Last Spring I worked with a group of twelfth grade students on a project aimed at exploring the environmental impacts and opportunities of an upcoming park space coming to the neighborhood around their school. The goal of this workshop was to investigate relevant issues through art making.
I began the term with high hopes for student lead investigation, generative art making, and youth driven momentum. It came as a big shock when the answer to the question “what do you want to make?” was “we have no idea”. Half way through the term I honestly thought I had failed, as week after week we wrestled through the same conversations about environmental science and waded through endless drawings of the same puffy clouds and bubbly hearts. And I found myself increasingly distressed and uncertain of how to engage students in creating something new. Suddenly it hit me that I’d been trying so hard to push for student driven investigation that my students felt lost and without direction.
From then on we dove into our content with a clear road map to get where we needed to go. We began exploring four themes for environmental action happening in the park: ABSORB, CONNECT, COOL, and RE-USE. For each theme, students produced drawings using the exquisite corpse method (this is a classic drawing exercise that originated in the Surrealist movement of the early 20th century, where participants begin a drawing on a page and then fold over the section they’ve drawn so the next person can add without knowing what came before). In this structure, the students were suddenly able to flourish. And it wasn’t that they were defined by the structure—rather they were freed by it to really explore their own potential as artists. I realized that giving them structure didn’t mean taking away their voice, just giving them a path to start walking down. In giving my students a platform to find their feet, I also eased some of my own tension in the classroom and was able to relax into each class knowing that everything was moving forward I could begin to calm down and chat with my students about their upcoming transitions to college and all the big, exciting changes about to happen in their lives.
By the end of the term, the students were actually producing art work; artwork that wasn’t just beautiful but showed an understanding of real issues. In our last class, we tackled the core theme “CONNECT” (as in connecting people to nature and fostering stewardship of the environment). There was one piece in particular that took the whole group’s breath away—when we opened it up multiple students immediately asked if they could have a copy for their dorm room next year. In this moment it was clear that the students had grown to connect themselves to their art and to their world.
The drawings that the students made last Spring, and the conversations we shared about how to think through the changes in their environment were compiled into an interactive map which will be printed and distributed to the community at the dedication of the park (also my first time making something that will be used in public space like this!). It is so inspiring to see that from those who don’t consider themselves artists, such beautiful things can come out that change everything.
I would encourage anyone who thinks that they’re “not an artist” or “can’t draw” to give it another shot—you just might surprise yourself.
Margaret Kearney is an FAO Schwarz Family Foundation Fellow at the City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program. She works with the Restored Spaces Initiative, the program’s “art-based approach to integrating the activities of city agencies, community organizations, and residents as we collectively transform schools, recreation centers, and commercial corridors into models for sustainable revitalization.”