Chanel Thervil

Bold. Vibrant. Fun. Energizing. That’s how my life looked before the pandemic. I relished hugging friends as a greeting and goodbye. I liked getting lost in the hum of conversations and shuffling crowds being herded from one artwork to the next during opening receptions at galleries. I could leave my house for unplanned errands and spend hours wandering wherever my to-do list and intuition led me. I was dressed to kill at least 75 percent of the time because I took joy in silhouettes and accessories that popped against Boston’s brick and concrete. After work at my office, going to a museum for an event and then to a friend’s home for dinner is just one possibility for the environments, people, and sounds that filled my day. In these patterns of life, I felt alive. If it’s been hard for me, as an adult, to feel energized by life in quarantine—working from home and using Zoom as the primary form of communication—what have kids been going through?

After months of change and uncertainty fueled by the global pandemic, I was relieved to find that the 2021 Community Arts Initiative, which I was selected to lead, was still going to happen. The big concern during our first meeting was how my proposal, titled “Patterns of Greatness,” would be revamped to fit distance learning and still forge meaningful experiences for the children participating in the project. At the core, I wanted to be a catalyst for the kids’ reflections on relationships that energize them.

Several key concepts guided “Patterns of Greatness.” I wanted every kid involved to know that the relationships we have with people in our lives impact how we see the world, lived experiences can fuel engagement with art and making, differences should be acknowledged and celebrated, there are many ways to express the same idea, and greatness can be found in everyone. In the context of pandemic life, when the participating kids were more isolated, these ideas and the encouragement of young people to express themselves through art engagement felt even more urgent.

Though we would no longer be roaming the halls of the MFA to see art in person, I was determined to show the kids examples of contemporary art and artists via images and video. As a Black woman artist, I know how important it is to see myself reflected on both sides of the canvas. So I made a point to show examples from at least four artists of varying genders and cultural backgrounds working in different mediums during each workshop. Artistically I wanted to stimulate the children’s ability to translate their ideas across mediums and encourage them to explore a variety of techniques that highlighted the unique properties of different materials. Showing a range of artworks alongside some behind-the-scenes documentation of my own studio practice made for fertile soil to share observations.

Buckets of artwork in front of a mural in progress.
Installing “Community Arts Initiative: Patterns of Greatness.” Photo by Monica Garcia.

As an educator, one of the tools in my arsenal is using art as an entry point for gaining understanding and the release of pent up thoughts. As we looked at art, I tried to guide the kids’ work by asking questions: What do you notice when you look at this artwork? What or who does it remind you of? What kind of music would you play for this artwork? What season do you think this artwork belongs in and why? What would you add to this artwork if you gifted it to someone who’s important to you?

These provocations encouraged the kids to identify works of art with people, places, and things rooted in their experiences, and, unexpectedly, every two-hour Zoom workshop became a safe space for them to open up about nuanced happenings in their lives. The pattern in a collage reminded them of headscarves worn by an aunt who had been deported. The lines in a drawing looked like the fur of their cat, who comes to snuggle when they feel sad. The yellow of a sculpture made them think of summers with friends at their neighborhood playground, which they weren’t allowed to go to anymore because of COVID. No connection between art and their individual experiences was considered too out of bounds to acknowledge.

Despite our physical distance, I did my best to provide a “classroom culture” of closeness and comfort. We made icebreaker drawings of our favorite things. Every session I had a new playlist of upbeat music from Stevie Wonder; Earth, Wind, and Fire; Toro y Moi; and soundtracks sourced from cartoons the kids watched. And of course dancing while working was praised! Before we ended each session there was show-and-tell, where kids held their art up to their web cameras and explained the thoughts behind their artistic choices. It struck me watching the kids transform from shy and weary at the beginning of the workshop to excited and proud by the end. Our space on Zoom offered a bright spot for creativity and release.

There are so many ways that the world has changed over the past year, and it’s important to remember that kids have been along for the ride with even less agency and language to describe it all. In addition to acknowledging their intrinsic capacity for greatness, as adults I hope we can make more room for kids to share their feelings.

Chanel Thervil poses in front of "Community Arts Initiative: Patterns of Greatness"
Chanel Thervil in front of “Community Arts Initiative: Patterns of Greatness.” Photo by Monica Garcia.

“Community Arts Initiative: Patterns of Greatness” is on view through October 17, 2021.

Author

Chanel Thervil is a Haitian American artist and educator who uses varying combinations of abstraction and portraiture to convene communal dialogue around culture, social issues, and existential questions. She is the lead artist for “Patterns of Greatness,” the MFA’s 2021 Community Arts Initiative.