One of the many things that make Charlottesville, Virginia special is that it serves as a destination city for the International Rescue Committee, which helps refugees settle into their new countries. Since 1998, more than three thousand refugees from countries on three different continents have relocated to Charlottesville. Many of them are families with young children, and with the parents working long hours to make a life in their new city, family time and enrichment activities are in short supply and often take a back seat to everyday needs.
At The Fralin Museum of Art, we had been seeking to meet this need in the community when I met Angela Corpuz, the art teacher at Greenbrier Elementary School. Greenbrier is the designated school for refugee children in Charlottesville, so Angela was a familiar and trusted presence in many refugee families’ lives and was well positioned to identify children with the most need for support. We also brought studio artist and recent UVA graduate Golara Haghtalab on board to co-lead the program. Golara emigrated from Iran in 2011 and she shared her experiences and contributed valuable insights during the development of the curriculum.
Together, we developed a school-museum partnership that offered an after-school art curriculum encouraging children to communicate about who they are, the experiences they’ve had, and what is important to them. We also wanted the program to foster the pride students have for their national identities.
The program recently completed its first year, in which we provided art exploration activities to twenty-three students in first through fourth grade. It began with an introductory “getting-to-know-you” exercise: the students drew small pictures of themselves, their families, their houses, their hobbies, favorite foods, and memories. The pictures they drew served as the basis for later projects: self-portraits, collages of their families and their home countries, sculptures of their favorite foods, and maps of the important places in their current lives. They also visited the museum on a field trip and made sculptures inspired by an installation on view by Vanessa German, sometimes.we.cannot.be.with.our.bodies.