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Art Expression: Innovative Pittsburgh program helps kids develop social skills through art

Art Expression
Candy Williams
July18/ 2017

On the first day of a six-week workshop, a little boy told the teacher he never knew “he was good at art.”

“On the last day of the workshop, he confided in me that he would like to become an art teacher when he grows up,” says art facilitator Beth Asper. It’s hard to describe how thrilling it is to see kids discover that they can achieve success, she says, whether it’s by making art or making new friends.

Art Expression, an after-school art therapy initiative, works to develop kids’ social skills through art. The program gives as much satisfaction to its teachers as the kids they serve.

“I wanted to get involved with Art Expression because it has such great goals, goals that are aimed at encouraging kids to feel good about themselves,” says Asper, who has worked with kids in Allegheny Valley and Jeanette school districts. “It’s uniquely different from an art classroom, as we have small groups, a good materials budget and the assistance of school staff.”

The free program has served more than 8,000 kids over the past 16 years, reaching urban, suburban and rural school districts and community organizations in Allegheny, Fayette, Greene, Washington, and Westmoreland counties. The organization also serves 10 agencies that provide services for kids and families who are victims of domestic violence, children of recovering addicts, and homelessness through the Homeless Children’s Education Fund.

Asper feels fortunate to work with Art Expression, a program that she says addresses the emotional needs of kids.

“It’s a fantastic model for inclusion,” she says. “We often have kids with special needs and mainstream kids in the same group.  I have never seen inclusion work as well as it does in Art Expression.”

When Asper led a unit on emotions, for example, she was pleasantly surprised that kids were so animated and creative.

“Students that may have been considered ‘troublesome’ during the school day were suddenly stars in the Art Expression setting,” Asper says. “It’s completely amazing to see these kids realize how capable they really are.”

Art Expression
Jeannette Mckee Elementary School students used the world we live in to inspire their art. Kids were invited to design their own “Cool School” as a space that would make learning fun.

Art Expression is feeling love from other areas, too.  The Mt. Lebanon-based nonprofit founded by Angela Lowden and her husband, James, was named a finalist for the National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award. The honor comes from the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

It’s the second time that Art Expression has achieved the prestigious national recognition as one of the top 50 arts- and humanities-based programs in the country.

For Angela Lowden, winning the award would be a major step in taking the program to new heights.

“It’s very important to us because it would establish us as a national model,” she says. “The prize money ($10,000) would be wonderful, of course, but more important is that it would give us national model status. It would help us reach more children and might help us expand to more cities.”

The American Art Therapy Association has already designated Art Expression as a model art-therapy program in K-12 schools.

The art facilitators who work with have master’s degrees in art therapy or counseling with a specialization in art therapy or are graduate-level art-therapy students. They partner with faculty co-facilitators in schools and staff from community organizations to teach elements of the program to students in grades K-12.

This summer Art Expression is beginning to combine music therapy and art therapy in a new program called Musical pARTners.

“One my favorite parts of this program is forming connections with the campers, says art facilitator Valerie Pusateri, who is working in partnership with Pittsburgh Public School’s Summer Dreamers Academy summer camp. “Seeing the same kids each afternoon for six weeks provides a great opportunity to form strong bonds and continue learning and exploring in a creative environment.”

Many of the third graders she is involved with this summer have used the opportunity to create art that is personally meaningful.

“One camper created a painting to honor a lost loved one,” Pusateri says. “Another camper sculpted a 3-D clay dragon, in part as a self-portrait to symbolize his strength.”

Art Expression
Students in Allegheny Valley school district at Acmetonia Elementary designed their own personal clubhouse and yard using various art materials. Rules such as “being kind” and “helping each other” were common choices.

Beth Asper says it’s hard to describe how thrilling it is to see kids discover that they can achieve success, whether it’s by making art or making new friends. In one class, she had students create a club house, complete with rules they made up.

“A majority of them included a ‘Be Kind’ rule,” she says. “Since many of them are experiencing bullying, I thought it was touching that kindness was a major part of their version of utopia.”

Michael Flaherty, an art teacher for Charleroi Area School District, has been a co-facilitator with Art Expression because it seemed like a good way for kids to be able to expand their creative thoughts in a positive social environment.

“I especially enjoyed ARTchitecture because the students dealt with real community issues on how to renovate a vacant building into a viable business,” he says. “And also, Creative PARTtners because the students really enjoyed working with the clay and paint and experienced quite a bit of expressive freedom.”

There is a special lighthearted freedom that comes after school, he says, when “the children let down their guard and are able to be their true selves, which is necessary for real art expression to take place.”

The program has become so popular among students at Charleroi that the district is planning to run four Art Expressions programs next year, one each quarter.

Art facilitator Krystal Neal, who worked with students at Woodland Hills School District, was intrigued by the mission, goals, and values of the Art Expression program.

“I am certainly an advocate of healing through the creative arts, and I believe that this idea can be utilized within a multitude of populations,” she says. “Having a program that focuses specifically on youth can create an invaluable process for the youth and the facilitators alike.”

Candy Williams

Candy Williams is a freelance writer and journalist whose articles have appeared in national and local publications. She lives in the South Hills.