"Art That Builds Community," was the theme of our West Tennessee Art Ed Spring Conference yesterday at The University of Memphis (UM). Our Keynote address was given by Richard Lou, UM Art Department Chair. He started his talk by first commending the group for choosing to teach art. He then shared the impact that those who taught him about art made on his early life. Next he took us on a visual journey through a project he was part of in the early 90's, "The Borders Sutures Project, " where he and a team of artists traveled the boundaries between Mexico and The United States placing large iron staples in the earth between the borders to make a statement about healing. I was emotionally impacted to see the power of art to communicate a message so passionately and peacefully. It impacted me on multiple levels.
The healing aspect of the project reminded me of the ways that I have witnessed art being used therapeutically as people I know have faced adversity. I recalled how my sweet mother took a ceramics class in the late 60's as she went through cancer treatment. I thought of the oil painting class my mother-in-law and I attended when her daughter passed away. I think of countless individuals who took my community watercolor classes to "escape" life changes. I think of how art has been my healing balm time and time again. Even my children's book, "The Little Bluebird," began as a personal memorial gift for my dear friend after the loss of her young son. Some of the most powerful and memorable art in the world was created out of a need to make sense of life.
Then my thoughts turn to the staples from "The Sutures Project," and how staples hold things together to keep them from falling apart, as Richard said, "So that the healing can begin." I teach middle school, so I have always seen my role as an educator more as a directional guide as students face the crossroads of life. However, after hearing Richard's talk and seeing the staples, I see that as art educators, we are also the staples. The art classroom can be that place that is the constant for these students, the stability through the instability of life. The safe place where students can reflect and express their emotional responses to the situations they face. Art class can be the constant until the healing can begin. As a teacher in a religious school, I can remind students of their faith that transcends any temporal issue. Or as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. so eloquently penned, "Faith is taking the first step when you don't see the whole staircase." But all art teachers can remind students of the power of art to express, to heal and to make a difference in a world that at times seems like it is falling apart. Perhaps the best way to remind them is to model this in our own lives and to never underestimate the power of staples.