Diverse groups find creative magic with Power of Art

By on September 25, 2016

Laura Howard helps a participant make jewelry. (Michelle Wagner)

Local jewelry maker Laura Howard stands over a table covered with seashells, sea glass and colorful silk ribbon. She gently guides a group through the simple steps of creating not only a piece of art they can wear, but more importantly one they can be proud of.

It doesn’t take long before smiles appear on participants’ faces as their necklaces begin to take shape during this class at the Dare County Arts Council in downtown Manteo.

On this particular day, the class is made up of clients of GEM Adult Day Services and their caregivers. And for those struggling with memory loss and other special needs, it’s moments like these that can illustrate the profound power that art can have on someone’s life.

Over the past three years, the council and its artists have seen moments like these again and again as they work to provide “art as therapy” to groups that need it the most.

This year, the Arts Council launched its Power of Art program with a $7,500 startup grant from the Outer Banks Community Foundation.

Power of Art brings five pilot programs together that deliver classes, workshops, supplies and funding to groups in the community who otherwise may have gone without.

“Whether it is a veteran with PTSD or a child with Downs Syndrome, something magical happens with they are in the moment of creativity — they are fully-abled, making critical artistic decisions, just as any of us would,” says DCAC Executive Director Chris Sawin.

Howard says that the social interaction and camaraderie are as important as the final product.

“Everyone has something to learn from each other and something to teach,” she said. “Learning to meet one another at our present level of functioning enables us all to share in fun, rewarding time spent in artistic expression.”

Under the Power of Art umbrella, the council has partnered with the Monarch Beach Club, GEM, Hotline and the local Special Needs Association of Parents (SNAP) group. It also includes the OBX Veteran’s Writing Project and a women’s empowerment workshop.

“The Power of Art program is meant to create arts experiences for people whose means of self-expression has in some way been limited, blocked or hampered,” said Sawin, who adds that it is not art therapy but using art as therapy. These programs give participants permission to communicate in a different language.”

All programs under Power of Art are free to participants.

“We have really only dipped our toe into the water as far as the special needs groups here that could benefit from this program,” says DCAC Program Director Fay Davis Edwards.

“We are looking at art as therapy and its power to engage anyone, especially someone who has a different experience. And the creativity the people we serve show is spectacular. It’s about the sheer joy of making something.”

A variety of art classes are held regularly for GEM and Monarch clients at the DCAC building and at the Monarch facility in Manteo.

“The Power of Art gives Monarch participants the opportunity to experience and explore creative expression,” says Monarch Senior Director of Philanthropy Laurie Weaver, adding that it builds skills beyond that. “Even the simple act of holding a paintbrush builds dexterity and muscle control for some.”

DCAC has also partnered with Outer Banks Hotline to provide art opportunities and supplies to residents at Hotline’s safe house free of charge. All DCAC classes are available to those at the safe house.

Also as part of the Power of Art program, the first-ever Women’s Empowerment Workshop was held this spring and facilitated by Shirley Parker and Rosie Rankin of Outer Banks Inner Journey.

“They have been tremendous advisers to us as we have gone down this path,” said Sawin, who adds that DCAC hopes the free workshop would become a semi-annual event under the Power of Art program.

The OBX Veterans Writing Project hosts writing workshops, classes and seminars for veterans every December. The council plans to work with the National Initiative for Arts and Health in the Military to connect to similar programs in the state.

A fifth component of the Power of Art program is DCAC’s partnership with the local Special Needs Association of Parents (SNAP). While DCAC has provided funding for SNAP day excursions, it plans to hold special events and develop classes and one-on-one training as well.

Susan Van Gieson, a retired art therapist, helps to coordinate workshops and instructors for Power of Art and occasionally leads an art class for Monarch.

“I’ve really noticed how supportive the students are of one another,” she said. “They are always complementing each other and are proud of their work.”

If you ask any of the artists who participate in the program, they will likely tell you that is essentially what the Power of Art is all about.

“It feeds the soul of everyone involved,” Howard says.

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