When co-facilitators Caitlin McPherson and Marlee Cavallero learned the Empowerment Center summer art camp had to move online, their creative wheels immediately began to spin. The challenge: How to conduct art education at a distance without sacrificing a sense of community connection.
The pair had always planned for their campers to create a mural, slated for installation in the Arts Hub parking lot on Public Road in Lafayette. With in-person collaboration off the table, they quickly devised a “jigsaw puzzle” concept that would allow students to work independently on their own mural section, then fit them together into a finished work. In addition to cleverly solving a major practical problem, the puzzle concept also celebrates the notion of community; a powerful whole built of diverse, unique components. With this in mind, McPherson and Cavallero named their initiative “Together We Inspire.”
The finished mural, unveiled on June 25, showcases original symbols and imagery developed by the students to reflect their personal views on inspiration and identity. Artistic renderings of sponsor logos such as the City of Lafayette Police Department and community partners ArtsHub, Communities that Care and the City of Lafayette Fire Department are also featured, representing the program’s connection to the broader Lafayette community.
“We started with the logos as a way of teaching symbolism,” explains McPherson. “We asked questions like what exactly is a symbol? What makes a symbol visually powerful?” From there, students moved into creating their own symbols, which turned out to be as diverse and inspiring as the kids themselves.
“My grandma came from Mexico and me and my mom and the rest of my family were born here,” explains Elena Sanchez, age 11 whose artwork transforms elements on the Mexican and American flags into a depiction of roots and branches. “I’m most proud of what my symbol represents.”
Student Abigail Zurek, age 14 created her own sketch of a human silhouette because “it reminded me of a brave or confident person.”
Inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, Camila Colin, age 14 superimposed the raised fist of empowerment on the Mexican flag. “I believe the art that I am able to produce isn’t only showing color and design but an empowering movement to inspire others to speak up,” she asserts.
Although the mural is now finished, the campers and their teachers hope the conversation about art and society is just getting started. In fact, space for continued dialog is a key element of the mural, which includes three “blank” puzzle pieces coated with chalkboard paint, inviting viewers to add their own art or message. “We wanted it to be interactive,” explains McPherson, “so anyone walking by who gets inspired can participate and feel represented.”
What began as a compromise to challenging circumstances evolved into a memorable creative experience both campers and teachers will look back on with great pride. “I was nervous the kids wouldn’t get enough out of the program if we weren’t there to guide them in person,” admits McPherson. “But it turned out to be the opposite. Since the kids had to do more on their own, it became something they really wanted to do. It raised the level of accountability they felt to themselves and to the group.”
Adds Cavallero, “We got an extremely talented group. Our jaws dropped when we saw their sketches.” Although students were initially shy about displaying their work to fellow campers online, they quickly opened up, sourcing ideas from each other in a natural give-and-take. In fact, the facilitators soon found students logging on early to the collaboration portal in their enthusiasm to connect and share.
If the success of this month’s program is any indicator, the future looks bright for online arts programming. “I realized how easy it is to be stuck in what we’re used to,” says McPherson. “I had a lot of hesitations, but the kids surprised me over and over again with how open they are to doing things in different ways.” Her advice to other online educators? “Don’t limit anything. The kids are so much more adaptable than we realize.”