Journey of the Soul
Reclaiming Kids Through Art

by Kathy Petreré
Reprinted from NUVO Newsweekly, December 24-31, 1998

Haiku Title: "Freedom"   I want to be free, unshackle self from the thoughts, free-willed, free mind, free.   by Aaron

Not bad for a kid who got kicked out of school, huh?

Haiku is such a great way to get kids to write. Not much grammar involved, it's fun, anyone who can count 5-7-5 will be a successful haiku poet. Maybe they'll even begin to like least a little.

This was my challenge as I stood in front of a class of high school students at an IPS alternative school this fall. They were tough, streetwise kids who had been expelled from their former schools for various offenses.

And I was assigned to get them to write.

Hey, no problem. Give kids some freedom - and exposure to music, movement, theatre and visual arts for three weeks - and watch them go.

Literally, poetry in motion.

Boy playing cowbell above his head with a drumstick.This fall, Very Special Arts Indiana and IPS alternative school Community Academy joined forces to bring a multidiscipline art experience to at-risk youth. Five VSAI artists, in separate disciplines, worked with fifty expelled IPS students.

This endeavor, themed "The Diaspora: A Journey of the Soul," was made possible through a grant from the Arts Council of Indianapolis' Africa Celebration project.

VSAI, based in Indianapolis, provides statewide arts programming for children with disabilities and, in some cases, extends its mission to include at-risk youth. Artists, who work through VSAI, travel to schools to present programs and projects; they also work as artists-in-residence.

Community Academy is an alternative school for IPS students who have been expelled; the Academy has three sites around the city. Most of the kids will eventually return to their regular junior high and high schools after their expulsion period is over but some will remain at CA to get their GED.

For many, it's a last chance to stay in school and finish their education.

Why bring the arts to a place like Community Academy? Because art gives a voice to many kids who might otherwise use negative means of expression. Music, dance, theater, visual art and writing give them a few more constructive ways to represent how they feel.

It's easy to see why art is important in a classroom when a sullen face breaks into a smile. There is great pride in accomplishment.

Young boy playing a drum with drumsticks.This is the second year for a mixed media program at the Academy. Carey Collins, VSAI's Program Coordinator, said "We had a project at CA last year that we knew had been really helpful. The theme of Diaspora is something that the kids are really familiar with as they had all been forced out of their previous schools. The artists gave them avenues to express themselves that weren't available to them in the regular academic setting."

Community Academy was started in 1996 by Evelyn Hicks, who is now the Community and Special Programs Coordinator for Alternative Education for IPS. No longer an educator there, Evelyn oversees a team of teachers at the school's three sites. A VSAI board member, she had been involved with the last year's project and wanted it to happen again.

"I believe that what VSAI is doing, all schools should do. Connect the arts to the curriculum and make them see the relevance of it," said Evelyn, "You're going to get total cooperation from children because they're expressing themselves through that art, music and dance. What makes these artists so special...the artists who work through VSA...they see the kids, they see the talent in every child."

Because the grant was to be used in conjunction with the Africa Celebration theme, VSAI and CA decided to use the idea of Diaspora as a way to re-connect the kids with the rest of the world.

Collins said, "The whole idea of talking about journeys, yourself and your soul and this journey, really applied to them, which is important when you have kids who are that angry most of the time and alienated, you need to make sure you have some kind of hook in there. Most of the kids had not any art of a substantial type since elementary school so they were real excited."

The program's goals were not what some might call lofty; if these students participated at all, it would be considered a success. By these standards, "Journey of the Soul" was wildly successful.

The artistic team was made up of five local artists: Tony Artis, a musician with San Cocho and Invisible Art; Iris Rosa, a dance professor at IU-Bloomington and head of IU's Afro-American Dance Company; Deborah Asante, storyteller and Director of the Asante Children's Theatre; Theron Mattick, potter and nstructor at the Indianapolis Art Center; and me. The disciplines explored were music, dance and movement, theater, visual arts, and writing.

All the artists had different experiences at the three sites, which showed the advantages of using a multiple-discipline approach. It would have been hard for any student not to get something from the experience because there were so many different options.

Tony Artis and Iris Rosa discuss music and dance with a group of students sitting with percussive instruments.The program was taught over nine days. Music and dance were taught consecutively as were theater and visual arts. Writing was the final component, which was taught alone.

