• November 2012

Art at the Center: Teaching Empathy Through Art Class

By Kathryn Horn Coneway
Co-founder and Director
Art at the Center

Teaching in an art studio for children and families, I get to see firsthand the ways in which shared artistic practice can build relationships. Often it begins with relationships to materials—to the liquid flowing paint, the heavy clay, or to the privacy of one’s own sketchbook.

Through sharing space and practice, we begin to build relationships with other artists as well, learning from those we observe and those who share our exploration.

Finally, we form relationships with images and objects we create. These may express our feelings, our passions, our interests, or a shared story or memory.

Themes and ideas that arrive in the studio with one artist are quickly built on by others.

Sometimes the inspiration comes from a peer in the room, while other times the artist builds a visual relationship with a creative person from a distant time or place.

Art can allow people to build relationships across time and space as well as with ideas and feelings. We open ourselves through a creative process and become vulnerable as we share our process, our trials, and our products. Empathy is a key piece to this process. It is what allows us to risk, to share, and to know we will be supported in our efforts to create.

Central to this relationship-building is the vulnerability we enter into when we open ourselves up through the creative process.

I see my job as demystifying artistic materials and methods for the people who visit my studio.

We speak of ourselves as artists, and this intention helps build a community of practice around shared creating. One of my favorite aspects of parent / child classes is the way the art levels the playing field.

So much of the parent / child relationships is built on tasks, places, and activities in which the parent is the expert and the child the learner.

In the art studio, this is often not the case.

With process-based art, many times the less inhibited child becomes the teacher and guide, jumping in, trying things, and taking risks that somehow give the parent permission to play, too.

One of my favorite things about my job is getting to meet the fascinating adults (parents and caregivers) who accompany my young artists.

We are typically elbow-deep in paint, clay, or glue by the time conversation touches on what these people do in the outside world, and I am always amazed by the talents, education, knowledge, and life experiences of the adults I meet.

At the same time, I am delighted by the humility, simplicity, and openness these same adults exhibit in the art studio. I get to meet people first as brave beginning art explorers.

I am much more likely to know about the smell of the barrel of clay a person remembers from their kindergarten than about what they do for a living or where they went to college. Something about having our hands in paint and clay, and feeling the creative potential of these materials, opens people up and invites sharing of stories grounded in memory and formative experiences of creating.

The creative potential of materials implies the possibility of risk as well.

The community of practice helps support individual courage to try something new, to make a connection, to show that you care. We are more able to open ourselves up to the vulnerability that comes with creating something new because others around us are taking risks, too. When we share our experiences, we strengthen our community through empathy with other makers.

Time and space to create is as key for parents as for children. Entering the studio, the routines are established and parents don’t have to worry so much about the mess, so they can feel free to focus on their child and his or her creation. This careful observation builds empathy.

Children seeing parents explore and create builds empathy, too. A shared experience is a great memory-builder, laying a foundation for connection and caring. Taking a further step of creating stories or acting out pretend play with objects made furthers the relationship-building through offering the opportunity to play and act through imagined characters.

Imagination is key to empathy.

Here is one parent’s description of her experience in class with her 2 year old: “The class isn’t for me, supposedly, and yet it has become my happy place. I follow my daughter around as she guides me from place to place, poking and prodding the clay, sweeping swirls of color onto the page, stacking up rainbows of plexiglass. She has no agenda, no expected result, nothing to prove to anyone. She is absolutely in the moment. And so am I.

On Thursday mornings from 9:30 until 10:30, I am gradually rediscovering and reclaiming the creativity I rejoiced in before lines and rules and order started to prevail.”

By following her child’s lead, this parent is empathizing and seeing through her daughter’s eyes and gaining a benefit in joy, openness, and creativity in a relationship.

The impact is most powerful when I observe parents who participate in classes. Our sharing time at the end of drop-off classes for older students provides a rich chance for empathy-building as well. In my after-school groups, we end with 15 minutes of sharing time.

Often, we share what we created that day or we pose a question for reflection.

What was a challenge you worked through today? What was most difficult? What surprised you? These questions help us focus on the artistic behaviors we want to build and to empathize with other makers.

I am always amazed during sharing time how the girls making tea sets and games for their dolls listen with rapt attention to the boys drawing diagrams of opposing camps inspired by particularly complex block creations. During our creative time, they seem worlds apart in interests, ideas, and motivation.

Something about the sharing time seems to bring everyone together around sharing his or her process, and thus I see children relating to the process and problem-solving of another, even when the subject matter and materials chosen are vastly different.

Parents arrive as we share and often join in to listen to the sharing time.

One of my favorite things is to see the light of joy and surprise on a parent’s face as his or her child offers expertise and takes the role of de-mystifying the process.

Clay is a great example; many young artists know a great deal more about the steps of the ceramic firing process than their parents. It builds a special kind of confidence for kids to get to explain something to parents. Working in the studio, they naturally take on the language and understanding of processes with materials. It is powerful to see them come to own this knowledge and share it with adults.

One thing that stands out as I reflect on the relationships I observe in the studio is the expansion of the notion of working among one’s peers. As children mature, much emphasis is put on how peer relationships shape character and choices. The studio expands the idea of who can be a peer.

During the studio time, parents and children share in materials and processes that have an equalizing impact. Relating is valued over hierarchy or competition, allowing a unique opportunity for building relationships based on shared stories, experiences, and empathy with others’ creative process.

For more information, visit www.artatthecenter.org.

About Kathryn Horn Coneway

Kathryn Horn Coneway has worked as an art teacher, artist in residence, and art therapist as well as pursued her own artistic practice. She exhibits her photography and mixed-media work in community and juried shows.

Coneway taught art and photography at the Miller School of Albemarle and the University of Virginia summer enrichment program. As an artist in residence, she collaborated with teachers to integrate visual arts in curriculum in San Diego Unified School District, and Arlington County, Virginia. Coneway studied art and education at the University of Virginia, earning a B.A. in Studio Art with a Photography concentration.

She received a Masters in Art Therapy from The George Washington University in 2003. She completed art therapy internships at Accotink Academy in Springfield, Virginia, and at Georgetown’s Lombardi Cancer Center.

Coneway is a co-founder and director of Art at the Center. She enjoys providing a studio atmosphere for children and families and hopes that creative work begun at Art at the Center carries over into creating and making connections at home and in the community.

She is a member of the National Art Education Association, the American Art Therapy Association, and the North American Reggio Emilia Alliance as well as serves as a creative ambassador for Fablevision Learning.

For more information, or to contact Coneway, send her an email kathryn@artatthecenter.org.

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