Lifting Kids Up With Art

Art Brings Healing for At-Risk Kids

Lifting Kids Up With Art

By Alana Wilhelm
Art Teacher
Dakota Memorial School, Fargo

"You can look at a painting for a week and never think of it again. You can also look at a picture for a second and think of it all your life." -Joan Miro (painter, sculptor, ceramist)

Your voice, Your perspective, Your ideas matter.

"You matter" is a theme heavily discussed in the art world, and one I bring to my students at Dakota Memorial School (DMS). Art has the power to create change, inspire, advocate, and heal.

Many of our kids are able to express their perspective, ideas, and feelings through visual metaphors and concepts in color, shape, and line--even when they are unable to express those feelings in words.

They voice their reality in images. Marks made on paper can help children voice feelings they are unable to uncover with just words. After experiencing a significant loss, one of my students drew a bird trapped in a cage. In her piece, she placed the cage inside a person's chest. When we talked about what her image meant to her, she said the cage symbolized the feeling of being trapped and the bird a symbol of her desire to be free.

Dakota Family Services therapist, Christy Wilkie, confirms the importance of art in therapy. "Art is such a powerful medium for healing," Wilkie said. "Sometimes it's just too difficult for our kids to access words to describe the hurt they feel inside. Art gives them an alternative way to communicate their thoughts and feelings that is less threatening and easier to access. Art is a way to open up a conversation in a non-confrontational manner. That is what Alana did with her student. She was able to open up a deeper and more open conversation by discussing her art."

A blend of art therapy and art education can truly reach and benefit the precious group of kids who come to the Ranch. Art therapy focuses on the creative process psychologically through self-expression; where art education focuses on art criticism, history, techniques, concepts and aesthetics.

At the beginning of this school year, we began a project that combines art therapy and art education in a beautiful way. DMS students created 200 feathers that have become an interactive mural titled, "What Lifts You?" On the backs of the feathers, they wrote their answers to the questions, "What lifts you?" "How do you lift others up?" "What sights, sounds, and smells make you happy?"

After I taught them about symmetry, color, and public response to public art, they painted the feathers in a value scale using watercolors, and drew symmetrical line designs. We hung the feathers in the shape of wings-on the wall in our school. The mural is a positive visual to remind all of the students in our school of the things that lift them.

Public art (which this is because we hung it in the hallway) often creates an emotional response. Students, teachers, staff, and visitors interact with the art by posing for photos in front of the wings, and talking about the things that lift them.

Another great way to blend art therapy and art education is through ceramics and use of a pottery wheel. Clay is malleable and can be tossed, pounded, carved, and recycled. When you make a mistake in clay, it's pretty forgiving. Physical movement and tactile projects, such as throwing on the wheel, provide a sensory stimulus, and an opportunity for mindful learning.

Students are present in the moment when they are throwing on the wheel. To create a container, they need to pay attention to their senses. They use touch to analyze the appropriate moisture level in the clay--is it too wet or too dry? They use the sound of the pottery wheel buzzing to determine if the wheel is moving too fast or too slow. They use sight to watch their hand positions so they can mold the clay into the desired form.

"Art is an excellent coping skill for kids," Wilkie said. "It can provide a temporary distraction from the pain and intrusive thoughts many of our kids have going in their brains. That's invaluable, even if it's just for a moment."

Functional art is especially therapeutic for our children. Functional art has a literal function or use, aside from appearance or beauty. Literal function comes from making small bowls and mugs they can eat or drink from. An example of psychological function is when they are able to practice working through frustrations, concept designs, and failures as they create pottery. They develop grit and learn resiliency skills with every piece they throw.

One of my former ceramics students said, "I love throwing on the wheel. I didn't like it at first because it was hard, but I kept trying. Now it is easier. You just have to keep going. I like that I can actually use the mug I made."

For some kids, art is a place of strength. Wilkie said, "Many times, kids find they have a strength in art skills. Identifying something they are really good at can facilitate the building of positive self-esteem and identity."

I stress the importance of word choice during the creative and growth process. Students may say "I can't do this," or "I am not good at this," I ask them to add the word, "yet," to their statement. "I cannot do this YET." The addition of this one tiny word validates their frustrations and encourages them to keep moving forward.

My goal is to help our students discover they are capable of more than they know. That their voices can create change...they belong to a community...they are cared for and listened to. They matter.

As one DMS photography student wrote in his artistic statement, "I can create an impact on people with my art. How exactly I will create that impact...that is yet to be discovered, but I'm ready and willing to find out how I might be able to make a change." 

Art moves, heals, inspires, and connects people. Art is important to our kids lives.

Alana Wilhelm grew up in Wheaton, MN, and graduated from Minnesota State University Moorhead with bachelor's degrees in art education and photography. She encourages her students to use art for coping, influencing change, and bridging connections between students and the community.

Read more stories like this and explore other issues of Ranch Voice here.

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