I’m most known in the Los Angeles area for being the outspoken art mom from the San Fernando Valley. Whenever I get a chance to talk about the arts in schools, I usually talk about how the right brained kids are getting a raw deal because they are being forced to conform to left brained standards of learning and have been unfairly diagnosed as having some sort of learning disability or ADD. I talk about how the absence of the arts in schools have robbed kids and teachers of their humanity and creativity, and that skill and drill environments in schools have killed a kid’s desire to learn. What I don’t talk much about is how the arts save lives.
When I was a kid, painting, drawing, and writing got me through a childhood of uncertainty, divorce, death, violence and alcoholism. I endured the chaos by retreating into my own room where I could make things and feel like the master of my own universe, in complete control and totally free.
When I started my nonprofit, Arts in Education Aid Council, thirteen years ago, I wasn’t trying to reinvent any wheel. I only wanted to see that my kids, and all kids, had the same arts opportunities that I had growing up. I don’t know what would have become of me without art and music in school. Drawing, painting and playing in the school band not only kept me interested in school, but being the class artist was how I received positive attention and respect from my teachers and peers.
Some of the kids in our arts program, like one little girl in one of our elementary school bands, was literally saved by the arts. She witnessed her father kill her mother and then kill himself. The school principal told us that her dedication to learning her instrument helped her get through it. And then there is the teen who won a scholarship to the Idyllwild Arts Academy summer program by participating in one of our many art shows. The staff loved him so much that they offered him a full scholarship to finish high school there. This young man got the break of a lifetime through the arts. A cancer survivor, abandoned by his father as a child, living in a gang infested area of the Valley – he was able to escape this life with his art, and then through access and opportunity with our program. These are just two stories of how our arts program has helped save lives. There are many more.
If you give kids in hopeless situations a way to help them make sense of their hopelessness either by writing about it in poetry, music or theatre, or releasing it in a song or painting, or by giving them a great book to lose themselves in, you give kids hope. Once they have hope, they can take things from there.
My own life has been saved by the arts more than once. It helped me get through a rough childhood and most recently, it helped me get through cancer.
While I was trying to keep my arts ed nonprofit going during the recession, I discovered that I had cancer while temporarily uninsured. To mitigate my stress, I decided to practice what I preach and turned to my own art for comfort and release. I spent an awful lot of time in my studio, painting and drawing cartoons about artists, the business of art, art history and arts education. Being creative and staying committed to my own art on a daily basis helped me maintain the necessary positive attitude that every cancer patient needs when undergoing treatment. It was quite a year, but I kept my wits about me and I stayed true to myself, because I am an artist.
I ended up going to Washington DC to tell my story on the steps of the Supreme Court a little over a year ago. While I was there for the three days amongst the many demonstrators, my mind kept going back to my original cause –arts in schools. I saw with my own eyes and heard with my own ears how unbelievably easy it is to manipulate and control the masses – if they are fearful and uneducated. If they were better educated, they wouldn’t be out there chanting against their own best interests. Kids who receive the arts in schools are taught to think outside of the box, draw outside of the lines, to question, to take risks, and to not go along with the status quo. The only way we can have a healthy democracy is if we have a healthy public education system. To have a healthy public education system, our schools need flourishing, vibrant, outstanding arts programs.
I created a slide show presentation on murals for the Reseda Neighborhood Council three days ago. After I was finished, a fellow board member made the comment that even though he didn’t care much for the arts himself, he understood what the arts can do for communities and that he supported my efforts. That made me think of Mayor Bloomberg of New York. He’s not a big fan of the arts personally, but he sees the big picture, and fully supports the arts because the arts are critical to New York’s economy. Like Mayor Bloomberg, you don’t have to be an artist or an art lover to support the arts. You just have to appreciate how vital they are to local economies, our democracy, and for some of us, our very lives.