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MIND ON PAPER SKETCH COLLAGES SHOW KIDS IN A NEW LIGHT

An Artist Reception was held at the Gallery Thursday, June 30. It celebrated our kids and their sketches during our first month-long Artist in Residence program. Muralist and painter, Cait Irwin, was the artist that took on the adventure of this project. Each kid got to spend one day each week working with Cait on drawing. Cait took the sketches the kids did, which were a piece of the child that completed them, and placed them into a collage. These “Mind on Paper” collages were hung up for the reception and will remain in the Gallery for all to enjoy for the next month.

“I can’t say enough good things about Cait. Her connection with the kids and staff was so incredible. My favorite part of the reception was seeing the kids light up when they found their drawing,” explained Chanda Elliott, Northwest Passage’s Development Director.

Read what Cait had to say about the past month:

My Northwest Passage/Schaefer Cabin Experience
Cait Irwin, Artist

When you’re a travelling artist you never really know what to expect when you arrive at a new “job” site. Especially, if it is the first go at a totally experimental program. As June drew closer my excitement had swelled to a fever pitch. It had almost been a year since my initial contact with Northwest Passage’s experiential programming coordinator and college friend, Ian Karl, about this ‘Artist in Residence’ pipe dream. It was to take place in a remote location along the Namekagon River. I wanted to jump into the month-long residency with as little expectation as possible. My mind and heart needed to be a blank canvas ready to take in this mysterious experience.

The only thing that I could expect was what I was personally going to offer. I knew that I would be sharing my experiences with mental illness, and more importantly, how I have used art throughout my life to cope.  At the same time I hoped to inspire the kids at Northwest Passage and give them a feeling of hope for the possibility of a new future. I wanted to express to them that our struggles CAN make us stronger while deepening an appreciation for the world around us.

Schaefer Cabin Residency site:
The first thing that I noticed about the cabin was the fact that it was so isolated. It was refreshing to be occupying a space where I couldn’t hear any man-made sounds. What a great reminder that wild and quiet places still exist in this insanely loud and busy world. Just the drive out to the historical Schaefer Cabin was like slowly leaving the daily hustle and my mind had the opportunity to slow down. I know that the kids and staff alike felt that too as they travelled out for our daily sketching sessions.

It was incredibly important to transform the cabin into a haven for safe self-expression and raw creation. To assist with this process I brought multiple paintings and drawings of my own to occupy the space. My work itself served as an example that when we were in the cabin we were all safe to express our innermost thoughts and feelings. While in the Schaefer Cabin, everyone’s work would be respected and celebrated, and I think it was felt by all who entered.

Art Sessions:
The design of my program was simple as I was to work with almost all of the kids currently attending Northwest Passage.  Each time they came out to the cabin they would work in a communal sketchbook. They were given a variety of pencils and charcoals to use as tools of expression. We eased into the process by starting with a “free sketch” session and then moved into more focused exercises throughout the month. The common thread in our once-a-week two-hour sessions was that it wasn’t about the end product but about the process. Also the very act of drawing seems to slow down the frantic world around you. It was also important to tell them that while they were in the cabin with me they are my art students and that I would treat them as such.

I was honestly blown away by how the Northwest Passage kids jumped right in! Almost everyone picked up a sketchbook and pencil pack and immediately worked with total focus. The cabin was filled with the sound of pencils moving across paper and in the background trees rustled, birds sang, and some classical music softly played.  What moved me the most was the fearlessness that the kids so steadily demonstrated. Not one hesitated or even mentioned their lack of artistic abilities. The idea of the “process” seemed to be a part of their own intuition.

After a solid thirty minutes (at least) of drawing we would come together as a group and share what we had created. With almost 100% participation each student showed their own unique style and perspective. The most amazing thing was that there was never a time when a participant put down another’s work. The idea of the cabin being a safe place was taken seriously amongst all of the students.

As we moved through the month and began building a genuine rapport with each other, the work began to take on a more honest and emotional tone. Sometimes the work exploded like a firework and other times it presented itself so subtly you would almost overlook it. The whole spectrum from humor to sadness was represented daily.

Sometimes on my drive home I would find myself laughing and also crying as I recalled our precious time at the cabin. Every time I left the cabin I was absolutely exhausted, and at the same time completely inspired. I could not help but think about my own time spent as a teenager dealing with depression in a very clinical setting. I would have thrived in a program like Northwest Passage … a program that embraces all of the beautiful, complex and intricate aspects of each individual, while connecting to the natural world.

Final Project: Mind on Paper Collages
At the end of our sessions the kids had the option to sign their work or stay anonymous. If they wanted to share their work with the world they would put a star in the corner. Getting their permission and giving them the option of taking ownership of their sketches was how I could show kindness and respect for their thoughts and feelings. I was truly in awe when the majority of students proudly signed their work and wanted to boldly share it with the world!

In Closing:
It makes me very proud that I was asked to be the pioneer for this unique and exciting month-long residency program. And as the initial logistical bumps began to smooth out I could see with clarity that this is the kind of work that grounds me.  I feel that it is important to share yourself with a spirit of empathy and compassion, even if only to show someone that they are not alone in the world.

There is no way I could properly capture all of the incredible aspects of this pilot program in one artist statement alone. Honestly, I am not sure that any arrangement of words could capture the transformative and inspiring nature of this residency. I have a renewed hope for the world after meeting so many dedicated staff members of Northwest Passage and the National Park Service. These individuals have put a vision of compassion, for all people, and an appreciation for the natural world into action. As for all of the kids I met, each one has renewed my calling to pass along the message that art heals. I will leave here carrying a heavy load of inspiration, memories, and exciting visions of how to keep growing this program for years to come.

 

This Artist in Residency was made possible through a generous grant from the St. Croix Valley Foundation, The Wisconsin Arts Board and Eastern National. More about Cait can be found on her website at www.irwinartworks.com.

Northwest Passage is looking for more artists that would be great role models and would like to inspire our kids to reach for their dreams. If interested, please see this web page for more information.

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