ART IMPACTS GIRLS “AT-RISK”
Dominique Cieri and Catlin Cobb
(Complete article, A Fiasco of Things, published in Teaching Artist Journal, volume 2, number 2, 2004)
"My mother sometimes makes the mistake of leaving me behind when she up and goes."
"I need a cigarette. What is wrong with society today? Do you think I am pretty? Am I worth something? Sometimes I wish I had cocaine."
In the middle of rustic western New Jersey sits an old estate on acres of wooded land including pond, sheep, swimming pool, tennis courts, and extensive gardens. It appears quiet, safe, and peaceful. It is Devereux Deerhaven, a home for abused and neglected girls. Devereux's idyllic appearance is shattered only moments after entering any one of the 17th century stone buildings. Insignificant remarks produce hostility, an outburst escalates that has to be resolved with physical restraint and humiliation, restless bodies resist authority, over-medicated stupor causes catatonic expressions, fifteen year-old girls suck their thumbs. Betrayed by family members, Devereux is a facility for girls who are mentally, physically, and sexually abused. Some have been in drug rehabilitation, halfway houses, and correctional facilities. They are at Devereux Deerhaven because no other person, place, or institution will take them.
It was into this environment four teaching artists led by Dominique Cieri and Catlin Cobb and were invited for a 40-day multidisciplinary arts residency by case-manager and arts coordinator, Alexis Marnel. The project culminated in a performance representing theatre, dance, music, and visual art. A Fiasco of Things, appropriately titled by one of the participants, would prove an odyssey into the psyche of the at-risk adolescent girl and a poignant and significant learning experience for all involved, including the artists. We arrived at Devereux Deerhaven as unprepared for the residents and the facility as they were for us. We left educated about our students and the impact of art on their lives.
Twenty students were handpicked to participate. Fourteen made the commitment. Learning group cooperation and respect for one another became the core challenge of the residency. Distraction was our constant enemy. We taught in teams to overcome poor attention spans. Chaos reigned as we maneuvered our at risk project through the students inertia in an environment unfamiliar with the needs or benefits of an arts program. The girls craved turmoil, and helped to create it. Chaos is inherent with at-risk youth. It lives in their muscle memory, their immediate living space, and their surrounding environments.
We did not come to Devereux Deerhaven with the idea of persuading our students to pursue careers in the arts. We taught our disciplines knowing that the arts can offer a unique method for teaching cooperation, concentration, respect, healthy risk -taking, awareness of self and others,
and personal expression. Adolescents lacking inner resources can benefit from discovering the potential of their imaginations. As their personal stories unveiled in the form of writing activities and mask-making that visually portrayed details of their lives, it was clear that most of their existence had been one of loss, disrespect, and fragmentation. We wanted their personal experiences to be central to the final performance.
The residency was filled with brave moments that not only attested to its success, but also affirmed the rewards of making a commitment to the participants and the process:
"I have a feeling that flies. It embraces me on my path to control. I soar to a vision. My heart beats to the angel-like rhythm. Fate. I feel like I ampart of the music, part of its past. I imagine myself dancing to the melody, moving through the beats. For some reason I feel a call in my chest for the
music. I feel peace, serenity, solitude."
What emerged in our review of the process was an affirmation of the arts as a tool to change the physical and mental malaise in young women. We may only get fifteen good minutes from some students, but it is guaranteed that the positive experience is implanted in their memory for retrieval when times are hard, when they need to regain their innocence and sense of worth. It is a process that helps them to work as a team and take constructive criticism, make them feel that they have a voice and feel listened to. It teaches them how to have relationships with people.
With hopes of continuing our work at Devereux Deerhaven we finished our project a few months before the facility folded. Many of our students parceled out to various shelters and institutions are now unaccountable, lost, pregnant, angry, and in trouble again. Their sense of home, companionship, and belonging, as undesirable as it once seemed, has again been destroyed. A few held on to our telephone numbers, called out for help, then disappeared before we could connect. All too often with this at-risk population, the ball is dropped. Lives filled with promise are lost. Through the creative process we caught positive glimpses of who our young women believed themselves to be, who they could be. We shared in their transformation from helpless to hopeful and witnessed moments of inspiration.
A Devereux Resident: "I've been a drug addict since I was eleven. And the performance was the best feeling I've had in my life. It was a natural high. I haven't felt that way before. Not in a long time. I had bumps running up and down my arms. It's about being able to express myself. Its' about everything. It has a lot to do with the way y'all made me feel about myself. I can do something that I never thought I could do before. I hope we can have another one."
This project, funded by the New Jersey State Council on the Arts and administered by the New Jersey AIE Consortium including Arts Horizons, culminated with a presentation at Playwrights Theatre of New Jersey in 2000. The success of this work brought together all the participating artists, among others, to establish The Artists’ Collective For Social Change, based in Englewood, New Jersey. Incorporated in 2002, the Collective uses this project as a model for all its workshops and teaching with at-risk and under served populations of children.
From Fiasco to Social Change: The Evolution of a Collective for Teaching Artists
Excerpt from Teaching Artist Journal, vol. 4 Number 2, 2006
The quality and vision of the artists involved with ACSC continues to motivate the Collective. Recently, I visited The Brooklyn Museum to view an installation by fiber artist Xenobia Bailey and was astonished at the magnitude of her imagination. I had seen the crocheted purses made by Xenobia’s students in The Wearable Arts Program, but her own work was something else. It has to be seen. In the center of the museum’s fifth floor hall hanging from the ceiling was a bold colorful monument, “Sistah Paradise’s Great Wall of Fire Revival Tent.” Her ten foot tall, sculpted, single-stitched, sixty pound crocheted installation is, as Xenobia describes, an epic installation/poem, “designed to reconstruct and institute mysticism into African American urban folklore and chase away the ‘blues’”. It is storytelling through fiber art. Each stitch represents the fabrication of this meditation, this prayer.
Weekends from November, 05-March, 06 Xenobia sits beneath her Revival Tent on a museum platform elevated a few inches off the floor, crocheting the flames surrounding the edge of a large yellow circular rug ‘the ball of fire.’ While completing her piece, Xenobia engages museum visitors who inquire about about the stitching, the background of the tent, and its cultural intentions. She explains that spells are woven as text into the rug to make the tent (“carpet”) fly. Her work, intended as creation mythology, took inspiration from the lack of historical documentation on the presence and enslavement of Africans in America. Paying homage to the past, Bailey asserts that her “mythological characters mirror the modern day struggle of African Americans struggle for emancipation.”
This picture before me confirmed that the greatest resource in the Collective is its artists. Xenobia is a thoughtful and reflective woman who understands the function of the arts and her role in it. She knows that the arts cannot be taught by imposing itself. The muse is within and needs to be lured into its expression. Her greatest asset, she comments, is her craft. “Before you can get to any part of education or learning you have to heal the psyche. Through this affirmation is the capacity to heal oneself, to know oneself. Once your psyche is free and healthy, you’ll know who you are.”