My name is Adam Bdeir; I’m a Palestinian-American neuroscience student at Temple University. I’m also Lisa Volta’s teaching assistant for art at Al-Bustan’s after school program with John Moffet Elementary School.
… That’s what I tell people if they ask, but honestly, I barely do a thing. If I’ve learned anything from my time with Al-Bustan, it’s that the kids run the show. As soon as their little brains get wrapped around the project, they take off like birds. All we do is give them space and direction.
Every Tuesday, I get to Moffet at 3 PM and await the students in the auditorium, where they trickle in from their classes. By the time everyone is together, the small ampitheatre’s steps have become a multi-tiered storm of children, belongings, and conversation. I float around the room and pick up the pieces of the day.
Caleb got a little gelatinous blue skeleton to play with from a teacher, but he just pulled off one of its legs by accident. I promise to super glue it back together next week (he never brings it back). Christian and Seamus argue about whose zombie drawing is more true to life, but I contend that everybody can imagine a zombie the way they like. Gianny teaches me how to do “the backpack kid” dance, which takes a little too long (I am still not really proficient at it). Areliz, donning her wolf cap, goes cross-eyed while prattling about Rick and Morty. I know, Areliz; I love that show too.
This is the only time of day I see the entirety of the program’s student body. After the auditorium, we bounce to the cafeteria for a snack and then come back to split up into art, singing and drumming classes. Even though the kids know what classes they’re signed up for, they still groan while they get sorted. Besties get separated and playtime gets cleaved, but we have work to do. Specifically, we have art to make, I tell the group in line before me.
Ms. Lisa smiles as we enter. Some kids can’t contain themselves and race to the seats at the table, while the more proper students amble on over. There’s a larger activity to every class, but each day we start with some free time to draw– warm-up exercise to sort of settle in. Now this is a feast for my curiosity of the tiny artist’s brain. Sketching whatever they want, the students bare their young minds through imagery. All drawings reflect personality, but sometimes students make conscious choices to evidence personal experiences, whether at school, at home, through media, or through other children or adults they know.
Some kids fill pages with colorful patterns, making abstracted indications of their mental spaces. Others venture to depict complete scenes of life. Often, students just muse while they babble, producing momentary doodles or gifts for friends and teachers.
Have you ever talked to someone while they’re being absorbed by some fine motor skill task, AKA drawing a picture? During free draw, I routine the whole class and just hang out next to the students as they sketch. If you become involved deeply enough in speaking to a kid while they draw, you may derail their focus entirely. But if you strike up a conversation “under the radar” that is just trivial enough to demand only a part of your respective attentions, you get to see some magic happens. Something bleeds through their hand, takes life and manifests in images. That something isn’t always related to our conversation. Conversation really just serves as some cognitive distraction, to unblock creativity. In this way, both the art and dialogue become richer in meaning. I know you might be thinking, it’s not that deep, but I love having that opportunity, to take a peek, to make an interpretation. It’s a sort of life-is-art, art-is-life scenario, except it’s miniature.
Anyway, that kind of exchange continues as we move on to Ms. Lisa’s intended activity for the day. This year we’ve discussed a few international contemporary artists as muses for our projects. We started with French-Tunisian muralist el Seed and Palestinian calligrapher and muralist Belal Khaled. El Seed blew my mind in November when he visited to drop a piece in West Philly. His Arabic “calligraffiti” style inspired us to paint flowing designs over black backgrounds. Belal Khaled further honed us in on Arabic calligraphy, and they both got us thinking about what kind of messages we could turn into art and vice versa. Of course, the children play dumb when we talk about all this stuff, but they know what’s going on; it shows in the paintings they created.
After we paint, we put all the work in the middle of the group and take a second to appreciate them, pick favorites. Everyone chooses a work to praise. It’s really charming at the end of a class, hearing kids offer compliments and critique. We’re a mutually supportive community. It’s really important to maintain trust and respect in our circle of friends. Ms. Lisa always says that the goal of each week is to make your best work of art to date. That’s a personal and communal goal.
Right now we’re finger knitting in awe of Emirati fiber artist Sara al Haddad. She knits with varying materials, creating forms to use in spaces or sculpture. The students are either four-finger or two-finger knitting yarn to make little weaves, which we’re collecting for a larger collaborative project. As a class, we’ll decide what to create with everyone’s contributions and determine just how to create it. I’m super excited to see this project through with the kids, especially because I, too, just learned how to finger knit (Shout out Ms. Lisa!)
-Adam Bdier, Temple University, Moffet After-School Art Assistant