Motivation through Art
by Queen Mother Imakhu
Throughout my career as a veteran artist and art educator, I have used The Arts and Art Therapy as a positive motivation method for youth, adults, elders, at-risk youth, and disabled populations. As a storyteller and motivational speaker, I can't help but interweave motivating into my teachings. The joy of seeing students build esteem, and envision and achieve higher goals for themselves, is humbling. My performance/visual/literary art classes and workshops have always been much more than just presenting an art medium. The point is to allow students of all ages to tap into their limitless potential. People who are at pivotal places in their lives can experience a major turn-around just by being exposed to varying self-expression techniques, and by knowing that their teacher believes in them. Their worth is validated simply by a teacher's consistency and devotion. The arts education field is littered with flighty artists interested only in the paycheck, and fleeting at the first sign of a more "interesting" gig, or until the gig they really wanted comes through. There are also teachers who are afraid of their students due to their own prejudices. Art Therapy has no room for insincerity, disloyalty, or cowardice. Students, no matter what age, can sniff out a poser. And, truth be told, posers program invalidation. What student will feel good about him/herself if the teacher doesn't value the student, and the opportunity to connect?
I remember when I taught my Outsider Art program to youth in three New York borough detention homes. Whether Brooklyn, the Bronx, or Harlem, the adolescent and teen young men were shocked and pleased when I showed up every week. ("Wow! You're still here?") There had been one too many artists who held the job as a place holder. The responsibility in "showing up" was further driven home to me. My consistency, my care, and the quality of my I Heart My Cultural Art program won me respect from students and staff.
I was asked to bring my program to the Lower Manhattan Juvenile Courthouse jail division. Youth were brought there from the detention homes, or newly arrested from the street. They nervously awaited their fates, not knowing whether the judge would send them home, to another detention center, or to prison. My job was to keep them engaged in an art project. Because this young population was comprised mostly of Blacks and Hispanics, I developed art projects that taught about their culture and history, affirming heroism, intelligence, and leadership. The students would hear stories associated with the theme, and then they would create their own personal stories through the art. In the My Life Has Value project, students learned about Oshun, who represents self-love, and who knows her worth. They were given a brand new woven cookout plate, gold doilies, mini mirrors, cowrie shells (formerly used in Africa as money), toy U.S. bills, glue, and paint (I was only given a $30 per class materials budget). The creative results are seen below.
The courthouse staff was surprised to see that even if a student had a bad day in front of the judge, he or she wanted to finish their art projects. Why? Because during, the process of creating the art, students were allowed to speak their frustrations and fears. Yet, their focus was on creating a meaning piece of art that projected hope. Even though I'm a minister, I never preached right or wrong to the youth. I would show and explain the project and its theme, told them how it related them, shared a quick cultural tale, handed out materials, then sat silently with them while I created art with them. I allowed them the space to talk to each other. If I was asked for creative help, or even for ministerial counsel, I would provide it. But my opening message and instructions were of hope, subtly reminding them not to accept the temporary blip of their being in lock down as a permanent life condition. The teens watched me lovingly place their art on the walls, or displayed on the window shelf. As the holding room became transformed into their private art gallery, they would, on their return, point to their art pieces, immediately explaining the cultural lesson, and how it related to their lives. The authorities were so impressed, they reported our gallery to then-Mayor Bloomberg's office sent representatives to view our work, then took certain pieces to be displayed in the Mayor's rotunda. (Actually, we weren't thrilled. The art was created to motivate the students, not the general public.)
My motivation takes a more aggressive form when teaching drumming, especially to children. Learning a new instrument can be intimidating. I don't tell the students that I'm teaching them challenging drum rhythms and patterns. I simply teach in a palatable way. Within the very first class, the novice musician sound as though they have drummed long before stepping into my class for the first time. Why? Because I encourage them. I show them that I believe they can achieve. I don't talk "limitations." There is always someone in the very first class who proudly, happily proclaims, "We're not making noise, we're making MUSIC." And indeed, they are. Our class drum circles provide focus, direction, positive reinforcement, a lovingly firm disciplinary stance when needed, and most of all, fun. I always interlace silly personal stories during the course of the class. "On my way here, I saw this man on the bus who was yelling on the phone..." That always opens the floor for the students' own bus experiences. They find comfort in knowing that their teacher takes public transportation too. It's important to provide and demonstrate a high level for students to reach for (using and teaching new vocabulary words, dressing with unique style and professionalism), but it's important to be approachable. Telling the challenges of my childhood makes me relatable. It also communicates, "You can overcome too."
As an educator, my best students have always been the "throw aways" - the kids no one else believe in. I remember a mom who sent her three children to me for private voice instruction, and for theater training in my performing arts studio. One day she called to announce that she'd decided to stop sending the oldest child, feeling she was nothing but trouble, and wouldn't amount to anything. I told her she was making a mistake, for that child held the most promise, and was the most talented. "I will teach her for free," I affirmed. Incredulous, she agreed. This young lady, now nearly forty, is a professional singer, actress, and event host. She has toured the globe. This same young lady also proved to be the salvation of her family. When her siblings and mother stumbled into their own major challenges, she motivated them to stand tall. The arts helped shape her character. She is now the example for her family and friends.
I'll never forget when another teen student of mine ran away from home and left ME the note. I looked out on my porch, found the Halloween costume she'd borrowed from me (I was also the costume lady - theater, you know?) with a note that both thanked me, and stated that she had flown the coop. Her divorced parents didn't even freak out when I called them each. They were pretty worn down from her ADHD. Fortunately, she was found. Dramatic episodes were the norm for this young girl, who was crying out for attention. Her mom was directed to me by another teacher, who felt that arts training would be the girl's only hope for a life. She turned out to be an extremely talented vocalist, dancer, and actress. The last time I heard from her, she was a happy mom who decided to follow my footsteps as a professional storyteller and singer.
Teaching Senior Citizens, who sometimes feel defeated because of dexterity loss, become like children when presented with making homemade clay projects, dolls, and jewelry. The challenge here is to make sure they are willing to try. I don't give anything too complicated, just cleverly simplistic and lovely. Everyone leaves feeling good about themselves, and are eager to show off what they have made. The same applies to teaching yoga to elders. I tell them I won't make them twist into a pretzel. Chair yoga gives them quite a workout. As I provide info about how they can improve their health through diet and exercise, as we gently work through our routine, even the biggest Doubting Thomas curmudgeon leaves with a smile. "I didn't know I could stretch like that!"
Art changes and saves lives. I have decades of stories telling of what I've witnessed as an arts educator, and how art inspires people to reach beyond their own expectations. If you or your loved ones need to redirect their lives, turn to art. You'll never be the same.