Shine a Light

by JiJi Russell

Peeking inside the eclectic outbuildings that surround the home of artist-instructors Malcom Harlow and Gale Bowman-Harlow of Opus Oaks transports one to a timeless place of open-ended creative discovery. The barns and sheds, with their various metal, sculptural, and other works in progress, exert a magnetism that invites you to stay a while…and perhaps try something new.

On the final hot summer afternoon of my son’s week-long art camp, Gale, who has been coordinating Opus Oaks art camps and classes for 15 years, welcomed parents to meet the camp instructor and view the remarkable works that resulted from a week-long intensive for eight- to fourteen-year-olds. Instructor (and high school art teacher) Angela Bean, with infectious enthusiasm and creativity, led her students through daily nature study; metal working; drawing; and other multi-media techniques.

On this closing day, Gale shared briefly, yet no less passionately, her belief that the arts deserve a much stronger foothold in education.

“Art incorporates all of the sciences and mathematics, as well as tapping into parts of the brain that are not accessed by [academic subjects],” Bowman-Harlow told me later. “All the statistics show that when art education is included in a child’s life, they do much better in school and in general.”


Learning by Doing

Bowman-Harlow points to copper forging, one of the mediums offered by Opus Oaks: “Here you’re introducing children to mediums where they’re using tools and learning chemistry and procedures. It’s really thrilling to me,” she said. “The children learn how to swing a hammer and use a drill, with control and within a procedure, so that by the end of the course children really understand how things work.”

Once art camp was over, I set about giving the topic of arts education more attention, which has turned out a raft of insights, anecdotes, and research that says YES, arts education carries a deep and meaningful set of benefits for students of all ages and backgrounds.

Jeff M. Poulin of Washington, D.C.-based Americans for the Arts states that arts education “does actually change the brain.” When students engage in arts education, their brain activity, or synapses, connect more robustly, Poulin said. This, in turn can lead not only to greater academic achievement but “can stimulate empathy and altruism among students.”

Moreover, “There’s a huge benefit to a school’s climate, and the students feel more welcome, when the arts are integrated throughout,” said Poulin, who serves within the arts education area of Americans for the Arts.


A Student of Life

Poulin also notes that a “student” can be not only a child, but perhaps an elder citizen, or a returning combat veteran. For these populations, and indeed other non-traditional ones, studies have shown that the arts can have a positive influence on physical balance and agility, memory, happiness, and so much more.

Americans for the Arts President and CEO, Robert L. Lynch stated recently in a Huffington Post article that “Creativity can be nurtured throughout life, and the older brain, rich in life experiences, can be stimulated to create and contribute in extraordinary ways. The field of creative aging acknowledges the vital link between creativity and quality of life for older adults, regardless of economic status, age or level of physical, emotional or cognitive functioning.” (see link to full article in side bar)

Lynch also points to the many community outreach efforts across the nation, serving people who would not necessarily have access to the arts: the homeless; those in prison; underprivileged children. He highlighted one such effort happening at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. The Center has incorporated a Healing Arts Program, which uses art, creative writing and music as a means of therapy and expression for service members with traumatic brain injuries and psychological health conditions, according to a recent article Lynch wrote on “Arts Action Heros.” (article link in sidebar)


The Gift Keeps Giving

My personal experience as a lifelong dabbler in the arts has instilled an intrinsic belief in their importance. Moreover, the world of wellness and health promotion is taking note that understanding what is important and meaningful to an individual can help to promote health and well-being to that individual and within groups as well.

My hunch that art might bridge well-being appears firmly backed up by research programs and projects all over the United States, including community-based Creative Youth Development, and the Harmony Project in Los Angeles. These efforts, and so many more, have uncovered real evidence of the important social, cultural, and holistic learning that instruction in (and sometimes even just exposure to) music, theatre, visual, and creative arts can bestow.

Boyce Elementary School music teacher Jessica Tavenner sees the effects of arts education every day, and also fully believes in the magic.

“Arts education is so important for young people because it teaches creativity, self-confidence, and the joy of making something wonderful by yourself and with other people. A well-rounded learning experience and perspective on life are added bonuses,” Tavenner said.

“I see on a daily basis the profound impact that joyous music-making has on children and adults alike. It’s truly magical to show students how to make their own music then hear the incredible and unique music they come up with while we are working together in class. Music and the arts are a special gift that no child should go without.”