Parents and Paintings

As many of you know, I’ve been incorporating a lot of visual aspects into my work.  This has been a collaboration that is becoming more interdisciplinary all the time and seems to be picking up steam, although not yet grant funding.  We’ll take steam for now.  Anyway, together with El Futuro colleagues in Siler City, we tried out a version of our arts work with parents.  These parents were involved in a parenting retreat over spring break.  The idea was to help prepare parents for their children’s transition from elementary to middle school, get them interested in a longer-term evidenced parenting program called The Incredible Years, and to continue building more parent involvement in schools where parents have not traditionally been as involved.

We used our works of art, selected by our colleagues at the Ackland Art Museum, as “elicitation” devices.  (I’m trying to learn the science behind all of this so I’m practicing using the jargon – forgive me.)  An elicitation device is supposed to help people talk – sometimes about a particular subject, sometimes about one’s self.  A novel can be an elicitation device; a poem can be an elicitation device;  or an essay, etc.  In this case we used a collection of paintings and photographs from different sources and different time periods with the goal of helping parents talk and reflect about parenting.

This group of parents is comprised of Latino immigrants.  We don’t ask anything about their documentation status – so please don’t ask me.  They did not know one another prior to today.  Most have low levels of education and I would bet that many have never set foot in an art museum.  So the whole team was a little nervous about whether this idea would go over.  The group facilitator who knew many of the families was saying, “Maybe we should throw in a few more pictures.  I don’t think they’re going to be very talkative.”  “ On the drive down, I was making up questions and vignettes in case the whole thing fell flat and we were left with 2 ½ hours to fill.  When I met the father with multiple tattoos up and down his arms, my anxiety climbed a bit higher.  What would he think of  professors asking him to talk about pictures from an art museum?  Then we put up the first picture – a photograph of young men diving and swimming in a river.  And the parents jumped in with both feet –remembering significant moments, describing parenting struggles, noticing interesting details, asking questions, sharing views of themselves, and views of their children.  They listened to one another; they were affirming; and over the course of 8 pictures and 2 ½ hours they became a cohesive group.  The dad with the tattoos was a real leader in the process!

Tomorrow they will get into some knotty questions about disciplinary practices, what their communication is like with their children, the support they are providing for their child’s education.  Hard stuff often with no easy answers, particularly when you work three jobs, a spouse has been deported or detained, and your own educational background is limited.   But seeing this group’s willingness to explore and engage using somewhat unusual means,  gives me a lot of faith that exciting things will come from this small beginning.

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