Community Art for Relationship Building

I’m taking a look back at the community art projects I led over the past year with a couple of my favorite community organizations, and I’d like to share some of my tips for planning and developing art projects for community groups.

I approach community art projects differently from my classes in schools or with small groups, although the goals are similar: access to art practices and materials, engaging creative processes and building relationships.

In the case of community arts, I focus mainly on relationship building, letting the art project be a foundation for coming together, like a family meal or celebration, but with paint! For me, this shift in focus means that I want to keep the art projects open-ended and low-risk so that participants can engage with the projects based on their own comfort and skill level and focus on relating to the others around them, sharing ideas and creating space to be together, virtually or in-person. These projects are open for any level of engagement so that if someone wants to really dig into the project, they can be there right alongside another person who just wants to sit back and observe how others work with the materials. There’s actually room for anyone in these creative spaces.

With relationship building in mind, I focus on specific elements when selecting materials and methods for community art projects:

  • Accessible materials – something we have in abundance or can be easily collected and shared.
  • Open-ended instructions – I like a project that can be done in 3 – 5 steps, maximum, with the option to build on a practice or explore materials more.
  • Time-investment accessibility – these projects should be something someone can do in 2 minutes, but could also spend 20 minutes or 2 hours, if they wanted.

And, since this is a relationship-building experience, I try to consider basic needs as part of the art project: how will folks arrive to the project (transportation); will there be food/ resources available for them; are the spaces physically accessible, safe and comfortable; are the instructions and plans for the project accessible (consider spoken or reading language, understanding pictorial instructions).

In 2021, I had monthly art projects between a few different groups, coordinated with a couple of local nonprofit organizations. Here are a few standouts that were really fun and some of the planning that went into them:


Pour Painting at Jackson Street Youth Services
– Space for Learning Together

Community art projects are often great opportunities to experiment with new artistic practices for me. Since I focus on togetherness and exploration rather than mastery of materials or skills, I can try out practices that I don’t have a lot of experience with already and help set the tone for trying something new. This has been a way for me to learn new skills and lean into curiosity with art materials while also enjoying community building. Pour Painting/ flow acrylics was exactly that kind of experience for me. By practicing this with Jackson Street Youth Services– a local nonprofit serving youth in the community with safe shelter, case management, and community enrichment– I was able to join in with the community in experimenting and learning about an art form I’ve long been curious to try!

I did research ahead of time and tried out my own paintings before bringing materials to the group, but by the time we had our afternoon class in the summer of 2021, I had probably only made 1 or 2 paintings myself.

I knew enough to set up the project and make suggestions to the participants, but I was also able to keep back too many suggestions and allow participants to experiment freely.

Materials for Pour Painting

  • Flow acrylic paints in various colors
  • Flow acrylic medium
  • Small dixie cups
  • Stir sticks
  • Canvas panels of various sizes (8″x8″ and 4″x4″)
  • Painter’s tape
  • Silicone oil
  • Gloves
  • Aluminum baking trays and lids (like for a turkey)
  • Plastic table cover
  • Foam brushes

Set up & Tips

  • Individual spots: I set up each spot with a baking tray or lid, and showed participants how to turn dixie cups upside down to prop up their canvas panels (this allows the paint to flow down over the panel and into the tray)
  • Priming the canvas: The paint pours more evenly if there is a layer of wet paint on the canvas first, so I showed participants how to use the foam brushes to paint the canvases with a thick layer of paint before pouring.
  • Mixing flow medium with paint: I started out by showing participants how to mix the flow medium with the paints in the dixie cups, using a 3:1 ratio medium to paint (or whatever the instructions on the paints/ medium suggested).
  • Mixing colors: I had several different colors, including the typical blue, red, yellow, white and black. If participants wanted a color we didn’t have, I showed them how to mix paints together in the dixie cups BEFORE adding the pouring medium.
  • OR! Participants could mix up separate colors with pouring medium and then pour different colors+medium into one cup to create a marbled effect.

Group Painting at Corvallis Multicultural Literacy Center
– Opportunities to Grow in Relationship

The CMLC is a special organization to me, and one that I am quite honored to serve as a board member (at the time of this writing, I’m the new board chair). The work of this organization is about sharing educational and community resources for folks arriving to Corvallis from outside of the US. As a university town, we do tend to see a lot of international students and their families, but our organization also supports folks who are arriving to Corvallis for permanent residence and to pursue citizenship.

