Art student organizes community arts project

Kyren Conley

Kyren Conley, a Bachelor of Fine Arts in studio art senior from Alliance, Neb., organized an exhibition of portraits and other works for women and children staying at Friendship Home, Lincoln's shelter for victims of domestic violence.

"Sights Unseen" was on display at the Nebraska Union Rotunda Gallery Oct. 17-21. A dinner and auction of the artwork will be scheduled this spring to benefit Friendship Home.

The project was not for course credit, but represented a culmination of her work with Associate Professor of Art Sandra Williams in community arts. In addition to taking her Art in the Community classes, Conley has previously worked with Williams on a UCARE (Undergraduate Creative Activities and Research Experiences) project and as a teaching assistant.

"I was pushing her toward having a larger project and to do her own project," Williams said. "I mentored her along the way, but it was truly an educational effort on her part."

Conley and six other Department of Art and Art History students created altered portraits of the residents of Friendship Home for the exhibition. The other participating students included Michaela Bradley, Anna Garcia, Lindsay Graef, Allison Holdsworth, Ashley Schultz and Audrey Stommes.

"These are people that I've worked with and had classes with," Conley said. "I chose artists that have strong work, who are very professional and caring individuals who would benefit from an experience like this. This isn't just an experience to benefit Friendship Home. It's an opportunity for us to be more socially aware. It was an intense learning experience for everyone involved."

The Artistic Process

The students also investigated the gaze between artist and subject within the wider context of the social issue: What does it mean when the artist and community take a look at this hidden population?

"Art is created to be experienced by others and engages us in community," Williams said. "Even though everyone's reaction is deeply personalized, you're still part of a community looking at it. Through this project, Kyren was creating a space to look at this issue of domestic violence."

Conley learned that one in four women have been a victim of domestic abuse, which includes physical, emotional, verbal and financial abuse.

"Even though they come from every walk of life, they're all different personalities," Conley said. "They're sensitive. They gained strength from this process and learned a different sense of self-awareness."

Following a meeting with Julie Reager, the volunteer coordinator at Friendship Home, Conley met with the residents of Friendship Home and presented PowerPoint presentations on the concepts and what the project would be about.

"It was fantastic to see them engage with the art I was presenting and really associated with the works I was showing," Conley said. "While working with the women, we let the relationships develop. We might start talking about their favorite movies or their family, and then talk a little bit more about themselves and their situations."

The students created individual portraits of the women and children for them to keep, in addition to creating the portraits on display in the exhibition, which will be up for sale in the auction.

"That was exciting for them," Conley said. "Many of them said it would be the first image they put up in their house."

The act of creating a portrait is very personal.

"I think they felt it was a nice experience for them to have attention lavished on them," Conley said. "The act of creating a portrait is one of intense study and time. It was a testament to the individual that they are deserving of this attention and admiration. They came dressed in their best clothes, ready for these beautiful images of themselves."

The artists were not allowed to reveal the identities of the women and children, so they had to be creative in what they portrayed.

"The artists created very interesting and creative ways around that to capture that inner character," Conley said. "We have the children's and mother's interactions with one another. They're taking care of one another. One portrait was a very intimate piece of the mother painting her daughter's fingernails. It's just a cropped portrait of the hands, but you see the maternal bond with her children."

Williams said the arts have a unique role in creating connections between people, cultures and situations that might otherwise go unrecognized.

"When we do not know or understand one another, we perpetuate stereotypes," she said. "We have so many resources in our geographically close, but sometimes socially distant immediate neighborhood - it's only natural for students to question and explore what the role of their scholarly research is in a practical, applicable way. It is important for the residents of Friendship Home to recognize their own creativity and share in the pleasure of looking at art and participating in the creation of art. Art is a health-giving practice, both psychologically and emotionally."

Conley said it represented the power of being looked at.

"What is the power of the mirror to be aware of the situation, to see what's going on, to have an intimate relationship with that moment," she said. "And the power of being seen to say if somebody sees me, they know my plight."

Community Arts

A total of 19 pieces were included in the exhibition and will be up for auction in the spring. In addition to the eight portraits created by the seven students, the participating students also donated their own work. Additionally Williams and Associate Professor of Art Eddie Dominguez have also donated pieces.

Williams is proud of the work done by Conley on this project and said transdiciplinary study is one of the benefits of being at a large liberal arts institution like the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

"It was an intense, difficult journey that these seven students went on together," Williams said. "Kyren's scholarly research changed the way these students thought about their social sphere and perceived their own behavior. They had to adapt to a challenging social environment. We were lucky to have the insight and information provided by Jan Deeds of the UNL Women's Center, as well as training from Julie Reager from Friendship Home."

Conley said she learned about the hard work of community arts work from Williams.

"Sandra has always expected a lot of hard work and effort from her students," she said. "It's because she works so hard and puts in the effort. The quality of the work is representational of the process and importance of what we're doing."

Conley used the experience for her preparation to becoming a community leader herself.

"It's not about this feel-good process of saying, 'We're going to go into this place, and they're going to love us, and we're going to change their lives.' It's not like that," Conley said. "They enjoyed the process, and the layers of foundation of experience and knowledge that I gained from it, helps fill up my experiences so I'm socially aware."

Conley is scheduled to graduate this December and plans to pursue her master's degree in art education from the University of Nebraska at Kearney. She hopes to be an art educator in the panhandle of Nebraska.

"When you go for your master's, you invest in that place and become a member of the community. You grow where you're planted," Conley said. "My ultimate career goal is to become a K-12 art educator in the panhandle of Nebraska. I think it's an underserved area of the fine arts. I have an intimate relationship and history with the area. I know the problems of the community, culturally, financially and demographically. Somebody has to care. I'm very passionate about it. I want to use art as an educational tool, not just in the public school systems, but to make the community more aware of these issues."

Community arts taught Conley important lessons in collaboration and leadership.

"I think it's important that I have this experience, and I know how to collaborate, organize, work with community members. It's important that I have the skill sets to become an effective advocate for the fine arts in the public schools by demonstrating why they're essential," Conley said. "Creating projects that take the learning out of the classroom setting and show how arts can be beneficial to your community is one of the most important ways we can support the fine arts and keep them in the public schools and funded," Conley said.

Williams has high hopes for Conley's future success.

"We have an increasingly smaller pool who are willing to dedicate themselves to the social services," she said. "To see someone excel in the capacity that Kyren has, that's the moment of joy in teaching for me. It just reminds you of why you get into this and the importance of doing work where sometimes there is little reward."

Doing meaningful work is not about convenience.

"If you want a career that's going to pat you on the back, art is not it," Conley said. "You have to be so self-disciplined. No one is going to hold your hand or check up on you. It's all on you, the success or failure of your project."

Williams is excited to see the success of Conley's project.

"This show, the months of organization, that was all Kyren," she said. "Part of our critical role as educators is to foster the next generation of leaders. I am pleased with the type of civic leaders we're creating at this university."

"The act of creating a portrait is one of intense study and time. It was a testament to the individual that they are deserving of this attention and admiration."
--Kyren Conley