Column: How art and books helped San Diego’s kids survive a strange year

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Meet Rouge. It is a pencil whose inner self is not reflected in the label with which it came. His exterior says “Red,” but on the inside, he knows he’s really blue. And when a new friend helps her find the courage to be her true blue self, Red can jot down her path to happiness.

Red is the main character in “Red: A Crayon’s Story”, an award-winning picture book by Michael Hall. Red is also one of the literary heroes of “Art & Lit 2021”, a program that used books and art to help local students celebrate themselves at a time when no one wanted to celebrate much. .

“We were trying to find ways to help during the pandemic. We asked many of our partners, “What do you see? How can stories connect us and help us help each other at this time? ‘ “Said Amanda Bonds, program director for the local literacy organization Words Alive, which has partnered with another nonprofit ArtReach San Diego to bring” Art & Lit 2021 “to local students and their families.

“What we heard is that young people are isolated and alone. They feel bad, and it’s not their fault. None of this was their fault. We were looking for something to support youth mental health during this extraordinary time. “

Before the pandemic, Words Alive’s “Art & Lit” program brought guest artists from participating schools and organizations to work with students on projects inspired by the selected books. Since the project began in 2014, students have interpreted literary themes through mediums that included ink and paper art, sculpture, stop animation, and printmaking.

But 2021 was not a traditional year.

With most schools still running online classes, Words Alive had to find a new way to keep the “Art & Lit” flame burning. The organization has partnered with ArtReach, a 14-year-old nonprofit that inspires young people through visual arts and community connections.

When schools in San Diego closed in March 2020, ArtReach switched to online classes as staff and volunteers found ways to provide art supplies to students for projects that offered engagement and comfort. Once Words Alive chose the 2021 “Art & Lit” book list, ArtReach staff came up with an associated art project that included materials that were inexpensive and easy to deliver to attendees. Kits including selected books from the list and art materials were distributed to 1,200 participants in San Diego.

For the literary component of the “Art & Lit 2021” project, the bibliophiles of Words Alive looked at the challenges faced by young people at the time of Zoom lessons and chose five books for different grade levels, each of them. them dealing with themes of identity, resilience and courage.

In addition to “Red: A Crayon’s Story”, the “Art & Lit 2021” selections included the story of a girl who discovers that a single stitch can be the start of something big (“The Dot”); the story of a gorilla artist and the baby elephant who improve his life (and his art) (“The One and Only Ivan”); and a novel for young adults about two loners who end up sharing a life-changing bond (“Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe”).

For the artistic part of the program, ArtReach chose identity circles. Inspired by the work of pioneering black artist and teacher Alma Thomas, the Identity Circle Art Project allows participants to create two Identity Circles. One featured responses to the prompts from Words Alive based on the books, which they wrote in a concentric pattern around the circle of paper. The others feature designs made by their own fingerprints.

“When we read the books, what we really realized was that they had all the themes of self-discovery and identity. And there is nothing more individual than your fingerprint. Said Sarah Holbach, Executive Director of ArtReach.

“And the really cool thing about writing in circular patterns is that it allowed their words to become the design. It allowed people to relax and say more than if they were just writing a paragraph on a flat sheet of paper. It was a great way for students to be honest and talk about their struggles during this time of separation. “

The 2021 version of “Art & Lit” was launched earlier this year, with material aimed at Words Alive and ArtReach partner schools and communities. Both organizations also posted instructions online, opening this meditative project to anyone who wanted to grab a marker and take the plunge.

Over 200 works of art have been returned to Words Alive and ArtReach, and many of them have been featured in “Art & Lit 2021,” which is on display at the Mission Valley Library until October 16. Words Alive will present a virtual version of the exhibit once it goes down.

Like the participants themselves, each Identity Circle is a unique project. But they’re all about the human need to go beyond our pandemic screens and pods to make our mark.

“I hope people see the exhibition and be inspired to read the text and practice expressing themselves through art in some way or another,” said Anna Laroque, head of ArtReach’s community engagement.

“It’s not just for kids. What we found definitely translated to all ages. We just want people to keep creating, whatever the form.


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