Making art and community in Artful Connections

Jaime Fields, A&E Reporter

Boredom and loneliness are common feelings among students right now, and volunteering is one way to alleviate it by engaging with fellow students and members of the community. The recently developed Artful Connections, an art-based community service program, is one program that is looking for more student volunteers.

Melina Waldman, a sophomore art history major, spent her summer working with Carnegie Picture Lab doing community engagement research with a team of staff, faculty and students. Carnegie Picture Lab, a local nonprofit that provides arts education for elementary school students, does something called “storybook art,” which are art lessons based on children’s books. 

The idea behind Artful Connections is for Whitman students to get involved by creating a storybook art curriculum and then hopefully teaching that curriculum at local schools.

“We’re still in our very early stages. We’re working on getting a team together right now to start making our first round of storybook lessons,” Waldman said. “Depending on how much we get done this semester, we might try to do some virtual recordings of the lessons, but if not, our plan is to roll them out in person once that’s a possibility.”

Abby Juhasz, Assistant Director for Community Engagement in the SEC, explained that the idea for Artful Connections came about a year ago when she and several others — including community learning specialist Kelsey Martin, co-director of the Sheehan Gallery Kynde Kiefel and Professor of Art History and Visual Culture Studies Matthew Reynolds — began discussing the idea of creating “stronger connections between curricular and co-curricular community engagement opportunities through art.”

“Over the years we have been fortunate to connect with the Carnegie Picture Lab (CPL) on various projects, but never on a longer-term, on-going project that intentionally connects Whitman’s co-curricular and curricular community engagement,” Juhasz wrote in an email to The Wire. 

The first book that Artful Connections is working on is the book “Maya Lin: Artist-Architect of Light and Lines” by Jeanne Walker Harvey. This connects to an Art and the Environment course taught in fall 2020 by Associate Professor of Art History and Visual Culture Studies Matthew Reynolds’s, which featured Maya Lin’s Confluence Project.

According to the Confluence Project’s website, “Confluence connects you to the history, living cultures and ecology of the Columbia River system through Indigenous voices. We are a community-supported nonprofit that works through six art landscapes, educational programs and public gatherings in collaboration with northwest tribes, communities and the celebrated artist Maya Lin.”

Although the book focuses on Lin’s work on the Vietnam War Memorial, Waldman explained that they thought it would be good to have overlap that with the Confluence Project and the art curriculum in a classroom setting.

Artful Connections has only recently started putting out advertisements through the student listservs, but Waldman says they’ve already had a good response.

“We’ve just started recruiting,” Waldman said. “We’ve been getting positive responses, which is really exciting. At least to start, we’re focusing on building a smaller team, just because we’re focusing on… writing the storybook art curriculum for the Maya Lin book. Hopefully once that’s done we can expand to more volunteers.”

Megan Suka, an intended art major, explained why they think that volunteering, especially art-related volunteering, is important in a community.

“I think volunteer programs that involve art are important for artists because they sometimes help artists interact with possible new resources and inspirations,” Suka said. “I also think that volunteering for youth inspires children to pursue creative environments which is important as well. Art helps people express things and brings people together to do so.”

Carnegie Picture Lab is a local nonprofit that provides arts education for elementary school students including offering “storybook art” lessons which based on children’s books. Photo contributed by Carnegie Picture Lab.

Both Waldman and Juhasz are very excited about the opportunities that this project will bring.

“We are so pleased to deepen our relationship with CPL through this ongoing project,” wrote Juhasz. “They are an important organization in the valley, offering art education and opportunities for art creation. This project is unique for Whitman since it crosses what is often seen as the curricular and co-curricular divide, offering students the opportunity to learn about and partner with CPL through their time in the classroom and out of the classroom, with points of connection between the two settings.”

“It’s really exciting to be working on this,” Waldman said. “I’m really really excited to see where this goes.”