Schweitzer Fellows & Art Making at Northern Lights

Janel Feliz Martir
uvmmedicine blogger Janel Feliz Martir ’16

During my training as an art historian (in my life before medical school), I discovered the works of Germaine Kruip, whose art is so subliminal it is almost invisible. In a gallery in Amsterdam, she constructed a staircase leading to one of the gallery’s windows. Viewers ascended the stairs and were met by a large window that opened onto a view of the busy Amsterdam street below. Her art, essentially, was the idea that art exists both in the everyday – the shuffle of people, sidewalks, and buildings – and in everyone – in our individual thoughts, perceptions and reactions. From this, I learned that art was an opportunity available to everyone, and for me, this revelation was transformative. It motivated me to create art of my own.

As an artist, the experience of art-making is about exploring possibility. Exploration brings about innovation. The artist takes the materials presented before her and creates. This act of creation requires an intrinsic element of bravery. To be an artist is to be an agent of change – becoming and being a subject rather than an object. This philosophy is at the heart of the Art Activity Group, a weekly elective art class offered to the residents of Northern Lights, a support home for women transitioning from incarceration into life in Chittenden county. The Art Activity Group is funded by the Albert Schweitzer Foundation, a non-for-profit organization that seeks and encourages leaders in community service. My partner and friend, Leslie Wenning, and I were selected last year as 2013-2014 Albert Schweitzer Fellows. Together, we created the Art Activity Group.

Our project aimed to create a customized art curriculum and execute an art program at Northern Lights for women and their families who have co-occurring diagnoses of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and substance abuse. Many of our Art Group students have dealt with the devastating and disempowering effects of addiction and trauma. Given this, one goal of the group is to empower the women by allowing them to be creators. By creating art in a supportive and social setting that includes their friends and families, the women can feel empowered and perceive art-making as a positive activity. In this way, the Art Group supplements the women’s transition from prison into the Burlington community. With this idea of transition in mind, Leslie and I included a lesson plan in which the students would be asked to reflect on and create works on visions of their past, their present and their future as a way of positive goal-setting, which reinforces their role in shaping and creating their future.

For many of our students, the idea of the future is represented in the form of relationships. These relationships can be with their significant others, partners, families, children and with even themselves. To celebrate relationships, Leslie and I led an Art Group session on Valentine’s Day Card-Making. We also included a small lesson on Japanese origami as per the request of two students wanted to include Japanese origami as part of their pop-up greeting cards. The simple goal of the session was to make Valentine’s Day greeting cards, but in doing so, the women were also able to experiment with paper, understand the process of making pop-up cards, learn basic Japanese origami (折り紙) techniques and receive a brief introduction to the history of origami. While Leslie assisted half of the class making heart-shaped cards, I taught the others how to make origami butterflies. I introduced the students to the Yoshizawa–Randlett system, a diagramming system used in origami instruction manuals. Together, we folded, pinched, and wrinkled small square pieces of paper to create three-dimensional origami butterflies. Students learned basic origami folds, including the Valley Fold and Mountain Fold, and more complex compound folds including Petal Fold and Waterbomb base. The women were proud of their creations. None of them had done any origami before, and initially questioned their ability to learn some origami techniques. But by the end of the two-hour session, three beautifully and meticulously-crafted butteries were born. A small album of the class creations are featured below.

Within the group, the women have the opportunity to be artists. Leslie and I provide the materials and the class structure, but it is the women who give life to the group. They take on their role as artistic creators. They have the freedom to explore, experiment and share. In the group, we learn about ourselves and each other, and learn how to use art-making as a positive activity. Both Leslie and I hope that our students carry this philosophy of creative agency and empowerment with them as they transcend their stay at Northern Lights.

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