Music and dance were the first of the five disciplines the kids were exposed to. The goal was for each child to put together a 15-second recording of music they created and a short videotape of dance/movement they choreographed.

Tony and Iris, who are married, gave the kids a rare glance at a couple who not only do what they love, but enjoy working together when they can - and are great as a teaching team.

With a multitude of percussive instruments, including maracas, conga drums, an iya ilu (Yoruba for "talking drum"), a shekere (gourd shaker), an agogo bell, and a cowbell among others, it wasn't difficult to grab the students' attention. To bring the concept of movement a little closer to home, Iris played a video of West African dancing. The tape vividly showed the connection between African dance and modern African-American street dance.

Even so, during that first hour, the kids sat there, arms crossed, with doubtful looks on their faces.

Iris made an interesting observation. "Sometimes I think kids are noise-deprived; they don't get to express verbally or with their bodies. Instruments always seem to help facilitate being comfortable with expressing."

But it didn't take too long after Tony put instruments in their hands for the group to start a jam session. Fifteen kids at a time were making music together with spots for individual solos.

Student painting with watercolors on handmade paper.While regular school might not have had their attention, the music and dance did.

Said Tony, "I think they're in the program because they're bored. I found that all the kids were highly intelligent and creative when they had the chance to be. But they don't get that in the normal track. These kids should be in a special place where it's more open, but not a place of punishment. That's why I think they opened up to this."

A major accomplishment was to get the students to want to be involved.

"The main thing that was said to us was that if they were able to even work together and talk together, then that was a big achievement," said Iris, "There were some very talented kids there...they came out with music, and I had three of them that really did some great choreography. We talked about it having a political and social edge to it."

Two girls are playing percussive instruments. One is playing a drum with her hands, the other is using maracas.The second phase of the project involved theatre and the visual arts. Deborah, a powerful figure who also directs the Asante Children's Theatre, worked with the kids using improvisation, family stories, and personal mythology. "What I was using was storytelling and improv. I was talking about the mythology that we live, that was my connection. I was trying to make them understand that they live up to expectations, they hear stories as they're growing up that determine who they are and that they can take the active role of being self-determined. You have to understand first who has power over you and so we shared family stories, I got them to bring in family stories and then from those sharing, .... I tried to connect their family story with traits that I recognized in them."

Theron brought in a potter's wheel on the first day so the kids could throw pots. As one might expect, working with clay was a big hit.

"There was one girl who wouldn't [participate] at all. At one point, we split thing up and I said I'm just going to take kids one on one and get through some of this wheel-throwing because with the group, it was hard to get anybody to focus. This girl actually sat down and just started talking to me. I was going 'Wow, she's out....' she came out of her shell."

Later, students sculpted masks of clay, which were to depict some aspect of a soul's journey. Of course, some of them included replicas of things from everyday life - askew caps, Mercedes emblems, blunts. But some of the students moved beyond the commonplace to show great creativity. Theron returned recently to CA, bringing back the masks so the kids could glaze them.

"[Clay] as a "prop" lends breaks that barrier," said Theron, "Their attention was like 'Wow, what's that!' It's a good card to get you in the door and get you moving."

Young man makes handmade paper by placing the screen into the pulp and draining the water.In the final week and a half of the program, I hauled 5-gallon buckets full of paper pulp and sets of watercolors into the classes. The kids and teachers splashed around in the oatmeal-textured pulp and hand made what seemed like a ton of paper. To tie together all they had experienced in the previous weeks on their own personal artistic journey, students worked on haiku and poetry and eventually filled a 4' by 4' sheet of paper on the wall. Many of the writings ended up on the handmade paper as well.

What I noticed during my six one-hour days was how "light" everyone seemed when they were working. Laughing, talking, teasing each other as they waited for the next available tub full of pulp. They experimented with paint and texture, size and shape. More importantly, they were involved and wanted to know when I'd be back and would I bring more paper. The other artists had similar experiences.

And it wasn't just about having-fun-with-art; the project had more meaning than that. Sure, they got to play music, make up dance routines, tell personal stories, sculpt clay masks, and make paper, but more importantly, they expressed something about who they are, and what's in their souls.

