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December 1, 2018
Vol. 76
No. 4

Artistic Endeavors

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Three schoolwide installations showcase the power of art to promote social justice, community, and individualism.

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Artistic Endeavors
Credit: Lisa M. Lenarz

Portraits of Courage

While I was teaching at a public middle school several years ago, our school was faced with an epidemic of bullying and student marginalization. The staff developed several schoolwide campaigns aimed at addressing the problems. In my art class, I asked my 8th grade students to construct life-sized installations of bullying and anti-bullying scenarios inspired by the work of artist Kara Walker. They used traced silhouettes of their own bodies on black paper to tell personal stories.
One student, Breanna, spent several days sitting at her table, isolated from the other groups (which was typical for her). Eventually, I asked if she had any ideas for the project. “Yeah,” she said, “but I don’t think you’ll let me do what I want because it’s not like everyone else’s.” “Try me,” I said. Her idea was worth the wait. She wanted me to help her trace her silhouette the way she usually sat, singularly slumped over and hidden in plain sight in the hallways. It was a striking idea, and after the silhouette narratives were installed by the students around the school, Breanna’s ended up being the most expressive and personal of the entire class. I was embarrassed that I had first assumed she wasn’t engaged in the project. It was a teaching moment for me to learn that students who feel marginalized sometimes need additional time to process and feel comfortable sharing. In the first week of the project’s month-long display, the installations were vandalized almost daily. This school had a recurring issue with bullying behaviors, leaving many students in constant states of tension, reaction, confrontation, and marginalization. However, my art students remained determined. Several of them volunteered to make repairs to the installations at the beginning of class each day. By keeping the pieces safe and cleaning them up, our class sent a message that we were not going to be silenced.
As time passed, these installations became a revered part of the school culture and began to
make an impact on students’ attitudes toward bullying and being marginalized. The destructive reactions toward the installations waned and eventually stopped completely. My students were able to create a deliberate pause in the school culture through their persistence. And although the pause wasn’t planned, it became powerful evidence of the project’s impact. You can’t change a school’s culture overnight, but these symbols helped unify students behind a cause and begin a new culture of acceptance and belonging rather than conformity and bullying. Our culture, whether we realize it or not, values homogeneity or “sameness.” Students who “fall between the cracks” socially or academically may withdraw, self-segregate, or be bullied. Students who identify as a minority, whether by race, culture, religion, sexual orientation, gender, socio-economic status, appearance, or other qualities, may be unable to move past the trauma of not feeling accepted. These students may be failing not only academically, but also in realizing their own creative potential.
Students see almost everything through an autobiographical lens. Art projects that are centered on authorship, voice, and redesign offer students a distinctly more creative, choice-based, and individualized learning platform. With the creation of those targeted silhouette narratives made in response to significant student social issues, my students were able to represent themselves as important authors actively invested in sharing their perspectives and promoting new ways of thinking. —Lisa Lenars

