On the first day of school for my children, and for me too, I ran into my fifth grade teacher, Judy Marshall, in the County Market parking lot. Mrs. Marshall instilled a passion for history and archeology in her students, introduced me to The Diary Of Anne Frank, had us memorize portions of The Gettysburg Address and The Constitution of the United States of America, and bolstered my love of art.
Besides teaching us, I knew she was an artist in her own right. 30 years later, she’s still positively elegant, and I marvel at her work, which I recently viewed at the West Central Illinois Arts Center.
Seeing Mrs. Marshall reminded me, powerfully, that I want to empower my students to continue to cultivate their imaginations in order to create, enact change, and fall in love with the process of learning for a lifetime.
Mrs. Marshall taught me that I could research and learn on my own, and the process of learning, and participating in creating and appreciating art, had great value. Understanding history mattered in the present. The impact of the Civil War could still be felt. Words written by our founding fathers and a teenage girl in hiding during World War II could speak to a fifth grader in Macomb, IL. I remember being in her classroom when we witnessed the Challenger explode. She knelt beside me as I keened. Suddenly the world was a fragile and unrecognizable place, cracked as easily as an egg. Mrs. Marshall reached out and took my hands in her artist’s hands and held them wordlessly.
Our lives will be shattered. More than once. We will be humbled and brought to our knees, metaphorically and literally, by events of loss, trauma, and heartbreak that simply level us, and call for complete reconstruction. Events that cause us to see our lives in the Before and the After. We have just honored and mourned the fifteenth anniversary of September 11th. How do we go on when the going on seems unfathomable? When just breathing seems an act of mighty will? When we have been destroyed and life as we know it has been razed?
For me, the answer can be found in valuable lessons I learned in fifth grade. The arts, in all of their glorious forms, have always offered up perspective, respite, and a road map toward transformation, however harrowing the process.
Last Wednesday was rainy. My kids were cantankerous. My husband was sick. I put frozen pizzas in the oven and then I gathered my children around the glow of my laptop. I read off the list of activities to be offered at First Wednesday.
Created by WIU’s Department of Art, my children literally count down the days for these monthly events. Often we are among the last stragglers out of Garwood Hall, carrying our creations proudly, and made collectively euphoric by art. My children are proud to wear their fabulous “Susan Czechowski original design” silkscreened t-shirts and brag they know the artist/designer personally.
Last week, both of my children created their own business cards under the kind and patient guidance of of Professor Terry Rathje. In the past, he taught them about stop motion animation and graphic design. My then 7 year-old son asked, “How old do I have to be to take college classes?” Last Wednesday, we printed collographs, and as an educator, I watched with wonder as Professors Julie Mahoney, Jan Clough, Bill Howard and a few art students good-naturedly worked a long line through the three-part process. We were thrilled with our results, but more importantly we got lost in the focus and concentration of creation. The world fell away. Afterward, we fairly floated up the stairs to work with Dr. Ta-Teh Ju and the Art Education students on paper elephant crafts. Unfortunately, we didn’t have time to paint with Professors Tim Waldrop and Damon MacArthur, or work clay with Professor Ian Shelly, much less fabricate a copper pendant with Professor Kat Myers.
The tag line for First Wednesday is “Come See. Make. Do. Free.” It is totally free and it is open for all. First Wednesday is a true treasure for our campus and local community, and our Department of Art has inspired me and my children to create, cultivate our own imaginations individually and together, seek out more art and the artists around us, try new things with new people, build community, and enact change.
But these evenings have also offered us joy and reminded us that in the face of destruction, or in the wake of life’s hardships, we can be empowered through the act of creation. What a gift. What important work.
Do yourself a favor and put October 5, November 2, and December 7 on your calendar now. Need some art before October 5th? Don’t forget our University Art Gallery. Director Tyler Hennings has been bringing in incredible artists and their work. Up now are exhibits featuring Jenny Knavel and Antoine Williams. On Thursday, student Jake Miller has an exhibition in the student gallery with a reception at 5:30 p.m. These opportunities are free, but oh the riches and returns art offers all of us.
Barbara Harroun is an Assistant Professor of English at Western Illinois University.
The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of the University or Tri States Public Radio. Diverse viewpoints are welcomed and encouraged.