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Collaborative Art

Over the last 2 weeks, I’ve been working with the kids at The Door Youth Center in Huntsville on a collaborative art project. In my last post, I described how I embossed the cards with an image of a door and the youth have been decorating them as a way of giving back to the supporters of The Door. Not surprisingly, the project appealed more to the girls in the group, the boys had to be armed wrestled to participate haha.

For those of us sitting around the table, the conversations flowed easily. I expected that. Having worked quite a bit in collaborative environments, I anticipated this would be the case. Art circles provide a safe space for everyone, even those who are less chatty can still feel part of the group.

What I appreciated most about this project from the practical side is that Marcy already had a lot of supplies. I realized one of the barriers I’ve had in the past when doing this sort of thing is the cost. It’s been a long time since I was part of an organization that could afford to pay for supplies, so if I wanted to do an art project with our youth group at church, I had to foot the bill. As a volunteer, and a student for the past 10 years, I simply couldn’t afford it, which I found discouraging at times. I understand The Door has received a lot of donated quality supplies over the years which is really helpful, they also had a small budget as well which made this project doable.

I have noticed when working with kids in this way, they are more engaged when they know there is value in what they are doing. I think most adults would feel the same way. At first, some of the kids were balking at the idea of doing ‘a craft’ but when I explained to them how I carved the block, then used my press to emboss the cards and even carved a few blocks for them to use, that my pearl and gold glitter medium won’t ruin the emboss of the card the way water-based paint and glue will, they became curious. When I described to them the concept of the project, that the image of the door and The Door wouldn’t be what it is without them, or the people who help make this ministry possible, the task took a turn from ‘just something to do’ to having a purpose and a meaningful outcome.

This was an important thing for me to learn. If art making is one way for me to help those who have experienced a crisis, it can’t be just a fun thing to do or something relaxing. Not that that is wrong or bad, it’s just not convincing. It might not be relaxing or fun to the person who is suffering. This is exasperated if the materials are subpar, there’s no purpose beyond filling up time or the leader/artist is more like a teacher than a collaborator. I think the set up for the kids was equally important. If I had simply handed out blank cards and said, make a design, I don’t think there would have been the same level of engagement. A good set up allows for personal expression without overwhelming cognition or rather, allows creativity to have the loudest voice rather than logic or reason. This is where our inner critic lives and in times of stress (and at the best of times), that criticism can be paralyzing. The point in this is to be released, not throttled.

I watched one of the girls reluctantly take a card and after I showed her a few things, she put one stamp on the card and said, “I’m done.” I said ok, that’s great! Thanks for making a card. I placed it with the others to dry. A couple of minutes later, she came back and got her card and added a few more designs to her door. Then she made another card and another. She seemed to be having some fun with it! I don’t know what her story is, but it looked to me like she had experienced a bit of freedom, felt a little inspiration, maybe even gained a little confidence. I’ll take that as a win!

There is something to this collaborative art making that has more power to transform than simply making art with company. It’s more than a group task that produces a thing or a means to an end. I’ve been a part of community art events where people are invited to make an artful contribution but it didn’t transform anything, it was just a fun thing to do. On the negative side, I have been a part of events which only served to elevate the status (and ego) of the artist who organized the event and didn’t establish a sense of community at all.

A truly collaborative project establishes a sense of community by being inclusive and fosters a sense of belonging. It has influence, meaning the artists matter, as does their contribution which influences and is influenced by the other artists. And collaborators often find emotional connection to each other through shared values and similar experiences. Seemingly very different people almost always find common ground - even if that common ground is the project they are working on! This is the space where transformation can happen.

There is a lot of depth to collaborative art making, but it isn’t complicated. There can be barriers, as I’ve experienced over the years, but I think this kind of mindset applied to all kinds of different applications, not only art, could create beautiful and interesting relationships where we least expect it.

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