PITTSBURGH – “We are all working on the same art. That means we have to talk together,” an eighth-grade artist said.
Talk about an art connection. The “Love is Colorful” exhibit, which opened in the Carlow University Art Gallery on Nov. 6, is the culmination of a yearlong collaborative effort touching on art, learning and empathy.
“How are we interacting with art and learning from each other?” is the question posed by local artist Sarah Zeffiro. Her 2019 thesis for a master’s in art education at Carlow was the genesis of the collaboration between the education department, Campus Laboratory School and the art gallery.
“This project really exemplifies how art connects with curriculum by building creative and innovative thinking” said Leigh Roche, art teacher at the campus school. “It helps learning in so many different ways.”
Roche pointed out the powerful associations between the campus school, an exhibit of student art and the education department, all in a university setting.
The five-month-long exhibit includes individual and collaborative artwork, audio of student interviews, a video slideshow and a mosaic mural. The gallery in University Commons has an area of reflection called the Zen zone, as well as space for college and campus school classes.
Zeffiro has been teaching art for more than 20 years at places such as the Carnegie Museum, The Ellis School and Fallingwater. While maintaining those commitments and others, she spent the last year immersed with K-8 art students at the campus school as a teaching artist in residence.
But then came COVID-19, and Zeffiro’s efforts to find “success for kids in a strange year” ended up enhancing the “Love is Colorful” project.
“It’s about building bridges and developing self-confidence. As we learn to love and understand, we see common threads in others’ stories. We learn we have much in common,” Zeffiro said.
The storytelling project began in the fall of 2020 when Zeffiro took over Roche’s art classes.
“Letting students know an adult is listening to them” is key to building empathy with them, Zeffiro said.
The first phase of the project was geared toward students learning more about themselves. Exercises included selfie collages, color palettes of favorite hues and name art.
The young artists were challenged to learn more about each other in the spring with the “who are you” aspect of the project. This included audio interviews with each other and collaborative art, all aimed at building empathy.
And then in the summer, students in the school’s Camp Carlow program created a mosaic mural that touched on the Sisters of Mercy critical concerns: Earth, immigration, nonviolence, racism and women.
It all comes together at the exhibit where the stories are shared in various mediums. The mosaic is displayed in its entirety. Some elements of the exhibit invites others to share their own selfies or stories.
“Building bridges means helping others and building friendship” is an appropriate student quote. Zeffiro included children’s art with their quotes on an Instagram page commemorating the project (@loveiscolorful_project).
“I’d say my favorite was the selfie collage,” said Naomi, an eighth-grader. “Everyone showed what they did in the group chat, and it was cool to see they were each so different and to see their ideas, how they represented themselves or saw themselves. It was just a really cool project.”
The students had time with other teaching artists as well. Local artist Cue Perry talked to classes about his art and how to create a mural. Zeffiro said she had a “goosebumps moment” when all the students were lined up on a stairwell adding their touches to the mural. The sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders each had a one-floor section to paint.
Artist Ebtehal Badawi, who guides people in painting “Pittsburgh Builds Bridges,” told her story to the students via Zoom and then spent a day working with them to create two collaborative paintings.
“We’re a lab school; we wanted a more meaningful connection to Carlow. This was an important step,” said Keely Baronak, chair of Carlow’s education department and director of the Campus Laboratory School. “Having artwork by kids displayed in a university really elevates their voices and acknowledges they’re an important part of the university community.”
“Love is Colorful” was started as an experiment, and now is its own research project, Zeffiro said, adding the project and its curriculum are still growing and could be replicated on a bigger scale in the future.
Zeffiro will continue her journey with more time on the other side of the classroom. She wants to study more about learning and its connections to mental health, wellness, science and, of course, art.