Local art therapist found dead in Tennessee
On Tuesday, friends and relatives told the Chapel Hill Police Department that they’d lost contact with Ilene Sperling.
Later that night, she was found dead on a road nearly 300 miles away in the Tennessee town of Cosby.
How and why she wound up there, as well as the location of her cellphone and her 2013 Honda Fit, remained a mystery on Thursday.
“The missing person investigation is still ongoing, so there is not much that I can comment on about the actual investigation,” said Lt. Joshua Mecimore, spokesman for the Chapel Hill Police Department. “However, I can say that Ms. Sperling’s family reported her missing due to the fact that they had been unable to contact her.”
Charles Williams, a 72-year-old Cosby resident, reportedly struck Sperling on U.S. Hwy. 321 in his 2000 Subaru. Investigators were considering the possibility that she had been injured before Williams arrived on the scene. A report from the Tennessee Highway Patrol indicates, “It is undetermined at this point if another vehicle struck the victim.”
Sperling, 42, used to live in the Watts-Hillandale area of Durham, but her most recent address was in Chapel Hill, police said.
A graduate of Lesley University, she was a founding member of The North Carolina Art Therapy Institute, based in Carrboro. She also worked with refugees from Burma in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools district.
Through art therapy, the non-profit tries to help clients express feelings, build self esteem and confidence, identify blocks to emotional expression and growth and find ways to communicate using simple art materials.
Her colleagues at the institute said that Sperling’s death came as a shock and that they weren’t prepared to speak individually about her accomplishments.
However, the institute did issue a statement Thursday afternoon.
"The staff and clinicians at the Art Therapy Institute deeply mourn the loss of a dear friend and colleague, Ilene Sperling,” the statement said. “We will be honoring her memory in the weeks ahead, and will let the greater community know of any public events in memory of Ilene as soon as we have that information.”
In 2005, Sperling was among the contributors to a book called “Word Pictures: The Poetry and Art of Art Therapists.”
In the book, she wrote about working as a child advocate in a battered women’s shelter and discovering the therapeutic value of art.
“It seemed to be a natural form for the kids to talk about why they were there, what they had witnessed and experienced in their homes, and the emotions they were experiencing about their life circumstances,” she said.
In a poem for the book, she wrote:
“I know your faces,
I can see your expressions,
They climb under my eyelids and affect me,
You affected me.”
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