Other Names: Irene Maude Donner
Born in Medicine Hat, Alberta, Irene Dewdney (née Donner) and her husband Selwyn Dewdney (1909-1979), are both recognized among the founders of art therapy in Canada. The couple, both artists, worked collaboratively throughout their careers, developing the field of art therapy.
They were also active members of the London, Ontario arts community.
Irene and Selwyn Dewdney married in 1936 and moved to London, Ontario that same year. Selwyn began practicing art therapy at London’s Westminster Veteran’s Hospital (now Parkwood Hospital) in 1949. Four years later in 1953, he was named a “psychiatric art therapist,” and was able to begin training others in the field; Irene, who began work at Westminster in 1954, was among them.
Art therapy was a relatively new discipline, having its beginnings in England at the end of World War II. The Dewdneys are credited with the formation of Canada’s first psychiatric art therapy program at Westminster Hospital. They spent the next 20 years honing their therapeutic methods.
Irene thrived as an art therapist as the discipline brought together her myriad interests in psychoanalysis, people, and art. In addition to her work at the Westminster Hospital, Irene practiced art therapy with patients at St. Joseph’s Health Centre and the London Psychiatric Hospital (the latter so named in 1968 and known previously as Ontario Hospital London). Irene would remain committed to art therapy in London, Ontario, even as her husband’s focus later shifted towards his other research interests (he was well-known for his research and documentation of First Nations pictograph sites). In later years, Irene also worked with children and adolescents.
In the 1970s, with her skills in demand, Irene began to train art therapy students. Near the end of the decade, she co-founded the Ontario Art Therapy Association; while the association took root from a desire for a place where students of her training program could connect with each other, it grew into a professional organization.
The interest generated by Irene Dewdney’s informal instruction inspired the offering of a Post-Graduate Diploma Program in Art Therapy by Western University’s Faculty of Part-time and Continuing Studies; the program was active from 1986 until 2006. Irene was an active participant in the early years of the program, both teaching and supervising, and maintained a connection with the program until her death in 1999.
Biography by Meghan O’Neil and Luvneet K. Rana
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Revised and reformatted, 2006.
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St. Joseph’s Health Care London.“Legacy of Mental Health Care in London: History.” https://www.sjhc.london.on.ca/mental-health-care/legacy/history.
Woolf, Lois. “Art Therapy in Canada: Origins and Explorations.” Canadian Art Therapy Association Journal 16, no. 2 (2003): 2-9. Online via Taylor & Francis CRKN Social Science and Humanities <www.tandfonline.com>.