Newaygo County artist, students, community collaborate on multimedia ArtPrize project to boost empathy, battle bullying
FREMONT– An international art festival that’s described as the largest of its kind in the world is helping provide the canvas for a community’s vision about empathy and kindness, and how both can empower children and families to stand up to bullying. “Walk a mile in my shoes – Kindness Newaygo County” has been accepted into ArtPrize Nine 2017 and the collaborative multimedia art exhibit will be on display at the City Water Building by the Richard App Gallery, located at 1101 Monroe Ave. NW, Grand Rapids. ArtPrize runs from Sept. 20-Oct. 8.
Conceived and executed by Newaygo County artist Jane Stroschin, the project is both one woman’s artistic vision and an interactive, community-wide multimedia work that attempts to raise awareness about bullying, by inviting those who experience it to engage in empathy and kindness. Stroschin’s artistic vision and direction drove the overall project, which frames a theme first articulated more than a year ago by the superintendent of Newaygo County Regional Educational Services Agency (NCRESA), Lori Tubbergen-Clark, in collaboration with several community organizations, including Spectrum Health Gerber Memorial and the NCCA – Artsplace. The goal of “Walk a mile in my shoes” is to ultimately create a sustainable educational program throughout Newaygo County on empathy, kindness and compassion.
“Walk a mile in my shoes” features six panels of acrylic-on-canvas paintings, with each panel measuring 8 feet wide by 4 feet tall and depicting various shoes, braces, prosthetics and footwear from different nations, cultures and eras, arrayed around letter blocks that spell out “Walk a mile in my shoes.” The multimedia installation includes a brief documentary with searing and heartbreaking testimony from victims of bullying, as well as dozens of individual pairs of shoes donated by families and individuals throughout Newaygo County, a rural community of around 48,000 people in West Michigan. K-12 students throughout NCRESA’s service area artistically embellished those donated shoes to honor their onetime owners and to also highlight individuality and the freedom for children to be themselves.
“We are so grateful to the entire community for coming together and creating a powerful reminder for all of us that kindness and empathy can make a positive difference in every child’s life and give them –and all of us – the building blocks that can make our schools, our neighborhoods and our homes places where everyone is valued,” Tubbergen-Clark said. “Our hope is that ‘Walk a mile in my shoes’ will encourage people to embrace empathy and kindness in our daily lives at a time when bullying and intimidation are far too commonplace, and when we as a nation are having conversations about how we should treat each other, especially those who are different and with whom we disagree.”
In addition to the massive hexaptych, or six-panel painting, and the children-decorated shoes, the installation includes:
The Newaygo County art project also spurred local educators to create lesson plans on empathy and kindness that could be seamlessly woven into classroom curriculum. The project has already led to the inaugural Kindness Camp, which was held over three weeks in late July and August, where kindergartners and early-grade students learn about kindness, empathy and compassion through scenarios, role playing, group discussions and artwork, including painting the donated shoes that will be part of “Walk a mile in my shoes.” The Kindness Camp sessions were led by high school seniors, recent graduates and educators.
“What a wonderful collaboration by everyone in our community, to come together and send a simple message to kids: people care, help is available, you have friends who’ll stand up for each other,” said Stroschin, who has authored and illustrated children’s books, painted public murals, created signature artworks and is one of the few artists nationally whose work is part of both the Reagan and Clinton presidential libraries. “More people are kind than they are unkind. People will unite to let every child know they can be safe. ‘Walk a mile in my shoes’ reflects what people, young and not so young, can do when they let their imaginations spread a positive and powerful message through art.”
According to 2015-2016 data from the Michigan Department of Education, nearly 60 percent of 9th graders in Newaygo County reported seeing students physically assaulted in the past 12 months. One in three high school students countywide reported feeling sad and depressed every day, and 1 in 10 said they attempted suicide at least once. In middle school, more than 1-in-3 students reported being bullied. More than 80 percent of middle-schoolers have heard others called mean names. And 52 percent of Hispanic and Latino middle-schoolers reported feeling sad and depressed every day, nearly double the countywide average.
“Mental health and wellness unfortunately still face a certain stigma in our society and every effort we can make to raise awareness and talk about it is going to help so many people down the road,” said Sarah Hudson, Spectrum Health Gerber Memorial social worker. “Art has tremendous healing powers and it can deliver a powerful message that compels us to confront our hopes and our challenges. Empathy and kindness are cornerstones of a caring society, and the more we can be proactive in encouraging compassion, the more successful we can be at promoting mental wellness and overall wellbeing.”
NCCA-Artsplace Executive Director Marianne Boerigter said Stroschin and her art collaborators are inviting viewers to put themselves in the shoes of children who have suffered through bullying, using visual, narrative and audio media to recreate a multisensory experience.
“If the purpose of art is, among other things, to provoke emotions and invoke wonder while communicating a certain set of ideas, then ‘Walk a mile in my shoes’ is a presentation intended to speak to viewers’ hearts and minds,” Boerigter said. “Jane’s artistic vision challenges us to recognize that far too many young children are suffering and crying out for help. Even as our collaborative work allows our youthful imagination to blossom and complements the wonderful creativity of children who decorated the many donated shoes, we’re also inviting people to step up and connect with our better angels. While bullying won’t end overnight, we believe ‘Walk a mile in my shoes’ is an important step in affirming our common commitment to be more empathetic of the challenges many young people face and raise awareness about the importance of simply being kind to each other.”
Newaygo County businesses partnered on the project, including Jeff Blanzy, owner of Fuze Media/Treasured Images, who spearheaded the documentary project with Kettenbeil.
“We’re inviting everyone to join in on sharing kindness, not only with children but with everyone we come in contact with during our day,” Stroschin said. “Kindness is contagious, so the more that we all demonstrate it, the more likely that people will pick up on it.”
The Newaygo County multimedia exhibit can be found on the ArtPrize website, www.artprize.org/, by searching for “Walk a mile in my shoes.” To donate to the “Walk a mile in my shoes” project and support it, contact NCCA-Artsplace at 231.924.4022.
ArtPrize is an open, independently organized international art competition which takes place Sept. 20-Oct. 8 in Grand Rapids, Mich. More than $500,000 in prizes are awarded each year, which include a $200,000 prize awarded entirely by public vote and another $200,000 prize awarded by a jury of art experts.
The Newaygo County entry is among 26 student-driven collaborative entries from schools across Michigan, the first time ArtPrize is featuring student-driven projects. The schools and education-based nonprofits are eligible for a $5,000 cash prize and the winner will be decided by popular vote.