Contributed by The Center for Contemporary Arts
Bird Thomas remembers the young man who suffered from low self-esteem and didn’t seem to have the confidence to express himself.
Then he entered a program of The Center for Contemporary Arts called ArtReach.
His ArtReach instructor, Katy Presswood, encouraged him to express himself through art. The experience changed his life.
“Little did he know how much natural talent he possessed,” said Thomas, who oversees ArtReach and ArtWalk for the Center. “When he discovered this talent, something shifted in his core, and he began creating small works of art to give to others. This discovery, and subsequent action, led him to have the confidence he needed to get his GED and join the workforce.”
ArtReach began as a series of art enrichment classes for people with mental and physical disabilities served by Disabilities Resources Inc. and the city’s adaptive recreation program, as well as for at-risk youth and incarcerated populations served by Taylor County Learning Center and Juvenile Justice Center.
Each program’s curriculum is tailored to a specific group’s needs while teaching basic art principles. For some groups, art becomes a tool for self-knowledge and therapy. For others, it becomes a means to an end, as high school credit is earned along with a means of self-expression.
“Art is extremely important in building self-esteem,” says Arlieta Jones, Juvenile Detention Center Education coordinator. “The students use their success in art to propel success in other areas of their rehabilitative program. These students typically have no positive self-expression, and art provides that avenue. Art provides creativity and imagination needed in higher level thinking skills, resulting in better classroom performance.”
Each semester class begins with new art projects and ends with a reception in which participants, their families and staff of the participating agencies are invited. The work collected from these programs is later curated, framed and hung at Abilene City Hall for the next 12 months. As a reward for good behavior, the classes often include field trips to tour the center, other downtown venues and top it off with a tour of City Hall. There the student artists meet city leaders and get to see and receive recognition for the art they contributed to the City Hall walls.
Today, the ArtReach umbrella includes much more, such as a class for college students, called “The Art of Creative Play,” that teaches new educators how to use art as a teaching tool. Participants learn to interpret art through imaginative learning experiences that promote critical thinking, problem solving and observation. Other ArtReach programs include monthly ArtFilms, a brown-bag series that includes screenings and discussions of art films; ArtCamps taught by artists and art teachers during the summer; and ArtTalks, dialogues with exhibiting artists at ArtWalks and exhibit openings. Together, the center’s ArtReach programs directly serve about 1,000 people per year empowering them to learn, grow, and express themselves through art.