Tobi, you began making art at a very young age. Do you remember some of your first experiences? Your first paintings?
I began making art in earnest when I was about three and a half years old. I don’t remember the pieces of art I produced but what I do remember is the process, the thrill of focusing on something and watching it change before my eyes. Each piece of art was its own world that would emerge as I created it. This wonderful feeling has stayed with me today.
Often exceptional talent generates acclaim. What awards, prizes and other notable distinctions have you received for your art? Which are particularly special to you and why?
Like many people I have won prizes but I think the greatest prize is within. It is the feeling of accomplishment that comes with creating a work of art or writing an article on psychology that I believe communicates its message to others and comes up to a standard that gives me joy. We are all capable of doing something that brings us great satisfaction and this happiness with accomplishment is a prize available to everyone.
Over the years as an artist and then as a psychologist, you became interested in artists who continued to be creative despite difficult obstacles. In your book, When Walls Become Doorways: Creativity and the Transforming Illness, you profile many of these amazing artists. Can you talk about your personal impetus for writing this book and the value for everyone?
The impetus for writing When Walls Become Doorways was my personal experience with major illnesses that became turning points in my life. When I was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 1989 my doctor did not expect me to survive but I did and my life transformed. After this illness, in addition to being an artist I also became a psychologist. In the 1970’s I was sick for seven years as a result of being poisoned by an insecticide. Yet it was during this period that my mature style of painting emerged and I began to show my work professionally. Having had this happen to me, I became sensitive to the same dynamic in others. In When Walls Become Doorways I feature artists, who have vision problems, hearing loss, cancer, neurological illnesses, and disabling accidents among other conditions, yet all of these artists transformed their work and their lives. What is initially viewed as a tragedy can instead become an opportunity.
You became involved in psychology research in graduate school and then received a doctorate combining art and psychology. How did this happen and what are you investigating?
I actually believe I got a doctorate by accident because I had no concept of getting a PhD when I started graduate school. My intended goal was to get a Masters in art. Then I started taking classes in the psychology department and a whole new way of thinking became available. One course in particular on the psychology of art changed my life and defined my path by combining psychology and art. My work in psychology focuses on the creative process. I have investigated how creativity can be used as a tool for resilience, helping us to bounce back from difficulties, and now I am researching the altered states of consciousness that can occur during times of creativity. These states are not related to any drugs but occur as part of the rapture of creating something new.
To be dedicated as an artist and as a psychologist is very demanding life work. How do you balance that?
Art and psychology balance each other and in doing so they balance me. I have always had a very demanding life and work is the fire that runs through my veins. It is a life force and it is a road that I can never really predict no matter how hard I try. So in response I just keep going.
Now at 70, what are your expectations, visions, dreams?
I want to keep working. Artists die with their boots on and I also have no plans to retire as a psychologist. About expectations - we can expect what we want but what we most often receive is the unexpected and this unexpected result, this unplanned for harvest, this undreamt of situation is often greater, more interesting, more challenging and more transformational than having one’s previously intended plans and dreams come true. It is the dreams you didn’t realize you could dream that take you down paths you never imagined you would be able to travel.