Community-based art education used as tool by artists to build communities, change lives

Story and photo by MICHAEL OMAN

On a bad day she challenges you to a shouting match. Sometimes she resorts to hitting but not always. Generally she sits in silence, hunched over in her chair, ignoring the world around her. If you’re lucky enough to get a response it comes in the form of inaudible murmurings or a quick nod.

A mural by V. Kim Martinez's University of Utah students on the HB Boys building located at 2280 S. Main St. in Salt Lake City.

This is the scene Dr. Beth Krensky, associate professor of art at the University of Utah, sets in chapter four of the book she co-authored with colleague Seana Steffen. Engaging Classrooms and Communities through Art is a guide on reaching out to people through community-based art education (CBAE) programs.

The girl’s name is Amber. She was 12 years old then. The project: to build a tile entrance for Multimedia Park in Colorado. Some might describe her as a recluse but CBAE changed Amber’s life for the better.

“I have found it remarkable how profound the impact of participating in CBAE has been for so many of the youth and adults I have worked with over the years,” Krensky said. “In my experience, there have always been one or multiple ‘Amber[s].’”

It’s one reason Krensky stands behind CBAE, even in the face of a possible budget cut.

Continued support and patience from a contributing artist, identified as Rae in the book, changed Amber’s attitude. Art became a tool Amber used to express herself. As time progressed she began speaking to others without screaming. She became a leader by encouraging other youth to come and participate in the project. The once shy, tempered Amber even spoke to the media and gave a presentation once the project was completed.

Typically, CBAE works by non-profit organizations encouraging a community to work with a professional artist to produce a work of art.

“[The] facilitator of the project is making sure that people are building community, they’re coming to understand themselves and others,” Krensky said. “Artistic skills are being learned.”

The skills CBAE participants gain benefit those seeking productive careers later in life.

Independent studies confirm the importance of art education. A study published by the Teachers College Press, Studio Thinking, says art education creates “Eight Studio Habits of Mind.” Students learn to “envision, express, observe, reflect, and stretch and explore.” According to the study, the arts often lead to better SAT scores, too.

What makes CBAE unique, Krensky says, is that these projects change the landscape of communities and cross “ethnic barriers, racial barriers, socio-economic barriers, age barriers.” It brings communities together. “It is a place where a message from the community is put forth,” she said.

V. Kim Martinez, associate professor of painting and drawing at the University of Utah, echoes this sentiment.

Martinez teaches a class on murals. Towards the end of each semester the class ventures out into the community to paint a mural they designed in class — sometimes two. She says residents tend to develop a sense of pride for each piece. “They’re more willing to keep the area looking nice,” and, she says, even “businesses tend to remove unsightly drainage pipes.”

The presence of these murals can decrease the presence of graffiti, too. Martinez often hears communities warn, “If you tag this I’ll call the police.”

Her class is only one example of service-oriented classes offered by the university. For the last seven years, Krensky’s class, “Art in the Community,” worked with youth in the Salt Lake area using the CBAE model. Her class currently works with youth through South Salt Lake’s Pioneer Craft House.

Both classes face a major hurdle. The state needs to cut 7 percent from its budget for this upcoming fiscal year. Earlier this month legislation passed that proposes cuts to public education and higher education. Legislators stress the cuts could be temporary. Yet, if put into effect, some funding generally allocated to the University of Utah may vanish.

“We do not have the same funding opportunities that many other colleges have on campus,” Martinez said.

An online Deseret News article published January 31 explains, “The reason for the cuts is what’s being called a structural imbalance totaling some $313 million.” It’s a side effect of no longer receiving federal stimulus money or other sources of revenue the state received during the economic downturn, according to the article.

During the February 2 legislative session Representative Michael Morley R-Spanish Fork, chair member of the Higher Education Appropriations Subcommittee, supported the education cuts. “We think that it is responsible and will help us in solving our structural imbalance,” he said.

The proposed cuts could prove disastrous for some universities, which worries Martinez. “The mural class will not continue if I cannot find funding,” she says. “I often spend well over $700 on supplies a semester.”

Krensky remains hopeful for her class. “I don’t think the cuts will affect the class,” she says. By the earnest look on her face, it’s clear how seriously she takes her commitment to the youth of South Salt Lake. “We’d find a way to make it work regardless.”