Inspiring Alumni | Dee van Zyl ’18

Inspiring Alumni | Dee van Zyl ’18

The healer heals, but they also need to heal themselves. I think that the recognition can help.”

Dee van Zyl ’18 is bravely forging her own path in the wake of an immense personal tragedy and using her artistic talents to bring healing - and a vital awareness - to an underrepresented sector of society.

“I don’t have a current occupation,” says Dee, who recently received her Bachelor’s in Design from Emily Carr University (ECU) of Art & Design. “I’m trying a lot of different things. I’m returning to school to pursue  Business Administration at the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology (SAIT). (My career) keeps evolving and changing, and I’m open to the journey that awaits me.”

That wasn’t always the case, she explains. From a young age, Dee was drawn towards art - a passion that led her parents to enroll her at STS. “The art and history classes at STS fulfilled my desire to make…At STS, I started to take it seriously with the help of Miss Carlson. I became interested in history, and often, history would inspire me to make art.” After graduating, Dee attended her third year in Industrial Design at Emily Carr when her father, general practitioner Dr. Andreas van Zyl, took his life.

“After that, I had to take a step back and focus my energy on the present. I was quite lost at the time, and my interests just weren’t interesting to me…I told myself to keep moving. I finished my third year on time and became interdisciplinary, with design and art –  mostly painting.”

“It’s hard to respond to something when there isn’t a societal norm behind it.”

Seeing first-hand the lack of awareness surrounding the stresses placed on healthcare workers, she decided that her fourth-year project would bring much-needed attention to these topics. This pursuit would seek to capture the sheer scale of this very personal issue. 

“COVID was big in terms of the impact on the healthcare system. Mental health and suicide research in Canada (doesn’t) have as many stats as in the US. A number can really tell you something; a number can make it tangible if you don’t have an understanding.”

Inspired by flowers, heart, and fire, WayLiight is an innovative sculpture that combines the concepts of in-person and online memorials. Through the creation of beautiful ceramic lanterns, Dee is helping families, friends, and colleagues of healthcare professionals who have lost their lives to suicide to commemorate their loved ones while contributing to a permanent art installation that brings this unseen epidemic to the forefront.

“This project is a recognition of suicide overall…to put light on a profession where many suicides were happening. These are the people who are taking care of us. The healer heals, but they also need to heal themselves. I think that the recognition can help.”

For her work, Dee received the ECU Health Design Award for Innovation. “I wanted (to evoke) a solemn feeling, and I went with lanterns because of their light. It’s like putting a soul into something.”

She also recalls how the sage words of one of her university instructors helped to guide her toward the passage of restoration. “She told me to understand your life seasons, or you’ll burn out.”

“I stopped, thought, and had more time to talk and sit with my grief and how it impacted me. I was a lot like my Dad. I fall into the speed of life and keep working. I want to know it’s okay to pause and follow my own seasons of life.”

“Nothing is precious enough to stay the same forever,” she adds when asked to describe what these seasons mean to her. “Just because things change doesn’t mean they don’t matter. It’s that impermanence that makes things important. When facing changes, especially in work, (it’s important to) recognize when you need to let something go.”

This spring, Dee’s journey led her to examine her needs more openly. “I almost feel like I ignored myself through University. I realized I’ve been pushing myself for a long time, and I can’t keep up the same speed and motivation from high school to university to now. I had to lay all of that out: what makes me happy, what makes me sad, what works, and what will work in the future. How can I fulfill this part of myself and make it more manageable?”

In doing so, she was inspired to explore a new direction. “Going into business administration was a little bit about finding that. I do believe that area will please that part of me. (However,) I can also work on art; I don’t have to stop that.”


Published in the 2023 edition of Optimum Magazine