Facilitating Community Art Projects
This spring, first-year graduate student Jillian Hirsch and a group of dedicated undergraduate students are launching the Maynard Project, a weekly after-school art program at Maynard Elementary School, located a mile north of UT in a historically underserved Knoxville school district. With guidance from Hirsch and Jason Brown, associate professor of sculpture, the undergraduate students will work directly with elementary school students to design and install a series of collaborative art projects throughout the Maynard School building, beginning with a mural in the library.
Hirsch, who is earning her MFA in ceramics, has a wealth of experience in facilitating community art projects. Prior to graduate school, she collaborated with many partners such as nonprofits, schools, and neighborhood groups on large-scale mosaic murals.
“Most of the work I have done is highly participatory in nature and structured in a way to provide many opportunities for direct community participation throughout all aspects of the project,” Hirsch says. “It’s important that community art is democratic, and that the creation and installation of artwork cultivates a sense of community.”
With those principles in mind, the undergraduate students will serve as art mentors, ensuring that the elementary school students are an essential part of the creative team. According to Amanda Beasley, a junior studying art history, the primary artists will be 10 students in third through fifth grade.
“We’ll be teaching the kids how to paint, but also letting them express themselves,” Beasley says. “We’ll be having conversations with them about themes, composition, and even color theory, but we also want to open up the idea of expressing yourself, not just explicitly, but through subtler forms, such as symbolism. Expanding that sense of self-expression will give these kids the opportunity to look at other areas of study in new ways. So much of school is segmented, so we want to use this project to see how different things can connect.”
Beasley, who co-directed an early childhood education program before returning to UT to finish her bachelor’s degree, has missed working with children.
“They’re always so excited about everything, which refreshes my own eagerness to learn,” Beasley says. “Sometimes they ask questions I don’t know the answers to and I think that’s really great.”
Many of the undergraduate participants jumped at the opportunity to work with community and youth because of their own interest in fields such as art education and art therapy.
“Many undergrads also expressed an interest in ‘trying something new and different,’” Hirsch says. “I think it’s great that they have an outlet in their undergraduate education for this kind of experience.”
Hirsch’s own investment in the Maynard Project stems from a profound love of teaching and learning. As an undergraduate studying fine art and K-12 education, she was greatly influenced by the experience of working with an after-school program for recently relocated refugees.
“It was incredibly rewarding to use my art and education practice to facilitate creative and connective outlets for others,” says Hirsch, who sees art as an essential part of the human experience. She believes that art created by a community can establish and reinforce bonds between people and place and acts as a conduit for dialogue, connection, and education.
A project of this scope, however, comes with a special set of challenges. Hirsch anticipates putting a lot of effort into establishing and maintaining healthy relationships with new community partners, managing many people, voices, and moving parts, and, of course, securing funding. The group has already submitted a grant application and will find out the results later this spring. Their long-term goal is to provide an established platform for UT students and faculty to engage in cross-disciplinary research with various local partners on impactful community art projects. For now, there is the potential to expand the project within Maynard Elementary itself.
“The whole school is a blank canvas,” Beasley says. “We’d love to do a mosaic in the cafeteria, for example, but mosaics cost more money than painting.”
As the project grows, the group will be looking for more participants, both graduate and undergraduate, and will continue applying for grants and seeking private donations with the goal of creating a self-sustaining program. Eventually, they want to be able to pay a coordinator and have the project function not as an independent study for individual students, but as a club or extracurricular research opportunity.
Hirsch has thought extensively about how the Maynard Project addresses research questions in her own work.
“I am interested in creating artwork at the intersection of studio and social practice,” she says. “How can fine art, especially fine art in public and community spaces, be more inclusive, engaging, and accessible? How can those of us creating fine art use our practice to enrich and impact our local communities?”
You can follow the progress of the Maynard project at art.utk.edu/maynard.