During the Winter and Spring of 2017/2018 I was fortunate to work with the students of John Oliver’s junior and senior Lifeskills classes, as well as peers from the general school community and other Learning Assistance programs, to facilitate a project entitled “The Art of Belonging.”
This ongoing project, which consisted of weekly art making sessions over nine weeks, had several key themes, developed in collaboration with Eddie Cruz, the Junior Lifeskills teacher.
Foremost, we recognized that for these students in Lifeskills classes, all of whom have intellectual disabilities (and sometimes additional physical disablities), the highschool experience presented social limitations, as well as a limited access to a fine arts curriculum. With ‘The Art of Belonging,’ we wanted to enable a creative experience and atmosphere in which students with disabilities could access relationship with students from the wider school community. It was also important that this relationship building did not centre around the relationship of “helper” and “helped” that so often inform the dynamic between students with disabilities and their and non-disabled peers. For this project, every student would occupy the role of “creator,” and a more natural peer relationship would have the opportunity to unfold.
Indeed, the role of ‘creator,’ or artist – a holder of agency and maker of choice – was a valuable one to focus on for all students involved. Many of these students communicate in non-traditional or non-verbal ways, and their expression and actions are often mediated by the pragmatics of schedules, staff or other adults, and access to visual materials or communication tools. For this reason we (the educators) made sure to take a process-based approach – one in which the exploration and experimentation with art materials and form were encouraged over any idealized product, with an emphasis on choice making and freedom to follow interest. Instead of aiming for any particular outcome, we were hoping to find ways that students would engage as much as possible and have the opportunity for free exploration and embodied expression.
While I presented a concept of design to start off many lessons (colour, movement, pattern, etc.) students were free to investigate the concept in the way that they were moved to. It was also important to present non-traditional art making tools that could engage and be accessible to students with different sensory needs and / or fine motor abilities. We used sponges, water balloons, textured material like feathers and beads, as well as collage materials, to name a few options.
A second central theme of the project was to strengthen emotional literacy. This meant that we would focus on building vocabulary around a range of emotional experiences through art. We also heavily incorporated the “zones of regulation,” a staple in educational settings that focus on recognizing, normalizing and building skills to cope with, all emotions. We were drawn to this theme not only because emotional regulation was a focus of the Lifeskills curriculum, and highschool is generally recognized as an intense, often tumultuous emotional period in young peoples’ lives, but because emotions are something that every person experiences. Emotion was a natural meeting place for mainstream and disabled students.
So, for the first five weeks, we focused on the emotional qualities of one ‘zone’ (yellow, green, blue, red) partnered with one design concept. We talked about the emotions of the zones and how we related personally to them in large and small groups. Students were then encouraged to explore their emotions personally through art making, while listening to music curated to accompany the week’s ‘zone.’ The art created was kept in a folder, and after five weeks it was repurposed as collage material to create a self-portrait.
During all of the art making sessions, there was natural staff involvement and support for students whose independence in manipulating the art making tools was limited (due to issues involving fine motor skills, mobility or strength). In order to ensure that students were accessing as much agency as possible, support staff and myself met prior to the start of the project to talk about best practices in enabling choice and creativity for students with these limitations.
When it was time to create self portraits, participants were not only invited to use the painted and drawn materials from their own folders, but also to share some artworks to create a group set of collage materials that everyone could use. What was shared, or ripped up or cut up for collage, and what was kept whole, was left up to the artist. The resulting artworks were individual portraits composed in part of communal “emotional” materials – underlining the reality that we are all made up of different emotional components, but also that these emotional experiences are shared among all members of the class and community.
After the artwork was finished the portraits were photographed, printed in a book, and the entire school was invited to an art show in the cafeteria. It was incredibly well attended by the general student population and family members, thanks in large part to the promotional posters made by the artists leading up to the event, and artists and the larger school community had a chance to interact in a new context. Visiting students studied the artwork carefully, while each artist sat with their artwork. Candy and snacks were provided by hosts to visitors, and the artists engaged with guests according to their comfort level.
After the show the works continued to be displayed in hallway glass cases as an ongoing “gallery,” allowing the celebration and recognition of the project and artists to continue past the art show.
In the “Art of Belonging” printed book artists provided bios and statements about the project. Even when the write-ups were written in the words of support staff, it allowed readers to get to know the personalities of the participants a little bit. I’ll share some of what was written in students’ own words:
” I like art because I get to draw or paint anything I want to. I enjoy drawing more than painting because it’s easier for me to draw. I draw at home and at school. My favourite Art Of Belonging piece was the painting of kids’ faces.” – Charlotte, grade 8
“I like art because it allows me to imagine my own world. I enjoyed the feelings part of Art of Belonging. My favourite Art of Belonging piece was the forest drawing.” – Jocelyn, grade 9
“I like to do art every day. I love to colour super heroes like the Hulk, Spiderman and Batman. My favourite part of Art of Belonging was getting to paint my favourite characters!” – Domnic, grade 11
“My favourite colours are red, yellow, orange and blue. In my free time I enjoy drawing and colouring pictures of my family, friends and favourite movie characters. I play the piano, drums and guitar. My favourite part of Art of Belonging was creating art with the students from Take A Hike program!” – Benjamin, grade 12
“I enjoy doing Art of Belonging because it’s fun. My favourite Art of Belonging job was the painting. I made one with lots of colours. I really like working with Sam.” – Lian, grade 9
One of my favourite parts of this project was seeing students who were generally very shy, quiet, or did not have the ability to communicate verbally, focus deeply on their work in serious concentration. They would end up producing something vibrant, unique and enexpected. I know that feeling so well, of having a vision you want to execute, a reality that you want to lay out on the paper in front of you. I love that we were able to create a space, and give access to the instruction and materials, that enabled students to enter that state of flow. I love that we got to see parts of their imaginations and personalities that we may not have otherwise known.
This project was conceived after I spent a fair amount of time working as a support worker in lifeskills classes. These programs often, by design, limit students’ access to inclusion with their school community. I would hope that the arts could be recognized as one way to bridge this gap between students with disabilities and their peers.
Also, I am a believer that creativity, in one form or another, is essential to well-being for everyone. Everyone should have the chance to be an artist.
On behalf of the participants of “The Art of Belonging,” I would like to thank Opus Art Supplies for a generous donation of supplies, the John Oliver PAC , and acknowledge that this project was funded in large part by the Artists in the Classroom grant disbursed by ArtStarts in Schools and funded by the Province of British Columbia and the BC Arts Council.”