By Lisa Worth Huber, Ph.D.
“We must remember that nonviolence is one of the greatest art forms given to us. It engages the body, mind, spirit and voice. Art was always a part of the nonviolence movement.”
Kingian Nonviolence trainer Pastor James Lane spoke passionately as he looked at the vibrant paintings, clay sculptures, collages, and a wooden-block village created by Hartford High School students and community leaders from the Connecticut Center for Nonviolence (CTCN) and Hartford Public Library (HPL). Funding for the training was provided through a FY2016 grant under the “Challenging Hartford to Engage Civically and Keep Improving Together” (CHECK IT!) initiative from the City of Hartford’s Department of Families, Children, Youth and Recreation.
“Art speaks to the reality of the times and also helps to show us what we can be in the future,” Pastor Lane added as he welcomed the audience to the exhibit located at the Owl Enrichment Center at the Mark Twain Branch of the HPL.
The intergenerational group gathered to celebrate the culmination of the teens’ immersion in a Kingian Nonviolence art-infused educational project.
The 24-week program, comprised of two sessions, has had a profound impact. When students were asked if they felt this program helped in their daily lives, Joseph said the program helped to put problems in his life into perspective. “Instead of feeling I have to fight conflicts out, I’ve learned to walk away.”
“I’ve come to believe in Principle Six (of Kingian Nonviolence): The Universe is on the side of justice,” Joseph added.
Teaching Artist Robert Charles Hudson Inspires Students
Teaching Artist Robert Charles Hudson began the program introducing the students to the HPL’s superb collection of artwork by Romare Bearden, renowned Harlem Renaissance artist.
Bearden’s powerful paintings and collages helped influence a deeper cultural understanding of the American civil rights movement, nonviolence, and issues of race and social injustice.
To begin, Hudson exposed the students to multiple forms of artistic media from collage to sculpture to watercolor. At first he noticed the students were reluctant to participate in the creative projects; they thought it was “too much work.”
Hudson’s first objective was to inspire them to loosen up, to focus on their tactile engagement with the medium — be it paint, paper or fabric for collage, or clay.
He encouraged them not to think about the end result or strive to be perfect, but most importantly to be in the moment.
Teaching Artist, Robert Charles Hudson conducts watercolor painting class
“Working on this painting gave me inspiration,” said Ricardo. “It helped me to focus more. When I’m doing this work I can feel something deep is going on inside me.”
“It Felt Like the Whisper of My Soul”
Nachaly particularly enjoyed working in watercolors. “When it started to flow, it felt like the whisper of my soul.”
Mona Lisa agreed: “I loved how you would begin a painting with nothing and if you work with the ingredients given to you, the art piece actually becomes something beautiful and unexpected.”
When asked if there was a project that stood out for him, teaching-artist Hudson answered, “All of them. But if I had to choose what inspired me most, it would be when the students broke through their resistance and came to a new place where they realized creating art was a gift. It was important for these young people to engage with something positive.”
Students Learn Kingian Nonviolence Along with Art
Along with weekly art projects, the students were introduced to the study of Kingian Nonviolence—from the history of the civil rights movement to the Six Principles and Six Steps of Nonviolence.
By integrating these concepts into each of their art projects, the nonviolence approaches eventually seeped into the students’ consciousness and lives.
Hudson collaborated with Connecticut Center for Nonviolence trainers Warren Hardy and Executive Director Victoria Christgau. Assistant Trainer and CTCN Board Member Sonya Green worked with team for the first 12-week session, and Assistant Trainer Warren Hardy, also a CTCN Board Member, was one of the trainers for the second 12-week session. In addition, Cherell Banks, another CTCN Nonviolence Trainer, helped to instruct the students in the book, Play by the Rules, a civic engagement curriculum designed to teach the laws that govern their city and state.
Reflecting on the value of the student’s participation in nonviolence training, Warren Hardy said, “These students are living it to give it right now. If each of them takes a little bit of this training out into the world, it will make a difference in their communities and in their lives.”
