ArtVention at EKU, September 13, 2017

On 9/13/17 I had the pleasure (and awe) of helping to create an art-based, post-suicide prevention experience at Eastern Kentucky University’s Noel Studio For Academic Creativity. Held in honor of World Suicide Prevention Day (a concept I am only beginning to tolerate and consider, since my own loved one’s suicide), ArtVention is a unique art experience for all who have been impacted by suicide. Participants are encouraged to identify and visually express feelings about suicide via guided visual art activities. It’s not art therapy — it’s art empowerment led by a working artist who uses art to help herself and other vulnerable  people survive and thrive.

We began with a hand “sign in” with medium on a blank sheet of muslin, which disappears when it dries — like the loved one we lost. Halfway through ArtVention we hit it with paint to make our marks reappear, a metaphor for the love we will never lose.

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Participants also created  a “before/after” collage guided by words and materials chosen for their positive/negative impact.

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Lastly, ArtVention participants made Tribute Flags for themselves or the person they lost.

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The best part of all, as usual, were the revealing and healing conversations that struck up while I interacted with participants, and they interacted with each other.  Both the flags and the collages will be part of suicide awareness exhibits coming up in 2018.

Thanks to the EKU Suicide Awareness and Focus on Education (SAFE) grant, the volunteers who helped with ArtVention, including recent EKU graduate Abigail Emerson who came up with the idea, Crystal West who found and transported the cardboard and fabric (cut out lots of collage material!) and Dr. Melinda Moore who invited me as a teaching artist to make it happen.


A new kind of student. And teacher!

The last time I taught a formal, academic painting class was in the fall of 2008.  I looked forward to Painting 1 with great anticipation and excitement, remembering the thrill of taking it for the first time at a community college in 1983.  I firmly believed my very small liberal arts college students would embrace the color theory, still life and landscape projects, work hard and enjoy everything about oil painting, as I once did.

But from day one, I endured exasperated looks and whispered complaints about boring subject matter and tedious color mixing (why mix a brown when I can buy a tube of it???). I witnessed many students painstakingly rendering considerably out of proportion boxes and bottles, and felt their resentment as I pointed out errors and showed them how to make corrections — that they then refused to make.  I will never forget walking through a studio filled with easels proudly displaying unfinished, rushed through or otherwise poor paintings during finals week. Or how I blamed myself, the teacher, for my inability to reach these students.  I was also filled with fear, knowing I couldn’t possibly give these students the Cs and Ds they deserved because they would complain to my supervisors, and put my tenure track teaching job, my future at risk.

Five and a half years later, I watch a man who lives in a homeless shelter take weeks to lovingly complete a landscape.  He exhaustively pages through donated books to find inspiration and references, yet creates a tree that could only come from his obviously incredible imagination.  Then, after a snow storm and in a single art making session, he transforms this painting to correspond with the recent descent of winter.  His dedication, creativity and courage take my breath away.

The same thing happens when I present what in academic terms would be categorized as a typography assignment to a table full of homeless individuals.  After giving them incredibly few instructions, I watch a young woman “design” a word describing herself into a creative crossword puzzle and see a young man transform a personal attribute into an innovative, graffiti-like work of art. I cannot help but compare this experience with one I had in 2009, watching graphic design majors sit in sullen silence in response to a similar project, waiting for me to give them inappropriate amounts of “advice” about how to proceed so they could painlessly “succeed”.

The disadvantaged individuals I now work with are without a doubt the best “students” I have ever had.  And many of them have never had the benefit of a college education.  Instead of leaving my “classes” feeling defeated, frustrated, and afraid, my heart sings with joy because every single session is a revelation about myself and these so-called unfortunate people.

And another thing. Every day, someone thanks me. In the almost twenty years I taught art at the college level, I cannot remember any college student ever thanking me at the end of a project or class period.