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 Gremlin. Froggy 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: