Is there a process of collaborative creation that can empower all children to participate fully and value each other's contributions?
The process I used for this project was derived from my experience facilitating collaborative art projects with children and my research into the methods used by Artolution, a public art organization creating collaborative group projects with vulnerable populations worldwide. I found there were critical components to this process that held it together despite the cultural and contextual challenges posed by global travel.
It starts with purpose, or, the “Why?” My intention for this project was to empower children, and build connections/empathy between global communities. When we communicate our vision we attract others who share it, and build passion for the work. By clarifying my purpose, I also created a touchstone to return to when decisions had to be made during the project. To check to see if I had communicated the vision clearly, I interviewed a few kids shortly after the project started.
The next stage of the process was to build connections between the participants, and between the global groups participating in the project. For people to connect they must first feel safe, welcome, and accepted. The first activities were a series of playful exercises intended to establish common ground in the group, overcome drawing inhibitions, and set a precedent of everyone having a voice in what happens. We often began in a circle, with everyone saying their name and something they like to make (for example). We then played some icebreaker games (like Common Ground) to provide a safe way to explore commonalities and differences. Next, I began to break down the inevitable drawing inhibitions (“I’m not an artist, I can’t draw anything!”) by playing an adapted version of Pictionary, where kids pick words about the local community to draw and guess. For example, in Thessaloniki, Greece the symbol of the city is the White Tower, so that was one of the phrases we used. These local terms also foreshadowed the prompt for the composition of the mural: “What’s important in our community?” The building connections stage was high-energy and full of laughter, as everyone relaxed into the safe space we established.
As I pursued my process with these different groups of children, I also became aware that the mural itself had become a huge part of the feeling the children had of being connected to groups in other countries. When asked, “What’s important about this mural project?” every group mentioned that the object itself, with their ideas, would be traveling to different groups and places. There was a magic in this, in knowing that other hands were going to touch/had touched this same piece of canvas, that had a power I hadn’t anticipated. More on this can be found in visual analysis, or impact.
I carefully selected the prompt, “What’s important in our community?” for this project. First of all, I wanted the children to take a moment to consider their own culture and values, and connect more deeply to their home. Because the mural was to travel, I felt that having a unifying prompt might be important, to better reflect the different cultural values and circumstances the children would be working from. Also, in a sense this mural is a conversation as much as it is a collaboration, and when people communicate they must have some common thread holding the the conversation together. I was open to any interpretation of this question--abstract, metaphorical, or literal. I had no idea how it would come out, which made their compositional decisions much more interesting to analyze.
To anyone familiar with the creative process, or design thinking, the next steps will seem familiar. First, we brainstormed answers to the prompt. I had elaborating questions when ideas flagged: What makes this place special? What different kinds of people do you see here? What do people do every day? What places are important here? What holidays do we celebrate? What foods do we eat? What do you think someone not from here would notice about our community? What relationships are most important to you? What makes a place a home? We made a list of every answer we were given.
When we began to run out of new ideas, and reiterate those already listed, I shifted the discussion to looking at larger themes. This can be done by grouping ideas: people doing things, places, traditions, what we value, etc. When you do this, kids tend to start connecting ideas in different ways, for example, they might notice that many activities take place in or near the ocean, and so an ocean might be important to include in the final composition. If you do this before the children start drawing, you tend to get drawings that are less about a singular object (e.g., a hamburger), and more about context (people eating hamburgers at the local restaurant). These drawings tend to be more elaborate and community-specific in their details.
When everyone got restless with all the talking, it was time to start drawing. To allow for choice but ensure a variety of images, I had kids put their initials next to the term they were going to draw about. This always leads to kids picking a variety of options, but still allows them to choose something they are passionate about in the moment--fostering empowerment. Rarely does more than one child draw the same idea, I’m not sure why. A innate need to differentiate? This also offers another measure of the most important things on the list--when offered a choice, children will only draw what interests them most. I try and get at least one image from every child in the group.
The Emotional Journey of Collaboration
While it may not become an overt part of the process, the emotional journey of collaboration and creation is a vital resource to supporting children through the challenges that may arise in the next few steps. To illustrate, I created the following image based on a blend of my own experience, ideas from Katherine Douglas and Diane Jaquith in their amazing book, Engaging Learners Through Artmaking (2009), and designer Paula Scher’s graph of client satisfaction in the design process over time (from the Netflix series Abstract, 2017):
If difficult emotions emerge at certain points, it can help to show participants this graph and explain that these are normal experiences for artists and collaborators. Especially with traumatized groups or groups of children from opposite sides of a geographic conflict, understanding can depersonalize the situation, and help sustain the problem-solving process until we have worked through the issues. It illustrates a path toward a positive outcome, at a time when there may not seem to be any resolution in sight. I have drawn this graph for non-english speakers, using only the emojis (a universal language if ever I have seen one). Tensions dissipate quickly as participants accept their struggle as a step in the process, and not failure of the project (or even worse, their own failure or failure of the group).
