In late August 2005, the Mississippi and Louisiana Gulf Coasts experienced one of the worst natural disasters in history. Communities along the Mississippi Coast were completely destroyed by Hurricane Katrina while the city of New Orleans suffered widespread devastation. Even in Jackson, Mississippi, which is approximately 180 miles inland, strong hurricane winds and tornadoes caused significant property damage, power outages that lasted for weeks, and significant stress to the infrastructure and supply systems in the city. Residents of the city of Jackson and many displaced families from the Mississippi and Louisiana Coasts who relocated to Central Mississippi needed recovery from the trauma of Hurricane Katrina. Many were working to rebuild their own lives. Many others were helping to rebuild the lives of friends and family who lost homes, jobs, schools, and their sense of place in the world after the hurricane.
Jackson Public Schools, the district in which the Ask for More Arts Collaborative works, enrolled 1100 displaced students. An additional 900 students enrolled in schools in the tri-county metropolitan area for which Jackson serves as the largest city and hub. Most were from Louisiana. In addition to the trauma of losing their homes, possessions and, in many cases, being separated from family members and friends, these children had to adjust to new schools which operate very differently from those to which they were accustomed. The Ask for More Arts Collaborative responded to this disaster by providing opportunities for families to come together for a series of arts experiences designed to assist in the healing process and provide a renewed sense of place for new and existing residents of Jackson, Mississippi. From LifeShards to Cornerstones was established initially as a 15 week series of activities beginning in January 2007. Community response exceeded expectations and at the end of the initial series, the program evolved into LifeShards 1st Saturdays, a monthly gathering which continues to bring families together on the first Saturday of each month.
From Life Shards to Cornerstones, initially consisted of a series of fifteen Saturday arts events where families came together to work with artists, art teachers, and art therapists to participate in a mosaic and tile art project. Through this initiative, displaced families were welcomed into our community. Local citizens supported their transition and assisted them in integrating into the community. Guided by professionals, families came together to create mosaics and tiles that allowed them to reflect and express their individual stories as shards in a much larger event in the life of our community and neighboring state. The project culminated in a large mosaic for display and permanent mounting in the newly designed Mississippi Museum of Art, transforming shards of glass into a cornerstone of strength, beauty, and hope for the future.
The Mississippi Museum of Art (MMA) served as the host for the project. Families were invited to participate through the schools in which they were enrolled but the events were open to all citizens in the metropolitan area who wished to participate. Local glass artist, Elizabeth Robinson, and former New Orleans artist, Jerry Hymel, served as the artist team that determined the method of design and construction. Materials used to create the mosaic and tiles combined new glass with pieces of broken ceramics, glass, mirrors and other materials collected from the remains of homes and businesses that were destroyed on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. In the finished piece depicting a hurricane, remains of a piece of pottery donated by the Anderson family’s Shearwater Pottery, which was completely destroyed, serves as the eye of the storm. In addition to participating in creation of the larger mosaic for permanent display, families created smaller mosaic or tile pieces that they kept as mementos of this experience.
While this initiative was geared toward families and encouraged family participation, our primary goal was to ensure that the needs of children were being met. According to the American Art Therapy Association, “In the aftermath of the events of September 11th, 2001, and the tsunami
disaster in Southeast Asia, art expression has proven to be a very important part of the recovery process for children who have survived these traumatic events. Art offers a way for children to express their feelings, thoughts, and memories in ways that words cannot. It can help traumatized children to make sense of their experiences, communicate grief and loss, and become active participants in their own process of healing.”
Experts agree that children who have experienced a catastrophic, natural disaster such as Hurricane Katrina, need support from others to avoid long-term emotional problems. We know, too, that feelings of fear, anger, depression, and simple worries can interfere with a child’s ability to concentrate in school and can impact behavior and achievement. While children who directly experience or witness disaster are more at risk for emotional trauma than others, “second-hand” exposure to disaster through less dangerous situations such as the storms that occurred in Jackson, exposure to media stories, or hearing descriptive stories can also impact children. We knew from talking to parents, teachers, and children that there was a great and urgent need for the children in our community, whether local or displaced, to feel supported and have opportunities to reflect on their experiences as a result of Hurricane Katrina.
From Life Shards to Cornerstones provided a safe and structured environment for creative expression to take place; encouraged children to express their feelings and become active participants in their own recovery process; and helped children and families feel connected to peers and adults who could provide support and decrease isolation.
The outpouring of support to supply families with basic needs in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina was extraordinary. From Life Shards to Cornerstones served as a powerful tool to bring meaning to this natural disaster, to restore a sense of place for those who were impacted, and to provide a lasting monument to the strength, resilience, and beauty of the human spirit.
The Ask for More Arts Collaborative is a school-community-arts collaborative formed for the purpose of integrating arts into the educational lives and experiences of children in Jackson Public Schools (Jackson, MS). The collaborative engages school administrators, teachers, parents, and students, as well as arts and community organizations and individual artists, in the process of advancing its goals. Parents for Public Schools of Jackson serves as the fiscal agent and convening partner in the work of the collaborative.
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