As I became a new board member this summer, I was in good company with other new members and staff at the organization. I wanted to get to know the people who were also invested in the organization and to also share my interests in community building through creativity by hosting a group paint session.

I set up this group paint event to focus on sharing creative space with one another, and for the opportunity to connect and talk with each other. For that reason, I specifically avoided a more standard paint with me tutorial, and instead brought a bunch of paints, canvases, brushes and music and while I made suggestions for how to approach the project, I didn’t lead the participants in creating anything specific. I simply guided us all in selecting color, brush, and putting paint onto the canvas.

This was a bit riskier for being the most loose-form project, and the lack of structure for some folks did create discomfort and confusion. But I’m not sure that I’d change any of that. In hindsight, I would prime the community more with discussion about staying present rather than focusing on what something “should” look like. This was an eye-opening experience for me and the community participants and I’m so grateful for the experience.

Materials for Group Painting

  • Four 6-ft tables
  • Chairs
  • Table covers
  • Wooden easels, offered to each participant
  • Acrylic paints in red, blue, yellow, black, white, gold, pink, teal, purple, plus modeling paste, glazing medium, and iridescent medium
  • Brushes of various sizes and shapes
  • Stretched and panel canvas of various sizes
  • Plastic tubs (like yogurt or hummus containers) for water
  • Pencils
  • Plastic-coated paper plates
  • Rags

Set up & Tips

  • The Round Table: All the tables were actually rectangular, but I set them up in ao open rectangle so folks could all see each other and chat. With our group of about 14 people, that meant three or so to a table. Outdoors and with space to move around and everyone vaccinated (and COVID infection rates low for the summer), we felt comfortable enough to take off our masks and see each other.
  • Setting a tone: Being outside in the shade was a nice touch, plus having music from a portable speaker that create atmosphere but didn’t compete with conversation helped create a celebratory tone, like a community meal, except with paint.
  • A variety of possibilities: I made some suggestions to pick colors that jumped out at folks as they surveyed their options, with the intent to encourage leaning into instinct and trusting themselves with the process. This was uncomfortable for some folks, who perhaps already felt vulnerable with art-making. As a community educator, I have the privilege to help people push their comforts and try new things, as well as help them to see possibilities in that trying.
  • Showcasing special materials: I did bring along modeling paste, glazing medium, and iridescent medium. Throughout the session, I introduced those separate mediums whenever someone asked about them or there had been some time for folks to settle into what they had begun to make. This meant announcing to the group that a material was available to them, and if they’d like to try it, there were a couple of ways I was familiar with the material, but they could try it out themselves. The sparkly stuff was, of course, the most popular.

Glass Painting at Jackson Street Youth Services
– Observing Each Other’s Skills and Experience

Part of my volunteering with Jackson Street this year was offering enrichment activities for the mentorship program. It was a real joy for me to spend time with the mentors and mentees in this program, and get to see their relationships come together.

This faux stained glass project turned out to be a really cool way for the groups to share their interests and skills with each other. The set up was classic: basic materials and process with enough possibility that participants could dig deep into the project.

The finished pieces came out looking so cool, and there were so many instances of genuine astonishment and joy at what each person could create with dark lines and glass paint (and it makes me want to add glass paint to my personal collection for sure!)

One of the challenges of hosting monthly art sessions is to come up with enough interesting and different subjects and practices for participants. As an illustrator, sure, I could spend all day everyday drawing, and that’s great if the goal of the art practice is to develop skill and style. But in community arts, that’s emphatically NOT the goal. Focusing on skill has the chance to create a split between who’s “good” at art and everyone else, which in the best of circumstances becomes one or two people making gorgeous art and everyone else watching. The worst outcome would be some of those spectators feel discouraged about trying the project. For community arts, I want to hold space for all participants with any skill level to share their exploration with each other. This is why unique and surprising projects can be perfect, like this faux stained glass project. Although there was linework and painting involved in the process, there was enough adaptation for someone who hasn’t practiced those artistic skills to still create something unique and for those who did have that practice, to share their skills with others. It also wasn’t something anyone at the table had tried before (I did one practice the previous night), and so there was zero mastery at the table, just as I like it 🙂

