Inching towards autonomy

It’s funny how things work. I’ve been blogging for months now about how to help students in a locked-down facility feel more autonomous, and once I made peace with my art therapist as art teacher identity and loosened up a bit, it started to happen naturally. As I wrote about last month, it’s always good to flex a little…. as a wife, as a mother, and definitely as a therapist in a teaching role. I’m not breaking any rules- mine or the detention’s- but I am thinking more sensitively about how to enforce them, when to push a student (metaphorically, of course), and when to step back and give them a few minutes to get their head straight.

Students now propose their own variations of art assignments, and as long as they’re appropriate and will keep them busy, I let them run with it. I step away from the calendar plans once in a while and take an “art vacation” when we just make cards or color. Once it seems like a project has had a good run but there are still some students who haven’t finished (this happens a lot with masks because they often want to keep working and working), I let them vote on whether to continue the current project or move on to the next. Many kids have worked in groups. Others have learned how to use the pottery wheel.  Life is good, and the school year is over in 1 week.

So, with my first year at Juvenile Detention and my art therapist identity crisis both coming to an end, I’ve decided to change directions with my blog entries. Each month, I’ll share a successful art experiential that my students and I recently completed. I’ll include photos, but only to give you a general idea of the experiential, since I think every great artist interprets and reinterprets the directive in her or his own way. Hopefully this will inspire some of you to make art of your own or try the ideas with your own students or clients. Of course, I can only post artwork made by myself or other teachers, but no biggie. On to the first fun exercise:

For anyone else who’s struggling with end-of -school, barely-motivated, low energy, frustrated students, this is a great exercise to use. My kids are all pretty much angry and sad because they have to be away from their family and friends for the summer, and this is a great project to help nurture those feelings but also provide a distraction and keep them busy.

Assignment/ Directive:

Inspired by the artwork of Salvador Dali, use collage images to create Symbolic Family Portraits.

–          Peruse through Dali’s artwork to gain inspiration from his subject matter and landscapes and get a feel for the relationships between his images.

–          Make black and white copies of any images you’ve collected along your way, or start your own folder of cut out pictures from magazines and copy onto sheets together. You can also find some interesting images if you Google “black and white vintage drawings.” Use Dali’s work as inspiration, and find lots of people, insects, animals, or anything that’s just strange. Remember to check for copyrights.

–          Make a ton of copies.

–          Warm-up by creating a Family Tree Drawing or genogram of everyone you’d like to include in your Family Portrait. I always tell students that it doesn’t need to be biological family. Include whoever is most important to you.

–          Now, find an image that represents each of your family members. I usually say a minimum of 10 images so that students will take their time.

–          It’s best to find all of your images before you start gluing so that you can think about how they will interact and overlap. I’m sure I don’t need to say that the dynamics between the pictures can obviously be very indicative of family relationships, but there I go!

–          Remember, the weirder the better. Take different heads from different bodies and trade them around, put skulls on dinner trays. This is the distraction piece- and students often end up laughing out loud at their creations.

–          Lastly, I like to make photocopies of their finished collage and let the students experiment with different coloration techniques on the copies. They get a kick out of it when their collage of ten bumpy images turns into one flat, uniform image.

Hope you’re able to try this, and don’t worry- when my next identity crisis comes along, I’ll be sure to put the experiential aside for the month and enlighten you with my latest struggle.


Erin Kemp, VATA Blog Entry #5



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