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PRINCESS ALEXANDRA COMMUNITY SCHOOL – Why Arts now?

Our newest Art For Life school partner was Princess Alexandra Community School (Fall 2019), the closest elementary school neighbour to Remai Modern. Art For Life is one of our major programs that aims to strengthen the school's curriculum-centred arts programming while removing the barriers that can prevent students and teachers alike from visiting our Gallery. As the Art For Life Liaison, I get to visit Princess Alexandra one full day a week to make art with the students and hopefully teach them that creativity and art making can be used as an outlet for self-expression and self-understanding. 

G*, a girl in grade six, usually spends her time sitting by herself, staring down at her table and not acknowledging anyone. I make it a point to always bring the gallery-provided art supplies over to her (she won't get them herself) and I'll remind her that she doesn't have to make anything, but it can be fun to play around with interesting art supplies. This is usually met with a very quiet "uh huh." A few months ago I brought in an art project that included brightly coloured chalk pastels and luscious black Stonehenge paper; supplies that would normally never be seen by most of the students. It was one of the rare instances that G* decided to partake in the activity. Not only did she finish the project in its entirety, but when asked if she wanted to make a second art piece, she nodded. By the end of class she had two beautiful colour mosaics. I told her she had a fantastic innate sense of how to combine colours and, astoundingly, she made eye-contact with me for possibly the first time since I started visiting the school. With a smile she said in a small voice, "I know." In the weeks since, G* has missed a fair number of the days that I get to visit the school. However, on the days that she has made it to class, G* has participated during each art activity. 

"The Art For Life program has the opportunity to create change even when it feels non-existent."

B* is another student in the grade 6/7 class. Unlike G*, he tends to express himself through acts of disruption. These can include not arriving to class until it’s half finished, toppling chairs, grabbing a fellow classmate's art out from under them, or cutting the tops off gluesticks, creating an unpredictable environment for those around him. Several weeks ago, B* began class with a promising attitude - he seemed interested in the activity and actually had a good start on it. Halfway through the class, however, I noticed that he no longer had his art piece with him and had pulled his hoodie up over his head to hide his face. I asked him what had happened to his art piece, but he was unwilling to respond. Shortly after, I discovered his art piece crumpled up on the floor next to the garbage. 

This is a common response at Princess Alexandra when a "mistake" has been made - many of the students don't know how to process frustration so they'll destroy their art before there’s a chance to help them work through it. Knowing B*’s penchant to act out, I didn’t want to push the matter and instead brought him some fresh materials and told him quietly that if he felt like trying again, I could help him catch-up, but if he needed to take some quiet time for himself, that was okay too. He whispered a thank you and it was then I realized that under his pulled-up hoodie he was crying. Scenarios like this can be so difficult to navigate. I didn’t want to draw attention to his tears, but in an effort to provide some comfort, I let him know that he could take the time he needed, that I'd check on him again in a little while and if there was anything I could do, to let me know. Unfortunately B* didn't stay for the rest of the class - he disappeared from the art room shortly after (I was later informed by his teacher that they found him in a different part of the school).

The reason I'm including this story is because the Art For Life program has the opportunity to create change even when it feels non-existent. I left the school that day feeling like I had failed in some way. It wasn't until the following week that I realized something positive had come from the prior week's perceived failure. The school had an assembly that afternoon in the gym, and since all classes were in attendance, Art for Life was put on hold and I joined the students at the assembly. The teacher's had their work cut out for them trying to get the more energetic students to sit quietly, B* among them. He was wound-up and sternly told to stop messing around and find a place to sit quietly with his friends. To my unending surprise, B* came to sit with me for the remainder of the assembly. Afterwards, his class had Art for Life and he worked on the new art project diligently. While I know that B*’s disruptive days haven’t come to an end, the real success is knowing that B* seems to trust that the Art For Life program is for him. That he can focus on his own needs while he’s there, whether that means making art with the rest of the class or not. 

"This program is important, and it is making a difference in underprivileged children’s lives."

G* and B*’s stories are two amongst many. I’ve had student’s spend entire classes painstakingly working on projects only to turn down the opportunity to put them on display in the school because they’d much rather bring them home and give them away as gifts to people important in their lives (gift-giving is a privilege not available to many of the students due to economic barriers, despite their desire to give back to those they love). I’ve had student’s take the opportunity to mend their shoes and winter boots when I’ve brought glue-guns in. During lunch breaks and recesses students will seek out the Art For Life space if they need sanctuary because they know there will be something fun to do, someone to talk to, someone who will listen, and they won’t be pushed back into a scenario they might need a break from.

This program is important, and it is making a difference in underprivileged children’s lives. If it were possible to better integrate the program into each classroom’s curriculum, it would make an even bigger impact by having the lessons they learn in class mirrored in the projects that I bring to the school each week. This could be accomplished with more paid planning hours and an additional day (six hours) at the school every week. Having this increase in planning and hands-on time with the kids would multiply the impact this program can provide.​​​​​​​

I’ve spoken about G* and B* because their stories illustrate what the Art For Life program has the chance to do: the more often that they (and students like them) show up and aren’t disruptive, the better chance they have of raising the alarming low graduation rate of kids from this area. It fosters trust in others as well as trust in themselves, and at the very least, it provides an hour every week where they get to play around with fun art supplies and try to learn a bit about themselves in the process.
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- Maureen Schimnowsky

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