Artwork from Buffalo Public Schools students has lined the fourth-floor corridor in Upton Hall at SUNY Buffalo State for much of the spring semester. Veteran art education professor Lucy Andrus and her students have encouraged the younger folks to express their beliefs, concerns and ideals in many forms, including on paper “quilts.”
Students were asked to use their hands and their minds to define the concept of freedom in their work.
A patchwork of American flags, homesteads, Uncle Sams and Statues of Liberty emblazon the squares, with words that circle their borders. Among them: “Freedom is breaking the chains that keeps people from achieving their dreams.” “Freedom is to choose my own career path.” “Freedom is the ability to help anyone in need.” “Freedom is to choose your own religion.” “The freedom to go for a run.”
Other works cry out, “All we need is love,” “Preserve our earth,” “Black and white together,” “Homes for everyone, like Grandma’s” and “Plant trees.”
These creations are part of the Art Partners program, which Andrus and her students typically bring into the schools of students in grades two through high school. The latest brood – a dozen kids in a community-based special-education program at McKinley High School – asked to come to the college campus instead.
“They feel they’re part of the Buffalo State community, for real,” said Andrus, who has taught art education at Buffalo State for 33 years and coordinates the art therapy minor at the school.
“Art gives people another voice,” Andrus said. “It’s another language for learning and for comprehension. You can’t always speak or write what it is you need to say, especially if you’ve been traumatized in your life and have some problems. That’s why I can confidently say all children can learn.”
Q. Art Partners marked its 20th anniversary this school year. In the early 1980s, you expanded a similar program at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery. Can you talk about that?
At the time, the Matter at Hand program focused on people with visual impairment and intellectual disabilities. I turned it into a full-time program and also brought in preschool kids, nursing home residents, people with mental health issues, people with addictions and substance abuse issues. I have an expansive view of someone who has a special need. When somebody has one, it requires us – teachers or whoever we are – to adapt something we’re doing to meet that need and make the experience accessible.
Q. Can you talk about a course you teach, Art for Children With Special Learning Needs?
You don’t have to have a bona fide disability to have a special learning need. That special need could be coming from someone whose family member just passed away, or where there’s discord at home, or a child living in poverty. So it’s about disability and what I would call adverse life circumstances. Kids bring their stuff to school. My concern is, how many of them are being misassessed and given punitive responses rather than someone saying, ‘Let’s peel off the layers and look at the need for that behavior?’ You might find something you can solve.
Q. And art teachers play a role here because some students express themselves better in the art realm?
A lot of times, the art teacher is the first to know what’s up because it shows up in their student’s artwork. … I say to my students who say, ‘I won’t know,’ ‘Look at a picture. If it bothers you, you don’t have to necessarily know why, but listen to your instincts. Go and get a consultation from an art therapist or school psychologist. Go to the classroom teacher and ask if they’ve noticed anything different about a child’s behavior.’
Q. What are some of the misperceptions that some of your Buffalo State students have had coming into Art Partners?
The program works very hard at being culturally competent, very culturally responsive. Most of my students are white, middle-class students. A lot of them grew up in suburbia. We get a significant number of rural students who haven’t really been exposed to diversity. Their notions are from what they’ve heard at home, in the news, stereotypes they’ve grown up with. For some, the city is a scary place.
I’ve had them do drawings before we start. Some of them show violence, they show guns, run-down imagery. After we’re done, I do a post-program drawing assignment. They’re completely different. They’re celebratory, beautiful. One student did these gorgeous portraits of some of our kids and titled it ‘They’re Just Children.’
The program breaks down stereotypes, and all the kids that we work with, it gives them another experience with people who are culturally different from them. It’s a nice, bridge-building kind of experience.