Reconciling Conflict Through Art
Massey, one of the student artists, connected the process of making the collage to the study of nonviolence. “We searched for elements to reconcile conflict, both in our training with Warren Hardy and Pastor Lane, as well as in our art work with Mr. Hudson.”
Describing the collage students created together, Massey pointed out that “the middle represents the heart of nonviolence, where the most important principle is love. I appreciated how we learned to use art to keep the message of King’s movement alive and relevant for today.”
“If we keep coming back to do these art projects, we’ll continue to grow,” said Massey. “And I’ll always be reminded that the Beloved Community is the framework for the future.”
The project was designed to be intergenerational, with elders working with youth, and youth connecting with their ancestors through their art, as well as the great nonviolent civil rights leaders upon whose shoulders we all stand.
Explaining her self portrait, Anna Lisa said, “It’s not only about myself — the black hair symbolizes my ancestors and reminds us all it’s OK to have a bad hair day. When I created this work while studying Kingian Nonviolence, I had a strong sense of the ancestors who came before, as well as all the people who will comprise our future.”
Combining art with the study of nonviolence provided a deeper understanding of both processes. When asked if he saw a correlation between art and nonviolence Ariel said, “Art is something you have to practice and practice, just like nonviolence.”
Building a Beloved Community – Block by Block
One project that engaged all the students was when Victoria Christgau, Executive Director of CTCN, arrived with a carton of wooden blocks and asked the youth to design the blocks to recreate the neighborhoods where they live. This activity evolved into one of the most inspiring experiences for the teens.
“The blocks were a surprise,” shared Jada. “We started to look at places we see every day in our neighborhoods through new eyes. It made us see where we live in a completely different light—each time we added more color or trees it made the community more fun.”
“We even added the Kingian Six Principles as signs throughout the community,” she said. “This project really made me appreciate my community more. It was like where we all live really became the Beloved Community Dr. King talks about. I’ll never see my community the way I used to. Now I can actually see what it might become.”
For Hartford Department of Families, Children, Youth and Recreation Assistant Director Trish Torruella, this exhibit and the students sharing of their experience exceeded her hopes for the project. “It’s clear there is great power in the generations coming together. Today I observed how these students have developed a sense of pride through these art projects. Too often their circumstances make them feel criticized and dismissed. It’s just beautiful to see them experience a community where they are listened to, heard, and appreciated.”
Her colleague, Grants Manager Kristina Baldwin agreed, “ The work Victoria does with CTCN is truly incredible. We couldn’t ask for anything more supportive or important. We need more projects like this in our communities. ”
CTCN Founder / Executive Director Victoria Christgau, was excited by the collaboration, “CTCN’s work requires intergenerational support. Elders, youth, people of all ages working and learning together. We need each other to move forward, grow and thrive.”
Michelle McFarland, Branch Manager and Program Manager of the Owl Enrichment Center, said the project melded beautifully with her vision. “Our objective is for young people to be confident to use their voices and get their message out into the world.”
“These youth are the hope for the future,” said McFarland. “I want them to come here to continue to build the Beloved Community. Our responsibility is to make the world a better place, and our other responsibility is to keep this important work growing into the future. “
Pastor John Lewis, CTCN, Trish Torruella, DFCYR, Pastor James Lane, CTCN, Cherell Banks, CTCN, Wilson Torres, CTCN, Kristina Baldwin, DFCYR, Michelle McFarland, HPL, Victoria Christgau, CTCN.
Photo credit: Bernie Michel
“This kind of class is exactly what we need here at Hartford High,” Anna Lisa said as she began dissembling the exhibit. “We need a community, a better community, a beloved community.”
Building a better community is precisely what this project accomplished. Integrating the arts with nonviolence education inspired and equipped these teens to begin the process of laying the foundation for the Beloved Community block-by-block in their lives, their schools, and their neighborhoods.
“I feel ready to start making changes,” said Anna Lisa. “I feel empowered to follow in King’s footsteps.”
ThinKING youth leaders. Photo credit: Bernie Michel