Karen Lehrer has always been a seeker. Throughout her life she has reached into her creative side to reinvent herself in new and inspiring ways. She attributes her soul-searching nature to her success and happiness today. “I don’t want to be there on the last day of my life saying to myself ‘Karen, you didn’t try hard enough. You didn’t stick your neck out.’ I don’t ever want any regrets, that’s why I listen to my heart and push through to new experiences.”
Although Lehrer struggled somewhat in her twenties selecting the right path for school and a career (she attended more than five years of undergrad studies, mostly in art, but never graduated), she eventually settled on fashion and enrolled in the LA Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising.
After completing a certificate in textile, her first break came as a designer of men’s coordinated sportswear at Media Industries, one of the first lines of men’s coordinated sportswear at the time. From there she moved to the largest chain of fabric stores in the US, House of Fabrics, where she was a top buyer. As the only female, Lehrer rapidly rose up the executive ranks. They were exciting times: “When we went to New York, the red carpet was rolled out. I won’t lie, it was a lot of fun … I was talking to editors of Vogue, attending fashion shows, leading the ‘it-girl’ life!”
That is until she started complaining about not being treated the same as her male counterparts. “The other male buyers had corporate cars and were certainly being paid more. When I questioned this, they ‘found’ another job for me.” The reality of the situation was devastating for Lehrer, and while she continued to work in the industry for a few more years, she couldn’t deny that she had stopped loving the job.
After more than a decade in the fashion industry, it all came to a head when, on a buying trip to New York, she was racked by terrible back pain, sparked no doubt by the stress she was under at work. Lehrer spent the weekend with a friend, pacing the floor, drinking wine, and finally came to the realization that she had to get out of the business. “As soon as I made that decision, the pain dissolved. Fashion had been everything I loved, but my body was clearly telling me I had to get out of it.”
But she still needed to work, so when a vendor offered her a job, Lehrer took it. Only this time, wise from her previous experience, she negotiated a good contract, which included a terrific severance package. When the job ended, Lehrer used the generous severance package and various low-key jobs to support herself while she spent time delving into art.
She attended a private art tutorial and produced a tremendous amount of material. “I was painting with a paintbrush in one hand and a hairdryer in the other. I couldn’t paint fast enough. I was painting out my own self-guided therapy. All this pent up imagery just flowed out.”
At the same time, having taken personal growth classes and finding herself drawn to psychology, she had an overwhelming desire to return to university and finish what she started. “School was calling me back. I wanted to get my degree, but I was so afraid of failure it was debilitating.” But the thought of getting a degree was like a dim light at the back of tunnel that kept Lehrer going. Her goal was to teach classes that would be a bridge between personal growth and art where students could learn about themselves in a creative way as she had done. “Painting and expressive arts were incredibly valuable to me. I wanted to help others achieve the same.”
The day after her 40th birthday party, Lehrer woke up knowing she had to step up to the challenge. She literally ran to Antioch University and wrote a check for her first class as part of a BA degree before she had time to stop herself. Sometimes it pays to act before thinking: “Going back to school was the greatest thing that ever happened to me. I just loved it. It was like drinking from the well having been parched in the desert all these years.”
After graduating, she pushed on and got a Masters in counseling psychology from Pacifica Graduate Institute, specializing in counseling psychology. It never crossed Lehrer’s mind that she would have to do an internship as part of her degree as she was solely focused on getting the counseling skills she needed to run her expressive arts workshops. “I was terrified to see individual clients but soon realized this was the most interesting thing I had ever done … talking to people, helping them.” And she was good at it. In fact she excelled at it and received so much positive feedback and support “it was like stepping into a river and the river was finally going my way.”
Lehrer has been practicing psychotherapy since 1995. Trying to integrate art into her therapy she launched Mapping the Inner Journey, which bridges personal growth with art processes, in a format anyone with no previous art experience can do.
Last year, Lehrer took a step back from her practice to make more time for art. She took up a mentorship with San Fransisco Bay area artist Nicholas Wilton, which was “grueling in a different way,” and devoted herself to painting for nine months. She still offers individual counseling but finds herself at another point of reinvention: “I have come full circle. Painting has always been a central part of my life and I am rediscovering my roots as a designer and artist. My desire is to make it as an artist, I will never know unless I try.”
Interested in Karen’s artwork? You can be find it on www.karenlehrer.com.
- Make a personal challenge to yourself. Don’t share it with anyone. It’s only for you. When you make this challenge and you meet it, you will find it gives you the strength to make a new challenge. Each time the challenge should be a little more demanding
- Answers can come in unlikely places. In my case, painting led me back to college and a career in psychology.
- Listen to your body. It will recognize stress and unhealthy situations, when your mind is refusing to do so.