Art Feeds Is Teaching Children to Express Their Emotions through Artmaking
As a shy kid growing up in Joplin, Missouri, Meg Bourne turned to artmaking at a young age, a passion that carried through into her teenage years. “I was introverted and struggled with severe social anxiety,” she tells me. “Being shy, creativity was a very big part of my life. When you’re a kid, you can’t really identify what anxiety is—you can just feel it. Drawing and painting were how I managed that.”
Bourne’s own experience with the transformative power of art played no small part in developing Art Feeds, the therapeutic art and creative education organization she founded in 2009, when she was 19. With the goal of facilitating creative and emotional expression among children through art, the not-for-profit has impacted over 36,000 kids—from preschoolers to teens—at over 60 schools and children’s organizations in the United States. And with a freshly launched affiliate program, Art Feeds is poised to reach many more children in the years to come.
Bourne’s “aha moment” came when she was volunteering during college in a class for children with behavioral disorders. There, she met a young boy whose difficulties with concentration were holding him back. They started doing art projects together, and Bourne soon saw how effective this was in allowing him to express and process the difficulties he was facing at home (including malnourishment). Artmaking helped him gain confidence and self-worth. The name Art Feeds, Bourne explains, came out of the way that art essentially nourished him.
To get her own initiative off the ground, Bourne began engaging teachers she knew and started on a small scale in Joplin, working with some five children at a time, in a handful of schools, for half-hour lessons.
As they watched the joy and progress their students experienced working with Bourne, teachers began to tell their peers about the workshops, and Art Feeds began to grow. “We had the support of the teachers who were telling administration or principals, ‘I’m seeing this in real time, and it’s really important for my kids,’” Bourne notes.
With growth came responsibility. Bourne had to develop a stringent, vetted curriculum that would meet and exceed the standards of schools. (It’s important to note that Art Feeds does not refer to its activities as art therapy; although an art therapist consults on its curriculum, its lessons and workshops are not administered by a certified art therapist.)
In spring 2011, the organization began a major restructuring, which involved developing a curriculum and lesson plans. A certified art teacher wrote the curriculum, and then an art therapist and a child trauma specialist consulted on it. Then, in May of that year, a devastating tornado tore through Joplin. Art Feeds sprang into action and began working with the children affected by the disaster.
“It was a really active learning experience for us, where we were seeing how the lessons affected students that were a part of collective trauma,” Bourne recalls. “But it also helped us understand that beyond that big event in their individual lives, every student had a story to tell.”
Prior to the tornado, Bourne notes, Art Feeds had focused its activities on “marginalized students”— children considered “at risk” or who had behavioral disorders or special needs. After the tornado, as the team began working with a broader swath of students, they realized their work was important for all children.
Today, Art Feeds works with school administrators to coordinate its lessons, which are taught by teachers or volunteers trained by the organization at least once a week for each class. Bourne notes that around 90 percent of the students the team works with are in elementary school, but they do have curricula for preschoolers and older children, with special needs and behavioral disorders. Although there are only three full-time and one part-time employees of Art Feeds, each semester, they contract up to 40 educators, and work with around 200 volunteers. This year, they’re on track to work with 7,000 kids, and next year, Bourne hopes to reach 10,000.
In a typical Art Feeds lesson, children might engage in a variety of activities from mural-making to projects employing unconventional art materials, which will challenge them to engage in creative problem-solving, self-reflection, or storytelling. They’re encouraged to never say “I can’t,” and empowered to embrace the mantra “we can do hard things.”
Bourne describes one of her favorite lessons, a two-part experience. On the first day, children are taught the difficult task of finger-crocheting or finger-weaving. “At first, the kids are so mad at us, they say ‘this is too hard,’” she explains. “But then every time, without fail, about 10 minutes into the lesson, the light will turn on for four or five students.” Those students excitedly announce their progress to the teachers, who in turn ask them to show their peers. “Then there’s this really awesome collaboration between the kids who have figured it out and feel like they have this knowledge, and then can help the other students.”
Once the students get the hang of it, they crochet long strands of yarn, which teachers gather together to create a “storytelling web.” In this second part of the lesson, students are empowered to come up with their own stories and share them with the class, while standing in the safe space of the web. Some tell clever, imaginative tales, while others use it as a platform to get real personal woes off their chest.
“We encourage the students to take a risk, tell them there are no wrong answers, it’s really about the kids’ ideas,” Bourne offers. “A lot of people think of Art Feeds as an art instruction organization and I’ve always said I beg to differ about that. We don’t teach line and color and drawing and art history—all things that are very important—but rather we really believe that children are wildly creative, curious, imaginative, and we want to create a space where those things can thrive.”
While Art Feeds is currently mainly concentrated in northwest Arkansas and southwest Missouri, Bourne has long been keen to expand the organization’s reach.
Just weeks ago, the team announced the Art Feeds Affiliate Program, through which they will be able to share the training, curriculum, and supplies needed to start up Art Feeds programs in communities worldwide. “It allows us to bring our expertise and training directly to the students through schools and children’s organizations already doing good work,” Bourne says. They’ve also started the Art Feeds Community Assist Program, which helps schools or children’s organizations implement Art Feeds for free.
Beyond the schools, Art Feeds also has a mobile art center, a converted school bus dubbed Van Gogh 2.0 (the original Van Gogh automobile was a gift from the TV show Extreme Makeover). The bus allows Art Feeds to travel to communities and host lessons for up to 25 children within a custom, mobile art classroom. They’ve also launched initiatives online, including a podcast and a video series, Art Feeds Makes, whose speedy videos show a project from start to finish (not unlike the popular BuzzFeed Tasty videos).
Bourne acknowledges that she won’t helm Art Feeds forever. “I know so many people who spent several years after college trying to figure out what it is they want to do, and what makes them wake up in the morning,” she tells me. “I’ve had that from such a young age.” She hopes to continue to be able to share the therapeutic power of art that she’s witnessed firsthand with many more children in the years to come.
Casey Lesser is Artsy’s Creativity Editor.