Art in many other parts of the world is still part of a daily routine. Tony remarked, "If you go to different countries...the arts are revered. The government supports the arts. The culture and the arts are much more ingrained in the people. Art seems to be much more a part of everyday life. That's been taken that out of us."

Building trust with kids was paramount. While some of the kids would jump right in, there were others who were less enthusiastic. Understandable. After years of being in trouble, to have someone say, 'come do this fun activity' or even ask 'what would you like to do' - and sincerely mean it - left many of them wondering what the trick was going to be.

This is where the teacher participation helped a lot. By the time we arrived, the teachers had established some basic trust so when they participated, it was easier for the kids to join in because while we were strangers, the teachers acknowledged that what we were doing was a good thing and not a trick.

A teacher and three students use watercolors on their handmade paper.The CA teachers gave the project an A+. Said Mike Gibbs, who teaches at the Martin Luther King Service Center site, "The program went well. The kids loved it and want to do it again in regular school. You gave them, they said, another way to express themselves." Like Mike, this is Brian Whitney's first year teaching at CA and at MLK. "I thought it was tremendous," he commented, "The best part about it was that it got the kids excited and working together. They wanted to experiment, they wanted to learn something that they'd never done. They liked making a mess. It gave them a sense of ownership, which a lot of these kids don't have. Art empowers them, allows it to be their mind with no one else's influence...because they're so easily influenced."

Some kids stayed active until the end. Others became involved near the end. For some, their interest fell off and some never really got involved at all. But, to the credit of the CA teachers, everyone did least a little.

"The best thing you guys didn't come in with a bias," said Mike. "A lot of people come in with the notion that these are the worst of the worst guys came in and tried to get to know them first. And then you got into the art side of it. You didn't look down on them, and you didn't talk down to them. And you laughed with them, which was a big thing."

And when someone came out of a corner to participate, we all rejoiced. It may sound corny to say that the reward of teaching is being witness to the moment when someone "gets it," but it's true. When a kid lost themselves in a rhythm, a wedge of clay or an improv, we knew that the art had succeeded.

Iris commented, "So many of the kids get exposed to the arts in so many different forms and we all know that it improves a quality of life and helps you to grow in ways and feel confidence in something that you're good doing, it connects you with people. There are a lot of things that maybe these kids don't have an opportunity to be fed in that way."

An unfired, highly-textured clay mask created by a student.It's not like the program didn't have its problems. Sites were changed, schedules got mixed up, and one class had to be canceled because of a theft (unrelated to the artists). I even had a group of high school guys from the 'hood spend one of my class periods playing hide-and-seek in the basement for the entire hour. It wasn't malicious - more like little kids playing monsters at Halloween - but we didn't get much paper made.

Did those imperfections make the program a waste? Absolutely not. We'd all do it again in a heartbeat because, despite a few snags, everyone thought results were tremendous.

Carey describes the dilemma of kids like those in the CA program. "They don't feel like they're an accepted part of the culture and so they spend a lot of time being upset about that," she says, "Nobody wants to be left out. For them to feel like they are a part of the community, you really have to look at what's inside of them and give it some value. And kind of open the door that way to let them back in."

Deborah added, "For it to be such a deep subject...talking about connecting with your soul....I think from being exposed to the different art forms that they saw art as more powerful than before we came in...connecting themselves through art as a power base."

One thing everyone agreed on was that most of these kids don't see that there's much else outside of money or that having the "good life" can mean more than having money. The riches a person can accrue by doing something they love and making a living might outweigh the quick money -- and risks -- of slingin' (dealing drugs) or hustling.

"That's the difference between reactive and proactive," said Deborah, "I could look in the faces of those children, and with the improvs that they did, the violence that they meet on a daily basis, if they can come to the point where they can think more creatively than just shooting a gun, then we have made a world of difference. And that's something that cannot be measured because it's proactive, it's not responding after everybody's dead."

Dancer/teacher Iris Rosa and two girls perform a student-choreographed dance to music being played by others in the class.While no one in the group has any illusions about a nine-day program turning lives around, we do all believe that it made some difference and set the groundwork for a more lengthy program that might have some long-term impact.

Tony put it best by describing the whole experience as "A little glimpse of the light. It's like the door cracking open just a little bit. We need to be the resources to open that door."