Materials for Faux Stained Glass

  • Glass sheets (like from thrift store picture frames)
  • Black fabric/ puff paint
  • Black Sharpie
  • Glass paint in various colors
  • Paint brushes
  • Paper
  • Optional (suggested): outline drawings of flowers, mandalas, shapes printed on paper

Process

  1. Draw a design on a piece of paper that can fit inside the area of the glass sheet, or select shapes and drawings that are printed on paper.
  2. Place the drawing/ print under the glass.
  3. Use the sharpie to trace the drawing or outline onto the glass.
  4. Use the puff paint to paint the lines of the drawing. Allow to dry completely.
  5. Use glass paint to paint inside and around the puff paint lines.

Set up & Tips

  • An example is worth 1000 questions: I prepped the evening before the class by creating an example at home. I also prepped some glass sheets with basic lotus and star designs with the puff paint so they would be dry and ready to paint for the class.
  • Note: the drying time of the puff paint was about 45 minutes, which for the 90 minute session means that participants were able to sketch out their designs and trace with puff paint and then color with the glass paint in the same session, which was cool.
  • Opportunities to work together: Some of the glass we had, which we took out of old picture frames from the thrift store, were various sizes, and one was quite large. For that one, the pair that used it created something together using this method, which was actually really neat to see and made a very unique keepsake for that pair.

Family Art Classes at Corvallis Multicultural Literacy Center
– Building Community

In an on-going collaboration with the CMLC, I’ve been hosting family classes for community members to create together at the center. As our global community continues to grapple with the effects of living during a pandemic, staying safe and building connection can feel like they are at odds.

Mediating between those choices are our obligations as community leaders and educators.

For these family art programs, I have been working alongside the CMLC program coordinator to plan for safety and health and maximum engagement. Good communication and planning has helped us successfully bring folks together.

Working closely with staff and volunteers for community projects has been essential. Together, we have covered as many possible questions and scenarios as we can to make sure we put safety and health above all. Our art projects have been a way to invite community members back into space with each other, while observing cautions for safety.

The first project we made together was decorating masks, both papier mache masks (which I had for a different project that was disrupted by COVID issues earlier in the year), and cloth face masks. This project brought us together into the center to share creative ideas and also practice healthfulness with sanitation and observing social distancing.

For our second project, we made posters and stickers, which is simple but honestly my favorite thing (yay stickers!). This second project was more focused on being together and exploring the space and opportunities the center offered.

Part of each of our activities has been to offer snacks to the young children, which is a matter of principle for me as a community educator. It’s another way for us to highlight the resources available at the CMLC. For our pandemic-friendly snacks, we offer a perusal of our packaged snack closet for kids to select from.

Materials for Mask Decorating

  • Papier mache masks
  • Cloth masks for adults and children
  • Fabric markers
  • Coloring markers (keep separate)
  • Glitter glue (the superior form of glitter)

Materials for Posters and Sticker making

  • Poster board paper
  • Sticker sheets (I used the kind for die cut machines)
  • Markers
  • Pencils
  • Glitter glue (love this stuff)

Set up & Tips

  • Room enough: A challenge at the CMLC is to make physical space for participants and observe social distancing. We manage this by separating participants into different rooms with the same supplies and a volunteer or staff in each room.
  • Keep it simple sweetie: These projects are so simple, they’re really drawing and coloring. And because of this, parents who attend the sessions with their children can chat and meet each other, which children can be imaginative and have freedom to create.

As a community arts educator, my work is focused on bringing folks together over creative projects, with an artistic perspective and methodology. I’ve learned from my experiences with organizations like The Center for Artistic Activism and Theatre of the Oppressed NYC about approaching opportunities for learning and conversation with an artistic framework, which is confronting challenges and taking on new opportunities to learn new skills and see from others’ perspectives. Looking back on the creative projects I’ve been a part of over the year, I’m struck by how naturally art and creativity became sources of community building, and our collaboration was affected by careful consideration of the particular challenges and desire for connection and growth our participants experienced.

In 2022, I’m looking forward to a new year of collaboration with these and other local and national organizations. Are you a community educator? How do you engage your community through arts and creativity? I’d love to hear about what other folks are doing to bring communities together!

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