The power of art and story to reveal and heal is universal and timeless. Story cloths, in particular, have been used in many diverse cultures around the world as a way to speak of difficult or painful experiences and in doing so, to recover from them. And as research and experience have shown, personal narrative allows individuals to transcend their differences and discover their shared humanity. When language and culture limit communication, art provides a means to transcend these barriers.
As part of its educational programs, Art and Remembrance developed its HeART and Story program both to foster compassion and to give voice to those who might yet tell their own stories through art.
The HeART and Story program draws on the art and story of Holocaust survivor Esther Nisenthal Krinitz to inspire others to share their own stories through story cloths and in doing so, to find the common humanity that can bridge divides within and among communities.
HeART and Story Workshops
With support from the Arts and Humanities Council of Montgomery County MD and others, Art and Remembrance conducted a series of pilot HeART and Story workshops, focusing on work with immigrant families and disadvantaged and at-risk youth, in partnership with several local community groups. The 3- to 4-part workshops were structured in several sessions:
- In the first session, participants viewed the 30-minute documentary about Esther Krinitz, Through the Eye of the Needle, and then discussed their reactions to the film and its relation to their own experiences.
- In the second session for young people, a professional storyteller provided students with tools for creating and sharing their own stories, emphasizing in particular the value of listening.
- In the third session (or second session for adults), participants created story cloths depicting a personal experience—of cherished family memories, of difficult challenges in their lives, or in the case of recent immigrants, of coming to America.
- The last session had participants sharing their stories and images with one another, and at times included guests invited to share in the art and stories.
Reactions were moving and inspiring. For many students, the stories were a first opportunity to hear their parents’ and grandparents’ stories of courage and fortitude, and to take pride in those experiences. Older students also gained an appreciation for the life experiences of their peers. As one participant noted in a final sharing session, “It’s good to know that I’m not alone and other people are working through obstacles and hardships as well.”
For a number of the adults, the workshops proved to be a cathartic experience, allowing them, through art, to confront the deep-seated emotions that they had long held within themselves. The film showed them the importance of recalling and sharing their life experiences, and gave them a powerful example of how their stories could be told. At one session, after telling her difficult and moving story of leaving children behind to come to America in search of a better life, one woman said, “Telling my story for the first time, it has unlocked my heart.”
- “[Students] learned that they often shared experiences that they were not aware of, which in turn opened dialogue between participants that may not have spoken to each other in the past.”
- “The engagement between family members and neighbors during the storytelling phase was really remarkable and advances [our] goal of building stronger families and more connected communities….When the women explained their art work, many proudly pointed out symbols of endurance and accomplishment in their story cloths, just as they saw in Krinitz’s artwork. They showed pride in being able to express themselves through art….. Hearing the details of Esther’s difficult struggles gave a context for some of the battles and challenges that the participants have experienced.”