When a fifth- or sixth-grader has parents who are divorcing or a family member suffering from a chronic or terminal illness, that can cause grief the student isn’t always able to talk about.
So an art teacher at Clark-Pleasant Intermediate School has created a program for those students to express what they’re feeling through painting.
Lisa Durst isn’t a therapist or counselor, so she doesn’t sit and talk with students one-on-one about their problems. Instead she meets with groups of students, gives them canvases and different colors of paint, asks them questions and has them paint their answers.
Durst might start by naming emotions or situations and having the students use colors to express their feelings about divorce, grief, depression or illness.
Then she’ll move on to more detailed assignments, where students close their eyes and picture a field filled with flowers where colors are all blending together. The students then have 10 minutes to paint their pictures, and most of the time the completed projects are a flurry of a dozen colors.
Then the students explain their creations to Durst and the group with as much or as little detail and background as they want.
“I just allow them to express their feelings through color,” she said.
Durst, who has taught art in Greenwood and Clark-Pleasant schools since 2001, always has been interested in the emotion an artist feels while painting. About four years ago she started talking with the intermediate school’s counselors about starting an art expression program for students. Over the summer, she received a week of training to run the program.
The program began last month when Durst met with five students once a week. She and the school’s counselors are working now to decide how often she’ll meet with students this semester and how those students will be selected. She has enough art supplies to work with students at the start of the semester, but once those run out, she might have to start charging for the program.
Over the next year, Durst wants to work with more area schools and churches so that she can expand the program and work with more children and adults.
She’s started asking other school districts and churches if they’re interested in helping her expand the program. She knows she’ll need more art supplies and hopes that as she files paperwork to create a nonprofit organization — which could take as long as a year — she’ll be able to find donors for supplies.
“My goal is to work with as many kids as possible,” she said. “I don’t think there are enough programs to help kids, or adults, that are dealing with stresses.”
Durst first saw the potential for using art to heal from trauma shortly after she graduated from college and was in a serious car accident. Another driver in the accident died. Durst suffered a concussion, cracked ribs and a bruised heart.
She started painting regularly as a part of her recovery and quickly saw how cathartic the process was because she wasn’t spending time trying to rationalize or think logically about the accident. Instead she was able to express creatively how she was feeling.
“There’s just something about when you don’t have words for whatever it is you’re processing. It kind of allows you to release,” she said.
Durst wanted to find a way to help students at Clark-Pleasant Intermediate School the same way.
Students in fifth or sixth grade are more skilled at talking about their problems than a student in kindergarten or first grade. But not all students are comfortable talking with adults about topics such as divorce or depression, Clark-Pleasant Intermediate School counselor Lisa Morris said.
Last spring Durst learned about a program called Art for Healing after ordering a book from the group’s founder. The program had a training session over the summer that included 50 hours of workshops spread over seven days. Initially, Durst didn’t think she could afford the cost of $2,600; but her family and friends gave her the money to attend.
During the training she was asked all of the prompts she now asks students, and she had to create paintings based on the questions. Over the seven days she created 35 paintings, more than half of which currently cover a wall and are for sale at Benjamin’s Coffeehouse in Franklin.
Durst was working with eight other painters during the training, and all had emotional responses to the prompts. One woman in the class was married to a man who had committed suicide, and she found the painting soothing. Painting helped Durst continue to deal with the guilt that comes with knowing she survived the car accident, while someone else died.
“Everybody had a story, whether they had gone through a terrible marriage or they were dealing with depression,” she said.
After finishing the training, Durst worked with school counselors to find students for the new program. The counselors asked teachers if they knew of any students whose parents were divorced, who had been ill or had sick family members or who appeared depressed. Then the counselors sent letters to those students’ parents letting about the new after-school program.
Durst works with five to 15 students at a time. She wasn’t sure how much the students she worked with last month would want to share about their paintings because they didn’t know each other. But most of the students were quick to talk about what colors they selected, why and the motivation behind their work.
They also wanted to know how quickly the group would be able to meet again, Durst said.
“It’s a way for them to release their feelings and whatever they’re dealing with,” she said.