When COVID-19 shut down the world, the local arts organizers of Path with Art knew they couldn’t abandon their students. For many students, the free classes offered by Path with Art created a community and a belonging that would become even more necessary than it had been prior to the pandemic. Path with Art mostly serves people who are working through being unhoused, an addiction struggle or other trauma and offers art classes free of cost to foster community, healing, facilitate self-expression and forge agency.
The sense of togetherness that is as basic a human need as food and shelter is a larger part of what Path with Art provides for students. “This is a way to have a community that is about making art and creating things and appreciating things and showing things. That is a really basic human need,” Executive Director Holly Jacobson said.
This fall, students have been able to attend classes centered around fashion design and costume creation with teaching artists who also work as professional designers.
Eight groups of students will show their designs at their Art for All Ball — this year, a virtual event Dec. 3 — to fundraise for Path with Art.
As Jacobson explains it, the creative process that artistic expression inspires can be very impactful for people who are healing from trauma or life challenges; it allows people to have choice, through the colors one might use when painting or designing a dress; it inherently allows people to make mistakes without consequence and helps rewire the brain from trauma. Finally, it allows a person to rewrite their narrative and choose what they want to say about themselves, while providing one with an identity and a place in the world.
That’s why, Jacobson said, it was imperative that the staff continue to keep students connected to their art practice, teachers and to one another despite the shutdown. Previously, many of Path with Art’s students would use libraries and community centers to access computers. But when indoor spaces first shut down, the organization’s staff and board scrambled to arrange hotspots, tablets and laptops so their students could access classes on Zoom. They trained their teaching artists to provide instruction in a digital space and put together packages of materials — whether fabric, paint or canvas — they delivered to students.
Jacobsen says attendance has greatly increased during the pandemic. Digital access — as long as it is made feasible for students who might not have access to the technology — has eased some participation aspects for people with mobility and mental health issues.
One Path with Art participant, Jessica, said in a promo video for the organization’s upcoming fundraiser that the program has been really helpful during this isolated time. “It gives us something to do and expands on all the skills and teaches us new skills.”
Another participant, Cecilia, said in the same video that Path with Art creates an inclusive, welcoming atmosphere where people and the art they create truly matter. “We all have a place. And everyone is respected — it's not your age, how you look,” she said. “No matter the circumstances, they matter. A lot of times people want to be heard; they want to be seen.”
Teaching textiles online
For teaching artist Malia Peoples, using Zoom to teach classes wasn’t new. But showing her students how to work with fabrics, sew and understand the art of textiles posed a challenge because the form is so tactile. To remedy that, she got a second camera to show closeups of what she was actually doing with the fabric and found a way to connect the second camera to Zoom.
The virtual classes also allowed Peoples to be more targeted with each student. She always asks students what they want to learn, but talking to students close up, one-on-one with Zoom breakout rooms and emailing them videos pertaining to their interests ended up being perks of a very technology-focused teaching model.
To create a design for her cohort of students, People asked everyone what they wanted to do and took into consideration individual needs and requests. Together, they came up with a multifaceted, assembly-friendly design that you might see in a whimsical wonderland, which is the theme of this year’s Art for All Ball.
“I was able to create a design so that everyone was doing something they wanted to do,” she said. Peoples came up with the idea to use strips of fabric to create a rainbow cape, inspired by an Instagram post where someone had made banners of strips of tablecloth. With minimal sewing, the strips would allow for a wispy, flowing effect that could be easily assembled.
Peoples made sure the design had lots of beadwork since one student enjoyed working with beads; another student took charge of creating an umbrella that the person wearing the rainbow cape would hold. The outfit also features lots of glitter and bling, shoe covers and wristlets.
“Everyone had a hand in it,” Peoples said.
The classes have been a lifeline not just for students, but also for teachers, Peoples said. The weekly Friday classes became a touch point that everyone could look forward to and count on in a pandemic world, where time has warped and the days blend into one another.
When the rainbow outfit was finished, Peoples noticed that anyone who tried it on would begin walking with a different gait, more confidence and attitude. That, she says, is the power of art — and specifically, the potential style of clothes.
“Art as a whole can really change your perspective. Clothing is much more amplified because it's a thing we can really relate to because we use a lot of our senses,” Peoples said.
A virtual ball
The is the third annual Art for All Ball. Jacobson says the event is not only about raising funds for the organization’s continuing work. It is also a reciprocal relationship with the community.
“For me, it's also about Path with Art supporting the greater community. It's also about celebrating possibility and trying to find some joy after a really hard year,” Jacobson said. “Our participants often have to grapple with a lot of things, and that takes a lot of faith — a lot of courage — but it also requires some imagination, some creativity, discipline, practice. Our artist participants are role models for the rest of us about how to get through hard times.”
The Ball will feature designs from students and their teaching artists, all of whom are established designers. Eight models will walk the ramp with designs that are bright, colorful and illustrative of a fantasy wonderland.
Models will include Path with Art luminary Riishaar Baker, arts advocate Shari Behnke, Native Diamonds founder Samantha Biasca, Panama Hotel gallerist Bill Gaylord, Mari Horita of Seattle’s new hockey team, Chihuly studio leader Leslie Jackson Chihuly, glass artist Preston Singletary and King 5 anchor Joyce Taylor. Other guest artists include costume designer and performer Machine Dazzle, civic arts leader Vivian Phillips, Meeka Quan Dilorenzo of the Seattle Symphony Orchestra and KEXP’s DJ Sharlese.
For more information about the Dec. 3 event, click here.
Kamna Shastri is a staff reporter covering narrative and investigative stories for Real Change. She has a background in community journalism. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @KShastri2
Read more in the Dec. 2-8, 2020 issue.