teenagers, struggling with any number of issues, to leave behind their troubles and find solace and purpose through creating works of art. What started as an almost informal gathering of a few stray youths that Eyal and Avital found at a well-known hangout for “street kids”, soon started to grow both in size (it’s moving to a bigger location, while a second location has opened up in Eilat) and in scope. The sheer magnitude of some of the problems that these kids face required Susan’s House to back-up their ideals of an artistic safe place for troubled kids with real institutional help from the youth section of Jerusalem’s welfare department, along with a full-time social worker, youth-worker training, and outside support staff.
Still, the focus of Susan’s House remains on the use of art to help these troubled young people – there are, after all, plenty of other institutions that are dedicated specifically towards more general support for at-risk youths – and it’s in this area that Susan’s House has made so profound an impact. Originally, the plan was simply for at-risk teenagers to create art and then to ship it out for sale elsewhere, but after a delegation from one of the biggest benefactors of Susan’s House paid them a personal visit to see the art being made, the visit had such a massively positive effect on the young artists that the way Susan’s House operated was radically changed for the better.
The creation of their own, personal pieces of art was already an excellent form of therapy for at-risk teens and young adults, but when Susan’s House decided to switch from shipping out their products to be sold to an in-house gift-shop and visitor’s centre, it moved to a whole new level of effectiveness. This wellspring of self-affirmation and confidence that came from the personal touch of seeing their work appreciated in person by people genuinely interested in it, mixed perfectly with the already not inconsiderable benefits of having a structured but relaxed home for their creative expression to create an organisation that visibly impacted the lives of these troubled youths.
One particularly powerful example of this involves a girl who came to Susan’s House when she was fifteen years old. Her father was in jail for dealing drugs and she had become involved with his cell mate, who was emotionally abusive and controlling. During this time she came to Susan’s House, where she developed both her sense of self-worth and an ability to see a world beyond that in which she was living, making it possible for her to break free of this sort of toxic relationship. With this experience behind her, she truly started to flourish and eventually joined the army, where she not only went on to become a trainer for new recruits, but earned the esteemed “Presidential Excellent Soldier Award”. With her army service complete, she then returned to Susan’s House to become a mentor, while preparing for college.
It’s hard to think of a greater testament to Susan’s vision than this story – which is really only one among many, many like it. For more information, visit: http://susanshouse.org.il/