Unlocking Memories

Carol A. Hand

I loved to draw when I was a child, mostly because of what I learned using the technology of the time – television. Of course, we only had a black and white TV with a tiny-screen. But that was just fine for me. I remember there were only three shows I eagerly anticipated. One of those shows was called “Andy’s Gang.” My favorite character on the show was Froggy the GremlinFroggy would appear from a cloud of smoke on the top of a grandfather clock and proceed to trick arrogant experts into saying and doing foolish things, calling into question their competence and exposing their hubris. I didn’t realize what I found most intriguing about Froggy until I watched an old video clip just now. The humor was actually rather violent for my taste then and now, but the message was something that became a valuable foundation for my future education and work – question what authority figures say, especially those who seem to think they know all the answers.


Photo Credit: Froggy the Gremlin

Another eagerly-anticipated show was “Winky Dink.”  I was hooked. I sent away for the special kit, a piece of clear plastic that would stick to the TV screen, special markers that would write on plastic, and a cloth to clean the plastic periodically. Every week, part of the secret message would be shared – parts of letters that would only make sense if you copied all of the shapes on the plastic “just so” every week. I needed to be patient to uncover the mystery – a skill I have yet to master. Yet it’s probably why I am still fascinated by the challenge of solving puzzles and discovering underlying patterns.

But the show I loved most was Jon Gnagy’s “You Are an Artist.” Each week, Gnagy started with a blank canvas. Using only his charcoal, he demonstrated the steps to follow to draw so many different things – still-lifes, landscapes, animals, and people. The show actually inspired me to consider being an artist. Yet, I was never quite satisfied with what I drew – I didn’t feel as though the images I drew “came to life.” It was not really my special gift any more than singing, which I discovered at a much later age. So I set aside both art and music as ways to express my thoughts and feelings.

It wasn’t until I took a series of workshops with David Feinberg several years ago that I realized how important drawing is as a tool for unlocking buried memories and stories. As a serious “professional” like the ones Froggy taunted, I was reluctant to do anything that was not “polished” and “perfect.” In part, that’s an understandable protective characteristic for people who are already different. Yet I sometime wished I could act like Froggy – like the trickster. During oppressive meetings, I have often found myself wishing that I could put on my special glasses to emphasize that there are many ways of seeing things – or that humor helps us keep things in perspective.


Photo Credit: Another Perspective Trick Glasses – December 27, 2014

But it’s a risk that I’ve been unwilling to take many times in my career. Women and Native Americans are rarely seen as competent equals by people in positions of power (almost always white men). We’re often seen as affirmative action hires – puppets or clowns at best.

But now, thanks to David’s workshops, I can use drawing (and music) as tools to unlock stories and to play. Images, smells, sounds, and touch all help me remember important stories on deeper, more nuanced levels. And it really all started with some of the discoveries I made during the very first exercise of our very first workshop. David’s instructions were clear. “You have one minute to draw something in response to the words or phrases I will mention. Don’t think – draw the first thing that flashes through your mind. And don’t worry about drawing something to please other people’s perception of good art.”

There were twelve university faculty who participated in this first workshop, held on a lovely summer’s day when many of us were free from teaching. Most of us were part of the ethnically diverse multi-disciplinary Diversity Action Team, or A-Team as we referred to ourselves. We had all volunteered to serve on the university’s newly created Diversity Committee. After our first Diversity Committee meeting, we realized the need to develop creative ways to address discrimination. Students of color who were present at the meeting shared compelling, and in some cases outrageous stories about their experiences at the university. The faculty members on the committee quickly began discussing the need to reign-in “bad” teachers by bringing in experts to teach faculty how to teach to diversity. I was struck by how quickly we went to this authoritarian expedient approach for addressing discrimination and exclusion. I can’t think of anytime it’s ever been a successful way to change peoples’ attitudes and behaviors.

When I went home that evening, I wrote a one-page outline of a more inclusive approach. Basically, the idea was to gather stories from students of color and to share those campus-wide in a number of creative ways. The A-Team formed in response. We volunteered to work together to develop innovative ways to help improve education and educational outcomes for students from diverse backgrounds. We realized that the key to being an effective educator is learning who your students are. Stories are the key to understanding others, whether those stories are spoken, written, sung, drawn, or captured in photos or other art forms. How do we help people unlock stories? Many people, especially those who are seen as different and inferior, have good reasons for keeping their stories and vulnerability buried or hidden from sight. But how else can we touch peoples’ hearts to build empathy and understanding?

