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Wexner Center student program encourages creativity, community

Pages initiative connects area schools with art and artists

“Imagine you’re a moth in this gallery. What piece of art is your favorite?”

Kari Gunter-SeymourThis is one of the writing prompts that Kari Gunter-Seymour recently gave the student participants in the Wexner Center for the Arts’ Pages program. Pages is a free program that allows high school students in central Ohio to work with educators and artists from the Wexner Center for the Arts at The Ohio State University for an entire school year. Gunter-Seymour, Ohio’s poet laureate and Wexner Center artist-in-residence, was a participating artist in 2021 and is returning to work with this year’s cohort.

Five schools – South-Western Career Academy, Whitehall-Yearling High School, West Liberty-Salem High School, Walnut Ridge High School and Columbus Downtown High School – are sending around 150 students to the Wexner Center for this year’s program. It is vital to the program’s success that the mix of students is just right, said Dionne Custer Edwards, Pages program founder and director of learning & public practice.Dionne Custer Edwards

“How do we bring together students who might not otherwise be together in a learning context?” Custer Edwards said. “You might come across each other in extracurricular activities but when do you get to learn beyond the walls of your school? When do you get to build community and have experiences that are not in your school community?”

The program launched in 2005 with the goal of showing students the value of writing as a creative outlet and as a vehicle for engaging with other types of art.

“We don’t always talk about the ‘arts’ part of ‘language arts,’” said Custer Edwards, who is a writer herself.

Throughout the year, students meet in person and virtually to discuss readings and writing. They compose work of their own as well and can share it whenever they feel comfortable, including at an open mic night at the program’s end. The group also watches films and visits the Wexner Center’s galleries to view artwork up close.

The cost of these trips is entirely covered by the program. Custer Edwards is proud that the Wexner Center can provide field trips to students who may not have many opportunities for experiential learning.

During these trips, Gunter-Seymour encourages students to think beyond their usual notions of what writing should be. She asks them to make up words if they can’t find one that fits their needs and advocates for doodling.

“I encourage people to include hand art because when you can’t think of something to write down, your hand will doodle it,” she said. “When you come back to that doodle, it’ll trigger that thought in a second.”

These exercises help students think beyond their anxieties, Gunter-Seymour said. Teenagers can be self-conscious, especially about how they look.

“Sometimes we don’t like our bodies, especially as teenagers,” she said. “Being able to step outside our bodies gives us the freedom to go crazy and be as creative as we’d ever, ever hope to be.”

Sarah RobisonThe teachers that accompany their students also reap benefits from Pages, said Sarah Robison, teaching, learning and interpretation manager.

“Although they’re all from very different schools, and sometimes teach different subjects,” she said, “they make connections. They get a support system of other people in their field.”

These support systems are the heart of Pages, Gunter-Seymour said. All the students have faced challenges: the pandemic or bullying or instability at home. They find a community that helps them navigate these stressors.

“These are the things we go through, and we talk about. Even the most confident person will tell you they’ve been made to feel less than. So, they’ve taken steps to overcome that, and they’ll share those steps with their fellow students,” she said.

“We band together, and we help each other. We build community. That’s what we’re doing with the Pages program.”

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