Saturday, March 6, 2021

Getting Through The Pandemic With Art-Fueled Joy

Sunday Stillwell

For the past three years, I have worked in a local elementary school as a one-to-one support aide to a handful of K-2 students with various intellectual disabilities, in a self-contained functional academic life-skills (FALS) classroom. My job is to assist the student I am working with in all aspects of their day. I sing songs during circle time, help them learn to request items with their communication devices, teach ABCs and 123s, and during recess I play tag because it made everyone giggle and little bodies have a lot of energy to burn in the last two hours of school. But, hands-down my favorite days are the ones when we draw pictures, sculpt creatures out of clay, or create masterpieces in art class using bits of rolled up tissue paper, glue, and a vivid imagination. My favorite days.

Then, in March 2020, COVID-19 hit, and those in positions like mine weren’t sure where we fit in the “virtual learning classroom.”  I, for one, didn’t work at all for the rest of that school year.  I missed seeing my little friends every day. I missed drawing pictures with them, and making them giggle by pretending to be a T-Rex loose on the playground. 

I filled my newly free days by spending time with my own kids who were now back home, full time. We went on a lot of very long walks, drew on the sidewalks with chalk, watched videos on how to fold origami, and put together inexpensive foam critters I ordered from the local craft shop. Art and nature became a solace for my younger son and me, while technology and YouTube sustained my older son. We settled into a new normal, and it reminded me a lot of when my boys were both very young and I was a stay-at-home mom trying to balance it all.

Image: Caucasian teen boy drawing with chalk on blacktop pavement in a rainbow of colors.
[Image: Caucasian teen boy drawing with chalk on blacktop pavement in a rainbow of colors.]

Caucasian teen boy holding a long branch he has colored with chalk in a rainbow pattern.
[Image: Caucasian teen boy holding a long branch
he has colored with chalk in a rainbow pattern.]

We made it through the rest of the spring and summer following the same daily routine of walking, watching movies, and doing art projects. I found solace in coloring books centered around nature and flowers. Sam drew ABC pictures and cut them out individually to “swizzle” (his word for flashing items quickly in front of his eyes), and at the end of the summer I found we had gone through an obscene amount of paper, colored pencils and other supplies. It was entirely worth it.

ABCs individually cut out and drawn by my 18 year old son to “swizzle.”
[Image: ABCs individually cut out and drawn by my 18 year old son to “swizzle.”] 

Thankfully, at the beginning of the 2020-21 school year I was asked to return as a one-to-one support aide working with a second grader I had previously taught in another program, two years earlier.  This was my first time experiencing both a neurotypical classroom as well as a virtual learning environment, and I was pleasantly surprised to find I really enjoy it. It helps immensely to work with teachers who flourish not just in the classroom but behind a computer screen as well. The teacher I work each day is sassy and fun but also firm. She introduced the class to a super-fun and YouTube channel, Art For Kids Hub, that teaches step-by-step drawing. Since the start of the year, we’ve done dozens of drawings. Everything from koalas to valentine dinosaurs.

Image: Caucasion woman’s hand holding a white sheet of paper with a black and white drawing of a dinosaur holding a heart with a bite taken out of it.
[Image: Caucasion woman’s hand holding a white sheet of paper with a
black and white drawing of a dinosaur holding a heart with a bite taken out of it.]

Meanwhile in art class each week the kids and I tune in and answer a silly icebreaker question such as, “On a scale of cat how are you feeling today?”

Image: 9 various cats making silly, scared, happy, or sleepy faces

[Image: 9 various cats making silly, scared, happy, or sleepy faces.]

We then transition into this week’s project which have run the gamut from making a clay pinch pot, to designing our own USPS stamp, and my personal favorite: a silly sandwich with a piece of bread drawn on the top and bottom of the page and filled inside with strange objects depending on our likes or dislikes. I asked my second graders for suggestions for my sandwich, which is how I ended up with a truck, snake, banana, sushi, and rainbow-cloud sandwich with a large gap just waiting for the final addition. 

Image Left: A silly sandwich designed by the author.  Image Right: A hand-drawn virtual class with the teacher and students in their own squares.
[Image Left: A silly sandwich designed by the author. 
Image Right: A hand-drawn virtual class with the teacher and students in their own squares.]

If I have learned anything during this pandemic it is to be flexible, and lean into the activities that bring you comfort. Depending on the season, or how you slept the night before, your comfort may look different from those around you. I find solace in taking a long walk every day. Being in nature soothes my soul and centers me. I also keep several art materials on hand to cycle through when inspiration washes over me. I have found that the popular store Five Below has excellent spiral-bound drawing notebooks, coloring books, markers, crayons, modeling clays, and other materials that would cost much more if purchased at an actual craft or art store.

The most important thing right now is to be kind to yourself. Art and expressing oneself through creativity can be an excellent tool to soothe anxiety, and don't underestimate the satisfaction of sculpting a city with clay and inviting your kids to pretend they’re Godzilla and smash the crap out of it.  Sometimes kindness looks a lot like rainbow-colored destruction and that’s A-Ok with me.