Monthly Mentor

Natalie C. Jones (February)
Each month, a different member is the guest writer for the NAEA Monthly Mentor Blog. Natalie C. Jones is an artist, small business owner, and the director of education at the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture. She has 10 years of experience working as an art teacher and teaching artist throughout the east coast and the Midwest. Click "GO" to read her full bio.



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« Holding Space for Processing the Changes We’ve Experienced, Part 1 | Main | Adapting Museum Community Outreach During A Pandemic »

September 02, 2020

Holding Space for the Processing the Changes We’ve Experienced, Part 2

By Noël Bella Merriam

When contemplating the environment which museum and art educators find ourselves in nearly six months after the pandemic first changed our lives, I find myself sometimes grieving pre-pandemic work life.  Somehow I miss the little things the most – the laughter and camaraderie during education team meetings as we sat around our old wooden table, or popping into museum staffers’ offices for a quick chat, hearing a group of 120 excited students crowding through the entrance of our museum as they arrived for a tour, and the sight of children gathered around my teaching artists and museum educators during a family day or toddler art program.  I know I have been fortunate on many levels during this pandemic, yet I’m also continually processing that some things may never be the same, or that it will be quite some time before things are somewhat similar to what they were before.  I am grateful to have myself and my team employed in museum education at a time when many museum educators and front line staff have seen their positions eliminated – a crisis that our field has not reckoned with yet, and one that will have lasting ramifications.

One of the good things to emerge out of my quarantine time has been connecting more deeply with a group of talented and highly creative friends I have the good fortune to know.  We’ve met many times since April via zoom to share our writing and how we are processing the pandemic’s impact on our lives.  One night, a member of our group, Joyous Windrider Jiménez, asked us three times how we would change our lives moving forward.  It was an insightful moment for all of us connected via zoom in that moment.   

In this blog post, I interview the multi-faceted and talented Joy about why she asked us that question three times, her interdisciplinary arts practice, social justice in the classroom, and how she’s feeling about arts education and the pandemic as the school year begins.

NBM: You approach life with such kindness and generous energy.  Can you share a bit about your arts teaching philosophy with me?  It seems to me that you teach from a place of tremendous compassion for your students.

JWJ: First, I try to acknowledge basic realities in our daily practice of artmaking.  The basic realities include “times are tough.” I know that our current collective trauma is a reality that I can’t overlook in the classroom. I personally carry trauma in my body memory, and art is a tool for my own processing.

Art is how I act upon my environment, and how I articulate the mysteries of my own experience. When I’m in learning spaces, I stay focused on my main goal of practicing this same empowerment with those in the room.

I believe that acknowledging the whole person in our creative approach – including our needs for safety, community, connection, and acceptance – is the best way to support the practice of empowered creative action and to encourage student investment and motivation in the classroom. I know that the safer and more connected the class feels, the bolder we’ll be in our creative choices and determination to take the creative risks necessary to effectively articulate our unique perspectives and experiences.

NBM:  That night we were sharing about how the pandemic has changed our priorities, you asked us the same question three times – “What will you change?”  Why did you do that? Can you explain a bit more about that practice and how that can be helpful?

JWJ: I’m a big fan of bringing centering, purposeful questions to ourselves so that our body can provide us its intuitive wisdom. Repeating the question and listening for the answers that bubble up from within allows us to go deeper into the answers that already exist within us.

In the context of this pandemic, there are unfamiliar challenges and new parameters for us to consider about our “place” in the world. How do we want to rise up to meet this new world and affect change? On that particular night, this was the question that arose.  But there are many questions that you can ask yourself.  

A great question to ask yourself is “Why is it important?” that you do what you do. You are the only one who can truly answer that question. I credit acting coach Jo Kelly for this practice.  Asking a question about your life’s purpose, then going deeper and deeper into it is a wonderful way to discover things you may have forgotten or haven’t consciously recognized yet.

NBM: What are some ways that you incorporate social justice into your classroom?

JWJ: I work in Title I schools, so over 90% of the population is below poverty. 95% of the students are POC, and I am POC. One of the most mind-blowing realizations for me when I first became a teaching artist was that we practice social justice every time we practice empowerment of our brown and black voices and wield our creative decision-making power to create original works that are presented to the public. Our stories are important. They are medicine to ourselves and our communities.

The main purpose of my classroom facilitation is for my students to find a space where their voice and ideas are met with interest and joy, their vision and creativity is met with support, and their creative leadership is met with trust and celebration. My students deserve to feel this empowerment in their whole system, as often and as deeply as possible. We do it in small ways every day, that build up into a final result they can be proud of.

For instance, when I teach theatre we produce original shows created, designed, and performed by the group for their communities. Their experiences, ideas, language, creativity, and leadership are all validated through the creative process, and that validation is cemented with the final audience feedback when the show is presented to the public.  Watching their transformation after a year of being leaders in their own creative process - from inception to reception - is one of my favorite things to behold.

I further incorporate social justice by remembering to step back and make room for the young creative voices at the table, and by elevating and supporting those voices so that they will be empowered to affect their communities through their art.

NBM: You are a multi-disciplinary artist who practices theatre, poetry, and visual art.  How did you bring these arts disciplines together?  In what ways do the combination of these three art forms benefit your practice and the students you teach, especially in an online or hybrid learning environment?