As participants in David’s workshop, we all decided to let down our guard and take risks to be less than perfect. David’s direction to workshop participants was, “Draw what comes to mind when you hear the word ‘monument.’” Many stone symbols and buildings flashed through my mind but the image I drew came from a deeper place – I drew a tree. Others drew the sculpted symbols and buildings. My response to the prompt to draw “a safe place you could go as a child” was a simple picture of me sitting alone, singing, beside a brook in the woods near my house. It’s where I went to escape the emotional turbulence and violence of my family. Others drew pictures of themselves in special hiding places in their yards, homes, or under their blankets. The point is that we all learned to use images to unlock and share our stories, getting to know ourselves and each other on deeper levels. We shared our pictures and the stories behind them. We shared our laughter and our pain. It helped us build a cohesive team so we could develop a series of initiatives to enable students to discover and share their stories with each other, with faculty, and with administrators.

After David’s workshops, we launched “Art Jam!” and “Dialogues in Diversity,” initiatives that largely focused on the experiences and stories of Black students because data suggested historically they were the least likely to graduate from our university. Our initiatives culminated in an awe-inspiring student performance of stories, poetry, dance, photography, and music. The plan for next semester was to repeat the project with Hmong students, another group that was also less likely to graduate. I know that these initiatives were transformative for many of the students and faculty who participated, although the rigid bureaucratic structure and banking-model teaching paradigms used by an oppressive institution showed little openness to new ideas.

Sometimes I miss those days, but thanks to David and my colleagues, the tools I learned to unlock stories have continued to be a useful gift. It’s one I can now share with my granddaughter, Ava. She spent the day after Christmas with me. (I’m the deadbeat grandmother who no longer buys presents.) In order to pry her away from playing games on her new (hand-me-down) laptop computer, a Christmas gift, I asked her to write a series of stories: “the three reasons why I love … my grandmother Martha (her father’s mother), my mother, and my brother.”


Photo Credit: Ava at Ahma’s House – December 26, 2104

We used pictures and clip art to help her unlock her stories. And some of the pictures we found made us laugh. Maybe, some day in the future, Ava will remember this image. Maybe she will remember the warmth and laughter we shared on a day after Christmas in her past when she practiced being grateful for what really matters in life – the people you love. I know I will remember the gift of the special time we shared together.

Note: For information about David Feinberg and the Voice to Vision project, please check out the following link:


19 thoughts on “Unlocking Memories

    1. It’s always good to hear from you, David. The mysterious past can sometimes help me make some sense of the places I traveled and the lessons I learned that may have some value for others 🙂


      1. i can appreciate
        deriving value from past’s lessons, Carol!
        also takes the right conditions
        and, perhaps courage.
        i choose not to venture into darkest places of hurt, for now
        but perhaps when conditions are different
        and there’s more support,
        perhaps a bigger flashlight 🙂


        1. I do understand the wisdom of “doing things when the time is right,” David. Retirement gives me the solitude and space (sometimes) to be vulnerable enough to attempt spinning past hurts into healing gold. It’s not something I would be able to try otherwise 🙂

          Liked by 1 person

  1. Beautifully written…thank you, Carol. The function of art in unlocking memories and stories is powerful, and perhaps especially for we elders who need to pass our tales on to those whom we’ll eventually leave behind.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I have a friend who is a licensed Art Therapist, having trained under one of the world’s most famous. When I learned about her techniques coupled what she calls “Creative Journaling” I immediately realized its value. Not the this is the same to which you speak but akin nonetheless. Stories emerge in many ways and your sharing this experience is useful, Carol. Thank you.


  3. Carol, I never imagined doing art prompts. I discovered writing when I took a prompt class (it unlocked all the memories of my childhood.) I know art is a powerful tool that is used in so many areas. I love hearing how it worked for you and it sounds like it works along those same lines. Ava is such a beautiful child and I remember her art work and the story of the blue cat. I think you are the greatest gift she’ll ever have.


    1. Thank you for your thoughtful comments, Mandy, and for sharing the technique that helped you unlock your memories. I’d love to hear more about it 🙂

      Ava is lovely and I know that she, her older brother (Aadi), and her mom (Jnana) are my greatest gifts.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Carol, I really enjoyed reading this post. It was joyful and fun, even as you touched on serious issues. You had a totally different television experience than I did. I remember watching Popeye – and the club with Annnet Funicello. And one of the earliest shows was when I was very little, living in Mobile, Alabama and I saw little girls dancing. I told Mama I wanted to go to that dance school. She said it was for white kids and I, quite innocently and looking at the shade of my skin said, “I’m white.” And I did get to dance. And that picture of Ava is just too precious and I’m sure she will remember the time you two shared.


    1. Thank you so much for sharing your memories, Skywalker. I love the story about dance lessons 🙂

      I appreciate your comment about the post being joyful and fun. For some reason I find it hard to share critical posts without some hopeful balance. There’s too much sadness and pain in the world, the pervasive mood of futility and hopelessness.is already too deep. It’s immobilizing for me if I can’t see hopeful possibilities. My sense is that many others feel the same way.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m so glad to hear that someone else watched one of these shows, Stuart! It was essential to have the kit. I remember misplacing the kit once, so I used a black crayon to copy the message on the TV screen. Needless to say my parents weren’t pleased.


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