When I was teaching, an art teacher in my building approached me with an opportunity to attend an institute on integrating the arts across the curriculum. Being an English/Language Arts teacher professionally and a creative person personally, I jumped at the chance.
SmART Schools, the brainchild of Eileen Mackin, Ed.M, offered intensive multiple day workshops for educators of all genres showing hands-on ways to access all manner of information and curricula. Ideally, an entire community or school system would ‘buy-in’ for the optimum effect. At the very least, a team of teachers (one from each discipline, all assigned to a core group of kids) could attend together to align their methods. That first year, one of three I attended, I was the sole participant from my team, only one of four total from my building. Another year, two team teachers I worked very closely with came along. Once, I convinced my entire team to come along. While complete buy-in is ideal, even one practicioner of this method benefits children immensely.
While reading a novel together as a class, we created tableaus of images from the book with our bodies. We acted out salient scenes. We created dioramas, collages, 3-D sculptures. We played ‘games’ that built community. We ‘became’ emotions. We fostered understanding in a non-threatening way. Students who would never raise their hands used their arms and legs, their stance to make a statement about a theme of a book that would bring tears to my eyes.
Through art, they became the book. They interfaced with the material in a way not possible by simply seeing the words on the page. And they expressed themselves in ways that writing or speaking may not have made possible for them. The text-to-self and text-to-world connections were now concrete, though they shook me to the core.
Fast-forward six years. I no longer teach, though I value education and the arts as much as I ever did. Now, however, my goals for education have entered the realm of mental health. I discovered PeaceLove Studios, an organization I am fortunate enough to call local. Their goal is to bring peace and love to the world through expressive arts, thereby eliminating the stigma attached to mental illness. I’ve been following and applauding their work for over a year now. A friend, lucky enough to work in a building that houses a mini-art gallery, told me of a PeaceLove exhibition there. That was my first real-world experience with the organization. But I’d been longing for a tactile experience with them, to see their space, see them in action. Last night, with that same friend along for the ride, I had that chance.
PeaceLove offered a workshop called, “Story Shoes”. Through decorating a shoe, you would represent the path you’ve taken; by inscribing a ‘footprint’, you would tell your story. First, we engaged in an introductory discussion to get to know the other participants and to get us thinking on what story we’d like to tell. I had flashbacks of teaching middle school again when we had to count off by twos for this activity 😉 but it gave us that sense of community and safe environment crucial for such an activity. It also afforded us the mental preparation and space to enter into the introspection we’d need.
As usual, my mind processes surpassed my ability to articulate the many metaphors I laid out. Surprisingly, my story came about more organically than I expected. Instead of telling my entire life story, the items and way I chose to decorate my shoe more accurately represented my aura than one specific line of personal plot. And I think that’s the perfect point to make about mental illness moving toward mental health and its acceptance. Ultimately, it’s not about the details. It is about the essence of the person and acceptance of him or her as a whole.
I think I learned more from the other participants sharing of their shoes and stories than I did in creating my own, too. We set our shoes on a pathway of black paper that wound its way across the slatted wood floor of the old mill building, the flat footprints interspersed in relief with the dimensional shoes. We walked that path together, with our varied experiences, our varied states of suffering or salvation. I realized the power of getting outside the rutted paths of our brain to make true discovery; how a totally different use of our minds, our hands can give us that. Glitter glue and feather and paintbrushes can free the emotions from the fear that dams them. It happened subconsciously in a nonthreatening medium.
I saw the same looks of pride and empowerment as participants explained their pieces and shared their stories as I did when my students opened up the world of the texts through their movements and creations. I felt the same well of emotion, the same nod of the head affirmation of “Yes, exactly, I know exactly what you mean. I hear you. I feel you. I am with you.”
I left with that same heady feeling of hope and peace and joy that only a truly transcendental experience with the arts (or nature or God) can give you. Anything that helps people, especially those weighed down by mental illness, transcend their limitations and expectations is truly smart and a work of heart.