From Activism to Craftivism

Student after student filed into my art classroom, twitching with excitement, asking some variation of, “Are we working on the yarn bomb today?” Their excitement was exactly what I’d hoped for after introducing these 5th graders at Partridge Elementary School in Missouri to the concept of “craftivism” and social justice. Craftivist and author Betsy Greer defines craftivism as “a way of looking at life where voicing opinions through creativity makes your voice stronger, your compassion deeper, and your quest for justice more infinite.”1 When our school district announced that diversity would be our strategic focus for the 2017–2018 school year, I realized that a large-scale, joint art project would be a great way for my students to learn about this issue.
To start, my students and I discussed what types of art projects we might do to incorporate diversity and social justice. The majority voted for the idea of a yarn bombing. A form of fiber graffiti, the practice of yarn bombing gained popularity during the early 2000’s. Adorning
public spaces with knit or crochet is a gentle way to reclaim an area or bring attention to a cause. In this case, our cause was unity. We hoped our carefully stitchedtogether knit and crochet pieces of all sizes, shapes, and colors would reinforce the concept that people of all
races, ages, genders, and abilities can contribute to the greater good of society. As one of my 5th grade boys observed, “A yarn bomb is a perfect way to celebrate diversity because it comes in so many different colors and sizes. It can represent all of the different people in
the world.” We determined the installation site would be the front grounds of our school, including five large trees and two hand railings. An early problem arose: How can we do a yarn bomb when most of the students don’t know how to knit or crochet? It takes a while to become proficient in either of these crafts. We worked around this by finding secondhand afghans in thrift stores and other places and taking them apart. We also asked family and community members for donations. A steady stream of yarn, knit, and crochet pieces began to come in.
In the meantime, a few students who did know these crafts began teaching the others how to finger knit or knit and crochet with needles. As the students worked, they considered pattern, color, and repetition with diversity in mind. Discussions of ethics and justice wound their way through the project. “Is yarn bombing legal? Could we get in trouble for installing a yarn bomb?” These questions motivated research into the legalities and purpose of craftivism.
I also watched my student artists become scientists as they asked questions and formed hypotheses. Could it be harmful to trees to cover sections of them with knitted and crocheted fabric for an extended period? What will happen to the yarn if it rains or gets wet and freezes? Our research revealed that both acrylic and organic yarns would hold up to midwestern weather, at least for the duration of the installation. Students concluded that it would be healthier for the trees, as well as more comfortable for themselves, if the installation took place in the spring.
With support of the administration, each 5th grade student took part in installing the project,
which we called “Yarn Bomb for Diversity,” on May 21, 2018, shortly before the end of the school year. The large, colorful display quickly caught the attention of students, staff, families, and community members. To the delight of my students, their project was also featured twice in the district newsletter and photos were posted to the school’s social
media accounts. Far from ending at the studio door, arts education should challenge students to view themselves as important members of society. Arts can foster the development of creativity, cross curricular borders in meaningful ways, and contribute to the development of skills needed to be happy and productive citizens. In our case, my students felt that the collaborative aspects of this project contributed greatly to its success. They said the different yarns, patterns, and colors emphasized the strength of diversity and, perhaps most importantly, in the words of one student, “It was fun knowing that we were doing something . . . to make the world a better place.” —Sheryl Lamme

A Mosaic of Belonging

Early in my career, I was appointed principal at a small public school located in a remote First Nations community in rural British Columbia. Many of the students and their families distrusted the education system, in large part because for years—and only a generation ago— community youth had been forced to attend a residential school. Many of the grandparents and guardians of my students had been forcibly taken away from their families and required to abandon their traditional culture and language. The idea of feeling connected to the local school was foreign to many of these families. Not surprisingly, nothing in the school’s public spaces or displays symbolically connected the school with the surrounding community.
I knew something was needed to bridge the cultural gap between the school and the community. Art can help solidify feelings of belonging because it helps youth make sense of the world and express their feelings.1 Seeking to link the backgrounds and cultures of all our
students and create a sense of belonging for everyone, I worked with artists such as Marina Papais, a Canadian mosaic artist, to create a schoolwide mosaic project that would become part of the building’s entryway. Since then, as I’ve worked in the administration of several schools, I’ve organized other art projects that integrate First Nations symbolism. In each,
I’ve seen the power of such installations to create a sense of welcoming for the community.
To build the mosaic, all participants—students, teachers, parents, and community members—were given a small piece of glass. They could draw whatever they wanted on the glass; in this way, the ideas and individuality of each person were celebrated. We worked with students to generate ideas for their glass stones. In workshops I conducted throughout the school, students brainstormed ways in which we could enhance a sense of belonging. Each student shared one thing that was important to him or her; this could then be what the student put on his or her glass stone.
Once their stones were completed, the students could put them into the mosaic wherever they wanted, finding their way in the community art project just as they might in our real community. Older students then filled in the areas around each person’s glass stone to create the overall picture, integrating ideas such as the colors from the First Nations medicine wheel.
The finished project was a 5’ x 5’ glass mosaic of more than 550 stones. The mosaic was mounted at the school’s entrance in time for National Aboriginal Day on June 21, 2016. We held an assembly to celebrate the installation of the piece, with First Nations dancing and drumming performed by the students. The ceremony helped to recognize our coming together as a community and remind all participants that their ideas were valued. In the ensuing months, students could be seen bringing friends and family to the mosaic, even after school hours, to point out the glass stone he or she contributed. Students seemed to understand how their small stone helped to create a larger whole, something lasting and welcoming. As one student reflected, “It feels like a part of me is going to be in the school forever." —Mikel Brogan

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