In the next stage the participants decide how the image will look. To do this, we spread out all the drawings near the list of ideas, and took a good long look together. We noticed which images stood out, or seemed particularly detailed and specific in showing an idea. More themes emerged. For example, many of the refugee children on Samos drew the tents of the refugee camp--so many that it became clear that the triangular shape of the tents would have to be a major compositional element.
The visual composition of an image requires convergent rather than divergent thinking (instead of generating many ideas, we are selecting a few to focus on). It can be hard to let go of some ideas in order to let others emerge fully.This is especially challenging for a group of artists working together, and even more so if they don’t speak a common language. For the facilitator it is an additional challenge to keep the process positive, productive, and empowering. Personally, my own discomfort with the unknown, unpleasant, and ambiguous drives me to want to take charge and make visual decisions quickly to allay my own anxiety about outcome. If I do this as the originator/authority figure for the project, the children would easily accept my decision and their less-powerful role. BUT--here is another moment to return to my touchstone purpose and ask myself, “What choice in this moment will foster empowerment and connection?” Often I simply need to wait, actively listen, and validate emotions, giving the participants time to generate more solutions.
An example of this happened with the first group of children in Chapel Hill. They knew they wanted group a mountain-to-coast landscape. One group wanted large sun in the sky, and one group wanted an eagle instead of the sun to represent America. The discussion dwindled to a heavy, anxious silence. You could feel the questions hanging in the air: “What if we can’t work this out? What if somebody gets upset or sad? Will somebody be left out?” At this point I stepped in with, “Is there a way we can combine these ideas so everyone gets what they want?” which opened up a new line of discussion. More ideas were generated and proposed, a unanimous decision was made, and along the way even that visual solution was adapted as the mural was painted. Eventually we ended up with a large sun and lots of birds in the sky--but more importantly, each group had stepped away from their entrenched positions and opened up to new collaborative solutions. We had returned to our touchstone of empowerment and connection.
Building the Image
Once the general composition has been decided upon, it is time to start working with the mural itself. This can happen in a variety of ways depending on the context. For me, it was important to keep the image as close to the children’s work as possible--in mood, in content, and using their actual linework. Using the composition sketch we created, I scanned the images and combined their drawings in Photoshop to create an overall image. For example, to create the outlines of the image for the Chapel Hill section, I used one child’s mountain drawing, with another child’s ocean, with a third child’s sun, and so on. I made sure every child’s linework was recognizably represented in the image, often combining multiple drawings (for example, using many different building drawings to create a city).
I then projected the image onto the section of canvas. Children traced the lines, painted the background, and then added details to the work. During the detail adding stage, we elaborated or changed the initial drawings as we painted and talked with each other about new ideas that emerged. Not coincidentally, this process of tracing, painting large areas, and then doing detail work--also gradually increased the children’s tolerance of the risk in creating art. Tracing is one of the safest and most reliably successful ways to draw an image. Painting large areas is incredibly satisfying and requires less skill, and after all that the detail work feels achievable for most kids. We often finished the work with paint pens--very comfortable and familiar tools, as they are shaped and work just like markers.
Creating the Narrative
The last part in the process is the most important for creating meaning for the participants--the day we celebrate and reflect on our experience. Typically this happened the day after the mural was finished. We gathered in a circle again--a physical reminder of where we began the first day. I would often begin with reminiscing about events along the way, "Remember when we…?" We would then take turns in the circle, making sure each person had a chance to answer some questions about the project: What was the best part? What was the hardest part? What was important about how we made it? What will you always
remember? As each child responds, a narrative is being constructed for the group about what happened and what it means. Articulating these answers and building on them functions in much the same way as the mural does--it solidifies the story for all of us, and everyone’s ideas become part of the way the work is remembered. For a project like this, in which most of the participants won’t see the mural again, establishing an inclusive collective story is critical to making the experience more lasting and powerful in their lives. It also serves as a deeply meaningful measure of whether or not I have achieved my purpose with the project and the impact of the work.