How art and books helped San Diego kids survive a weird year
OCTOBER 7, 2021
The “Art & Lit 2021” exhibit from Words Alive and ArtReach San Diego highlights student art inspired by books tackling themes of self-discovery and identity. The art projects are “identity circles,” which feature answers to literary prompts and designs made from the artists’ fingerprints. The exhibit is on display at the Mission Valley Library through Oct. 16. (Kristian Carreon/For The San Diego Union-Tribune)
Meet Red. He is a crayon whose inner self is not reflected in the label he came with. His outside says “Red,” but inside, he knows he is really blue. And when a new friend helps him find the courage to be his true blue self, Red gets to scribble his way to happiness.
Red is the main character of “Red: A Crayon’s Story,” an award-winning picture book by Michael Hall. Red is also one of the literary heroes of “Art & Lit 2021,” a program that used books and art to help local students celebrate their true selves in a time when no one has felt like celebrating much of anything.
“We were trying to discover ways we could help during the pandemic. We asked a lot of our partners, ‘What are you seeing? How can stories connect us and help us help each other right now?’” said Amanda Bonds, program director for the local literacy organization Words Alive, which paired with fellow nonprofit ArtReach San Diego to bring “Art & Lit 2021″ to local students and their families.
“What we heard was that young people are isolated and lonely. They are feeling out of sorts, and it’s not their fault. None of this was their doing. We were after something to support the mental health of young people during this extraordinary time.”
In pre-pandemic times, Words Alive’s “Art & Lit” program brought guest artists into participating schools and organizations to work with students on projects inspired by the selected books. Since the project started in 2014, students have interpreted literary themes through mediums that included ink-and-paper art, sculpting, stop-animation and print-making.
But 2021 was not a traditional year.
With most schools still holding classes online, Words Alive had to find a new way to keep the “Art & Lit” flame burning. The organization partnered with ArtReach, a 14-year-old nonprofit that inspires young people through visual arts and community connections.
When San Diego’s schools shut down in March 2020, ArtReach pivoted to online classes, as the staff and volunteers found ways to get art supplies to students for projects that provided engagement and comfort. Once Words Alive chose the 2021 “Art & Lit” book list, the ArtReach staff came up with a companion art project featuring materials that were inexpensive and easy to deliver to participants. Kits that included selected books from the list and art materials went to 1,200 participants in San Diego.
For the literary part of the “Art & Lit 2021″ project, the book-lovers at Words Alive looked at the challenges facing young people in the time of Zoom classes and chose five books for different grade levels, each of them dealing with the themes of identity, resilience and courage.
In addition to “Red: A Crayon’s Story,” the “Art & Lit 2021″ selections included the story of a girl who discovers that a simple dot can be the start of something big (“The Dot”); the tale of an artist gorilla and the baby elephant who makes his life (and his art) better (“The One and Only Ivan”); and a young-adult novel about two loners who end up sharing a life-changing bond (“Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe”).
For the art portion of the program, ArtReach chose identity circles. Inspired by the work of pioneering Black artist and teacher Alma Thomas, the identity-circle art project let participants create two identity circles. One featured answers to Words Alive prompts based on the books, which they wrote in a concentric pattern around the paper circle. The other featured designs made by their own fingerprints.
“When we read the books, what we really realized is that they all had the themes of self-discovery and identity. And there is nothing more individual than your finger print,” said ArtReach executive director Sarah Holbach.
“And what is really cool about writing in circular patterns is that it allowed their words to become the design. It let people loosen up and say more than if they were just writing a paragraph on a flat piece of paper. It was a great way for students to be honest and talk about their struggles during this time of being apart.”
The 2021 version of the “Art & Lit” launched early this year, with materials going out to the Words Alive and ArtReach partner schools and communities. Both organizations also posted instructions online, opening up this meditative project to anyone who wanted to grab a marker and take the plunge.
More than 200 pieces of art were returned to Words Alive and ArtReach, and many of them were incorporated into “Art & Lit 2021,” which is on display at the Mission Valley Library through Oct. 16. Words Alive will present a virtual version of the exhibit once it comes down.
Like the participants themselves, each identity circle is a one-of-a-kind project. But they all speak to the human need to reach beyond our screens and our pandemic pods to make our mark.
“I hope people will see the exhibit and be inspired to read the text and practice expressing themselves through art in one way or another,” said ArtReach community engagement manager Anna Laroque.
“It’s not just for kids. What we came up with definitely translated to all ages. We just want people to keep creating, no matter what the form is.”