The healing power of art

Art for Social Change Program flourishing in Brattleboro

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BRATTLEBORO - Pablo Picasso once said "The purpose of art is washing the dust of daily life off our souls."

To wash off the dust of daily life for the Brattleboro area's marginalized population, community caregivers, and the general public by using art as a healing tool in a safe environment was the goal of River Gallery School program director Jess Weitz when she planned the Art for Social Change Program that began last year.

The program recently announced it had received another round of funding from the Wolf Kahn and Emily Mason Foundation, as well as The Vermont Community Foundation, Ben & Jerry's Foundation, The Anne Slade Frey Fund, and the Windham Foundation.

"The process of making art offers a path toward well being," Weitz said. "The Art for Social Change program provides a calm and creative space for people in stressful living situations. A visual voice and feeling of belonging among the group, and self-worth in the individuals. I believe that world peace begins within each of us and every being can and deserves to feel peace if given the necessary conditions"

After seeing more and more issues with homelessness, opioid addiction, and social suffering in the local landscape, Weitz drew inspiration from her background in teaching photography to teens at In-Sight Photography that showed her first hand the healing power of art as a form of expression rather than focusing on the end product. Although the school already offered Workshop for Caregivers to individuals as a form of self-care, in 2018 Weitz started talking to River Gallery School executive director Donna Hawes about creating a program that partnered with area social service organizations to help their clients.

They received funding from The Thomas Thompson Trust and the Wolf Kahn and Emily Mason Foundation for 2019. Among the organizations that took part in either art, painting or printing workshops, or in mentoring programs were The Root Social Justice Center, Great River Terrace, Safe Place program, Women's Freedom Center, and Brooks Memorial Library.

Starr LaTronica, executive director of the Brooks Memorial Libary, said the library's clients were "fortunate to benefit from this generous project."

"The workshops brought together people of all ages and backgrounds to create art and community. Families worked beside seniors and those who would have no other means to attend an arts workshop," LaTronica said. "The creative process coalesced with conversation and common ground was formed and strengthened among the participants, contributing to the mental well being of the group and thus, ultimately, the community. And the world was made a little more beautiful."

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This year, after finding that for people who have stress due to addiction or trauma at home that consistency was hard, resulting in low attendance at times, River Gallery School worked to remove barriers, opening up the program to more teens by partnering with more organizations. Joining the program are the Boys and Girls Club, Youth Services, Turning Point of Windham County, and Brattleboro Area Hospice to help reach a broader base. It is free, and this year allowing drop-ins will also hopefully allow for higher attendance.

Attention is paid to what works best for different groups by listening to each population and to organizations for feedback. For LGBTQ+ students, the school offers a place where they felt safe and could come together with other students with similar feelings to let their guard down.

"Here at the school it can be inspiring and supportive," Weitz said. "But for some, like those at Great River Terrace by Panda North, transportation is often an issue, and some are in recovery and being downtown is an issue, plus some are just more comfortable in familiar surroundings. In that case, we bring the class to them."

Sometimes, that brings about unexpected results. "At Great River Terrace some people would come and just watch. The Verandah Porche came to listen to their stories. Then artists came to paint individuals. It began an organic following," Weitz said.

As is often the case in the non-profit world, River Gallery School's ambition for the program is greater than its funding. This year's grant from the Wolf Kahn and Emily Mason Foundation was less than half of what they received last year. To continue the program for years to come, the school cannot rely on grants alone. So they are brainstorming ways to work with local businesses to broaden financial support.

Weitz has even higher ambitions. "We would like to do things like working with Equity Solutions in a half-day training with other art organizations including In-Sight Photography or New England Youth Theatre, but we need funding," she said. "I really like the idea of all the art organizations coming together."

To that end, Weitz said that Brattleboro businesses and individual partners who would be interested in sponsoring one of the Art for Social Change programs over the coming years may contact Donna Hawes to discuss this collaboration at donna@rivergalleryschool.org or 802-257-1577. River Gallery School would also like to hear from organizations that would like to partner with Art for Social Change.

"I think the greatest part of last year were comments and testimonials from people," Weitz said of the program. "At Great River Terrace, they said they felt isolated and were grateful for the experience and the companionship."

For more information about any of these upcoming programs or to join an email list for upcoming art classes, contact Weitz at jess@rivergatlleryschool.org or call River Gallery School at 802-257-1577.


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