Compassionate believer in resilience: RIP Mirah Wilks


GIFTED TEACHER, DEDICATED psychologist, professional endowed with compassion, creativity, authority and conviction, Mirah Wilks was brutally murdered in her own home, north of Johannesburg on October 6. She was 68.

In many respects a shape-shifter, both in her own career and with the dreams of others, Wilks was a highly intelligent and creative woman with a depth of focus into the dynamics of what it takes to be human. She was unafraid to make her voice heard. Armed with her personal investment in who people were and how they functioned, Wilks believed in the power of resilience. She had suffered polio as a child and survived the removal of a kidney as an adult, and in other ways too, she knew what outsider status meant and how to make sense of being in the world, from whatever vantage point. Wilks was an incredibly important touchstone for easily thousands of people in the arts-related fields. She brought an oft wicked sense of humour as well as a sense of unabated volatile yet wise energy to any context. In many respects, like a whirlwind of positive energy, Wilks left no heart unmoved in her multiple associations with people.

Born in Ashkelon, in Israel on December 2 1950, she moved with her brother and parents to South Africa when she was nine years old, to the Free State town of Welkom, where she attended the Convent of St Agnes. The family later moved to Johannesburg where Mirah studied Education and Fine Art under Heather Martienssen and Cecily Sash at the University of the Witwatersrand in the early 1970s. She married businessman Frank Wilks in June of 1974, and the couple’s two children were born in the early 1980s.

She developed into an immensely proactive, sensitive and potent art teacher who was not afraid of recognising and acknowledging talent, or of feeding it, to enable young people to understand what it is to shine. She was well-organised and sophisticated in her teaching acumen, and would bring big words and complex concepts to the table for very young people. In doing this, she opened up vistas of previously unthought-of possibility.

Over the years, Wilks taught art at high schools in Johannesburg ranging from King David Victory Park to Hyde Park, Athlone Girls to Sandown High. Her teaching focus was not doggedly about the specifics of making pretty pictures, as much as it was about understanding that kernel of possibility in a young creative person and giving it the encouragement and the emotional space to grow wings.

It was in the early 1990s that the related fields of art therapy and psychology began to nudge her into a new direction, and she started a second career as a mature student, graduating with her honours in psychology from the University of South Africa in 1996. She subsequently completed her Masters degree in Education through Queensland University in Australia, and undertook elective post graduate courses offered by Pennsylvania State University in America.

At the time of her tragic death, she was in the process of analysing her almost-completed fieldwork toward her doctoral degree in psychology at Unisa. Her focus was on the concept of resilience as a means of adaptation, and it was something which she was very excited because of the potential of her research to be of value to society. A counselling psychologist in private practice since 2007, Wilks chaired the Psychology Society of South Africa’s Registered Counsellors and Psychometry Division.

She leaves her mother Phyllis Wulfsohn, her husband Frank and son Brett, daughter Tarryn, son-in-law Dani Sacher, and grandchildren Shaina and Leo, as well as her brother Eytan and sister-in-law Lyn, and hundreds of friends and literally thousands of former patients and students.

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