JWJ: I personally use more than one art form because I am always looking for the most immediate and accessible way for me to work through my own trauma and understanding of my world. Where I live, we have a term near to our hearts - rasquache. This was once a derogatory (Spanish) term for the practice of using whatever you had on hand to create something useful or decorative. This term has since been reclaimed to celebrate resourcefulness and creativity.  

I think it’s important for students to understand that all of the art forms are accessible to them – that art is not only what is hung in a museum (not knocking museums!), theatre is not only on Broadway, and poetry is not just “printed words from dead writers.” I want to students to discover the art that is everywhere – that is spoken, sung, drawn, crafted by their relatives and community members – and is vital and relevant to their life experience.

Now that we are in this hybrid learning situation, we are all getting a taste of what it means to use whatever is on hand. How do we tell a story with these new parameters? What tools are available to us? How do we adjust our usual modalities and explore these new frontiers?

I believe a multi-disciplinary approach in collaborative projects allows a chance to integrate more into our bodies as we make personal choices and explorations with different media and avenues to articulate our personal experiences.

NBM:  Your centering and self-awareness work is so powerful.  What is a technique you’ve been using with your students this year? 

JWJ: Since we are just beginning the year and I’m meeting my students for the first time via online meetings, I’ve spent this first couple of weeks building a simple ritual of quick self-reflections, so that we can move into longer practices once they trust me to facilitate that.

We’ve been starting each online session with “quick draw” check-ins. I’ll call out emotions or specific reflective questions for them to quick draw a response to. This gives a chance for the student to check-in with their bodies and the emotions that may be going on in that moment. When we’re done, we place our quick draw in the camera and make sure to view everyone else’s. We’ve used this method to share our highlights and bummers, explore big emotions that we’ve all experienced, and to just take a few moments to calm down and re-center.

We’ve also been focusing on the art of doodling these first couple of weeks. I adore doodling because it’s a practice of letting go and allowing the pen or the line to guide you. I want my students to tap into that ability and develop their own lexicon of doodles while reflecting upon experiences and emotions. My aim is that they’ll organically hone their ability to read and visually articulate the specifics of their own emotional landscape through the basic elements of line and shape.

The most powerful language is the one that already resides within us. I love finding ways to tap into that.

NBM: What has been a surprise or challenge as you’ve begun teaching this fall?

JWJ: Moving to online last spring was challenging but at that point we were encouraged to be as gentle and lenient as possible, because we were in the middle of a national crisis and the upheaval was stressful and challenging.

This fall expectations on both student and educators are much more stringent, and what has surprised me the most is the amount of technical prowess and database management skills I’m required to have to do my job as a teaching artist.  These new technical demands are taxing to my whole human system, since that is not a strength of mine. Also, the looming prospect of returning to a physical classroom in the middle of a pandemic without medical insurance is a heavy burden to carry.

Then I look at my students. We are at the beginning of the school year and they already show signs of exhaustion, especially the younger ones, and it worries me. At the end of the first week of school I noticed how tired they looked, so we ended class with an extended check-in (a sharing of highlights and bummers). The conversation moved quickly to the deaths they’ve experienced this year. They shared their losses and then began to ask questions like “Miss, is it okay to to smile when someone has passed?” We ended the conversation by considering how to honor the loved ones they’ve lost this year through their current art project. As we said goodbye, I noticed renewed energy in their faces and bodies. 

Taking time for this sort of communal discussion is a centering practice of connection with self and others. It’s needed more than ever right now and it’s worth the extra time required to address this need.

NBM: Your interdisciplinary practice also informs your personal art and writing.  What can you share about the pieces linked here?

 Quarantine is a Dragon:

JWJ: I wrote this story in May for our end-of-year virtual poetry event. We had been working on a video poem in class around our quarantine experiences. It made me ask myself what kind of houseguest quarantine would embody, and I came to this image of an inconveniently present, almost overbearing, yet solidly protective dragon. The illustrations and time-lapse video were created later as an element for an online writing lesson. I googled dragon images and grabbed what was near me, puro rasquache: printer paper, colored pencils, an open window for light, and a milk crate to prop my phone and tripod. It was my first time sketching a dragon, but oh well! The video landed a spot in San Francisco’s Roxie Theater Film Festival, “Mixtape-In-Place.”

For Isaac: 

JWJ: I was asked to create a workshop around my video poem process, and I made a couple more videos to ensure I understood my own process. For this piece I created the video before I knew what words would be laid over the top. I once again gathered what I had on hand to express my current processing, including an unclaimed teddy bear and various “life debris.” The gloved hands working on the teddy bear represent a younger me that had vowed to keep herself safe by swiftly and methodically repairing any occurring emotional breaches in my system. The bear’s new insides represent my internalized experiences. When I overlaid the audio, the spontaneous words were an experiment, a raw message to a loved one who knew me as a child and declared he still knew me at my current age. The juxtaposition of those three layers really works for me. I feel empowered and seen when I replay this video poem, especially when others view and respond to it.

I want this feeling for the young creatives in my classroom.

NBM: Thank you, Joy, for sharing about your practice and work.  Your creativity is always inspirational!

Readers, as you begin to envision your post-pandemic life or your new priorities in the present, ask yourself what you will change – and ask the same question of yourself three times.  This is a unique opportunity to reimagine our futures and reorder our priorities.  I wish you all the best in the upcoming school year.



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