Every week, University of Wisconsin-Superior students connect with residents at Harbor House Crisis Centers, a ministry of Faith United Methodist Church, through art.
They’ve never met, but they’ve collaborated on three different projects already. The UWS students send their own completed artwork and a letter to their “art buddy.” Harbor House clients and staff are asked to respond with a similar work and a postcard. Think of them as art pen pals.
The project on Wednesday, March 10, involved blacking out text from a written page to form a poem out of the words that remain, then filling the space around it with images.
Kelly Christiansen dove in, drawing waves and planning a church by the shore. Given a picture of a clock, Sharon Thompson chose a similar clock image, this time with different wording. Kristy Johnson’s art buddy sent her a break up poem with a drawing of a couple made of flames. Johnson responded with a piece highlighting a difficult part of her own life, the struggle with addiction.
“I really do enjoy doing these projects and it kind of feels more purposeful when we have a buddy to write back to,” Johnson said. “Right now with the pandemic, I don’t get to socialize at all, other than coming here and doing these letters too, so it's been really nice to have sort of some kind of connection with the community again.”
When she became executive director of Harbor House Crisis Shelters, Chelsea Branley brought art to the table.
“I started this because I’m really passionate about art and sharing art with everybody that I come in contact with really," said Branley, who graduated from UWS with a master's degree in art therapy. "And I see it as a form of self-care as well as a way to, like a coping mechanism, and these women need coping mechanisms that are positive.”
Each Wednesday, staff and clients in the ministry’s transitional living center and permanent supportive housing program meet at Faith United Methodist Church to spend two hours creating art. Some items are practical, like pillowcases and rugs; others are decorative. All are a chance for the participants to relax, express themselves and exert a little control.
"I just want to give them the opportunity to be who they are," Branley said.
Some clients were reluctant at first, others enthusiastic. Everyone participates.
“I love it. I look forward to coming every week,” Christiansen said.
The UWS connection developed after life skills coordinator Danielle Ranta spoke to students in the college's art therapy program about Harbor House. Professor Gloria Eslinger, director of the undergraduate art therapy program, offered to set up an art exchange with students in the expressive arts for change class.
The professor coordinates an academic service learning project for both the fall and spring semesters. Last spring, students interacted weekly with seniors at New Perspectives until the pandemic hit, at which time they switched to exchanging letters with and creating art for the seniors. With Harbor House, both art and letters flow back and forth.
"Encouraging people of all walks of life to engage in the creation of art is fast becoming an enjoyable way to heal or even become more self-aware," Eslinger said. "When you create art, you enter another space that is free of judgement, and gives space for all types of health benefits."
A different student chooses the art form each week. Harbor House clients said the projects have been out of the ordinary. The first piece was a tactile zen garden; the second involved creating a sculpture out of a bottle filled with recycled materials.
"My partner actually made a bottle into (the cartoon character) Spongebob, so when I sent mine back, I made Patrick (his cartoon best friend) and some jellyfish," Christiansen said. "It was really fun."
The exchange goes both ways.
"It is really cool to get that response work back and the post cards that come with it. It's very heartwarming," UWS junior Maddie Witt said.
"It’s a beautiful call and response that keeps both our students safe, and the Harbor House artists safe in their environment as well," Eslinger said.
The past year of enforced isolation has been difficult for everyone.
"I think the most important part of everything is just having that human connection again," said Witt, who is majoring in art therapy. "It seems really trivial, but in the past year it’s become incredibly important."
She's been impressed by the pieces their Harbor House buddies have sent back, and said working with them has helped remind her why she chose art therapy as a career.
The groups will meet each other face to face the first Wednesday in May, when their collective work will go on display in the new public gallery at the Holden Fine Arts Center. Until then, they will continue to collaborate from a distance.
"I imagine, or at least I hope it helps the people at Harbor House, our buddies, feel like there are people rooting for them," Witt said. "Even though we can’t see them, even though they can’t see us, that we’re here."