Updated: Aug 16
From May to August 2020, I was fortunate enough to be able to complete my field placement hours for the Expressive Arts Certificate program I had been enrolled in since September 2019, despite the Covid-19 restrictions and shutdowns. Because my placement supervisor and the program director were optimists and innovators they were able to think outside of the box and create a unique, valuable and timely work experience for my classmates and I. In collaboration with two Mohawk College community-based initiatives - the MSE Lab and City School - I was able to stretch into my role as both an expressive arts facilitator and program creator.
Before beginning client work, myself and my classmates completed Level One Gentle Teaching training. Gentle Teaching incorporates compassion as an alternative to the reactive and restrictive practices that are commonplace in working with those who present with complex needs (Gentle Teaching International, 2020). I was very inspired by this training and plan to complete Level Two and Three through volunteer work.
Working with the MSE Lab
The Covid-19 lock-downs and restrictions have forced places like Mohawk College to shut down programming that is vital to the health and well-being of certain populations. To help the MSE Lab stay connected with their clients, I was brought in to create a series of virtual, expressive arts experiences for individuals living with disabilities who were frequently utilizing the multi-sensory environment pre-Covid. I was able to connect with four wonderful clients from Community Living Burlington. This experience allowed to gain experience programing for and working with people living with autism, global delays, developmental delays and physical ailments.
When I learned that my placement would be entirely virtual, I was kind of crushed. For the eight months proceeding the placement, I had been learning to facilitate in-person, not virtually! To create a bridge and make an in-person connection, I decided to build the program around a physical object that I could drop off, thus making a physical connection between not only myself and the clients, but the support workers that would be helping me facilitate the activities.
What I ended up creating was a six-week, six session expressive arts experience with
nearly all the materials needed tucked into individualized Mason jars. Throughout the program, the participating clients were given an opportunity to engage in six different art forms through simple, but meaningful activities based on the six different objects found in their jar. One of my passions as an arts educator and expressive arts practitioner is to expose people to forms of art they may not have access to readily or feel they are 'good enough' to engage with. It was my hope that I could open up my clients to new and enjoyable ways of expressing their creativity.
Example of materials in a single Jar of HeARTS.
In the program, the participants accessed their creative wellspring through:
constructing sun catchers
exploring watercolour painting
making collage art
Each activity was selected and designed with a specific wellness opportunity in mind.
Excerpt from The Jar of HeARTS Program presentation
The agency (Community Living Burlington) asked me to create a few self-directed resources so that clients could do the activities again in the future. To meet this request, I delivered two pre-recorded sessions. Below you can view the Collage Art session.
Over the six-week period I worked with my clients and their support workers, I learned more than I ever could have imagined. Yes, the virtual element to the programming posed certain challenges and limitations but it also opened up new ways of using technology to engage with people's creative spark. For instance, the virtual backdrop one can use in many video conferencing platforms became the stimulus for a movement activity where I was able to use video footage of jelly fish to help my clients 'hand dance' in order loosen up or soften their hands before a painting activity. Because both clients were physically unable to move their whole bodies due to physical disabilities, I could see them light up when they realized they could use their hands to dance! It was a really special moment and one I may have missed had I not been forced into a virtual environment.
Another meaningful learning moment came from the poetry session. What sets the expressive arts apart from other arts-based programing is the focus on creating opportunities to express emotional content via focusing on the creative process and what it stimulates, as opposed to a focus on creating a piece of art or developing a hard skill. The later are certainly bi-products of the programming, but not the goal. Both of the clients participating in the poetry session had developmental delays and although they were verbal, they did not speak often or with full sentences. Going into the session, I was concerned that the activity I had planned may not work. Thankfully my wariness was unnecessary. In fact, this activity became the catalyst for my first genuine breakthrough moment in the role as an expressive arts practitioner. I created a fill-in-the-blank poem that was not only meant to help my client write their own poetry but also served as a mindfulness breathing prompt. Below you will see one client's creation.
Client Creation: Poetry
When the support worker sent the photograph of this clients poem, I was completely stuck by (and even teared up) when I read her line "Through the clouds I soar, I swirl, I screamed." This particular client is exceptionally funny, and spirited. She has a great deal of energy and yet she is wheelchair bound, developmentally delayed and dealing with an array of physical ailments. Imagine what it must feel like to be bursting with all this energy inside a body that is so difficult to move? Reading that line and knowing that through art someone could take themselves someplace where they were free of these ailments affirmed why I am dedicating my life to this work, and advocating for it.
Overall, my experience collaborating with the MSE Lab and the residents and staff at Community Living Burlington has shaped me in new ways and opened me up to innovative alternatives to arts-based programing and facilitation. Here are a few pictures from our Jar of HeARTS journey together.
City School Collaboration
A second placement opportunity came up unexpectedly, one that I was happy to take on. Myself and two of my classmates were asked to create and facilitate three different virtual, expressive arts workshops for Mohawk College's City School community. City School is a community-based initiative that aims to break down barriers to education and employment by offering tuition-free courses, as well as access to community partners who have develop specialized training programs that encourage gradual steps to a post-secondary pathway (City School, 2020).
Whereas my work for the MSE Lab placement position was primarily independent, this placement position provided me with the opportunity to work collaboratively with my classmates - something I was missing since our in-class portion of the program had finished. Together, the three of us worked to design the workshops. Each of us was responsible for leading one feature activity as well as participating in a supportive role (i.e., managing the chat, facilitating the creative warm-up and closing activities). All three of these workshops were a ton of fun and provided great learning opportunities. It was a pleasure to sit back and see my classmates shine as well as witness the unique wellness benefit of coming together as group to create independently. There were times when everyone was so engaged in their own work that there was no speaking. These moments are very powerful in expressive arts programming because it helps people feel supported yet remain autonomous. Equally as beneficial is the chance to share personal reflections that the art brings up within a group space that is specifically non-clinical and non-judgemental. As I mentioned before, expressive arts is a process over product experience which helps people shake negative self-talk and the fear of having their work criticized. Also, Expressive Arts Practitioners are not practicing the regulated act of psychotherapy so clients can share with the understanding that they will not be psychoanalyzed.
The workshop that I lead introduced the participants to one of my favourite art forms, hidden poetry. The creations everyone ended with were diverse and inspiring! I loved every minute of this particular experience. One of the participants enjoyed the art so much that she sought out and purchased a book she could use to continue creating this form of poetry on her own time! This was another 'aha' moment that reminded me of how incredibly helpful this work is and that it is just as much about exposing people to new modes of creativity as it is about creating a supportive space for people to feel seen and valued.
Client Creations: Hidden Poetry
The Only Way Out Is Through
It would be dishonest of me to say that I didn't have very real reservations going into this placement experience. I even considered deferring until Covid-19 was resolved. If I could go back back and give Past Kori a big hug and a thank-you for deciding to persevere, I would. Not only was I able to develop the entirely new skill-set of virtual arts-based facilitation, I was able to provide spaces, means, inspiration - and most importantly human connection - for others who are feeling just as isolated and jarred as I am by this global pandemic. Because I am still digesting and processing the experience I have had since May, I decided to 'do the art' myself in order to connect with the deeper aspects of this life changing opportunity during this historically significant event we are moving through. I've titled it "The Only Way Out Is Through" which happens to be the mantra I repeated to myself throughout my experience to keep myself motivated and moving forward.