Elda Unger is a registered, board-certified art therapist who has used her passion for art therapy to help brighten the lives of many throughout her life. She served as vice president and president of Free Arts, a nonprofit organization that brings hope in the lives of abused children through innovative creative arts, for many years. She was the director of art therapy at the Pine Grove Psychiatric Hospital and president of the Southern California Art Therapy Association. Unger is turning 86 next week.
Unger has a master’s degree in art therapy. She is originally from Chicago and moved to Malibu in 1979 after spending one year in Paris. She has two daughters who currently reside in Cairo, Egypt.
TMT got a chance to sit down with the woman who had the best kept secret in town: Madonna and Sean Penn’s wedding at her house.
How did Free Arts start? What was the inspiration behind it?
It was just getting started when I moved here and I became vice president. It was started by Carolyn Sargent. We send volunteers to facilities where children who’ve been abused are cared for. It started in California and now there are locations in Arizona, New York and Minneapolis. Each affiliate is independent and raises its own money.
What are some memorable stories that you remember of children whose lives were impacted with Free Arts?
There was one time when I went to a facility and did a project with children. There was one little boy about nine years old who was so responsive but didn’t say a word. He had been there for about two months and hadn’t talked. After I left, someone called me from the facility and said that he talked for the first time after our project because he was so proud.
What is something that the general public doesn’t know about art therapy?
The healing effects of the arts. I’ve seen it so many times. People are able to externalize stuff that doesn’t come out. Guidance brings that about. That’s what Free Arts is all about. The arts are very healing.
You were a model when you were younger. What did you model for and how was that experience?
Well, my family was into clothing design and I happened to be the perfect size so I modeled clothing for my family’s business. And then I did sales at Marshall Field’s and I had lovely hands so they used me for jewelry. I was just in college at the time. My father also did a photography manufacturing business and that’s how I wound up with my picture in Esquire.
If you were to recommend one good book for everyone to read, which one would it be and why?
I have a good book about art therapy called “Images for Insight.” It’s about how many of my patients responded to the art therapy exercises and helped them with recovery at the hospital.
How does it feel to receive The Special Award by the County of Los Angeles to Promote Self-Esteem?
Wonderful. I was happy to have the honor.
What’s an interesting or unique fact about you that people don’t know?
I was in a big accident coming from the Hollywood Bowl many years ago. Our car turned over several times, according to witnesses. I had a severely broken neck and many other severe injuries. I could never play my violin again. Every time I drive on the PCH, I’m reminded of that. I always drove a convertible, but never again. I’m lucky to be alive.
How has Malibu changed in the almost four decades that you’ve lived here? What is your favorite thing about Malibu?
It’s become very wholesome and a wonderful place to live. The people running the show are terrific. My favorite things are the people, the beauty, the ocean and your newspaper.
How was it having your portrait painted by Johanna Spinks?
She is amazing. I was very honored to be included in her collection of portraits.