Artists work with River Trail students

Artist Jordan Hamilton stands in front of a group of River Trail Learning Center (RTLC), Coon Rapids, students as part of the Beyond the Mirror and Youth Arts Project.

Photographer Larry Retzlaff is working with River Trail Learning Center students as part of the Beyond the Mirror Youth Arts project.
Photographer Larry Retzlaff is working with River Trail Learning Center students as part of the Beyond the Mirror Youth Arts project.

Hamilton will work with the students and their peers to paint a four- by 16-foot mural on a school hallway depicting what people can do to end abuse as well as positive outlets students have to avoid abusive situations.

But before the paintbrushes come out, Hamilton needs ideas from the students.

“Tell an adult,” “remove yourself from the situation” and “provide support to others” are examples students gave of ending abuse.

“Playing a musical instrument,” “hiking” and “swinging on a tire swing,” are some activities students do when they face a difficult time in their lives. One student enjoys drawing unicorns and is hopeful the mural will include a unicorn.

In another room, artist Sara Kelly leads a session in hip hop. The students have been tasked to write a rap (rhythmic American poetry) song about dating violence.

Kelly talks to the students about perspective – should the song come from the person who is being abused or the person causing the abuse?

As the students get ready to write their rap, Kelly makes a list of positive attributes of a healthy relationship to help the students develop lines for their rap.

Across the school, photographer Larry Retzlaff talks with students about the “rule of thirds” and what makes a good photograph. He shows the students examples of his work and they talk about posed and candid photos.

Retzlaff recommends the students take photos of things that they are interested in and then sets them loose with cameras to put the lesson into practice.

Hamilton, Kelly and Retzlaff are all part of the River Trail Learning Center Beyond the Mirror Youth Arts Project. Beyond the Mirror is a committee of community members committed to ending relationship violence through arts, education and community building.

Dawn Strommen, a former therapist at Bell Center, put Beyond the Mirror committee member Marlene B. Jezierski in touch with Julie Maass-Hanson, a River Trail teacher, and set the wheels in motion for the organization to work with River Trail staff and students.

“After meeting with Marlene and reading the Beyond the Mirror collection of student poems, it was evident to me that the project was a tremendous opportunity for RTLC staff and students to study the signs and impact of psychological abuse, including bullying, relationship violence in general and sexual violence; to learn how to cultivate and celebrate strength and hope; and to begin to recognize that we all have choices regarding our participation in relationships that are in any way abusive,” Maass-Hanson said.

“I presented a proposal to the RTLC leadership team and we decided to move ahead.”

Through the collaboration, the students in grades seven through 10 will participate in three full education/arts days. The first day, Oct. 10, began with the students working with community experts in the areas of relationship violence, bullying and sexual violence. The experts presented information about their topics and followed up with discussion and reflection using a variety of techniques.

The afternoon featured the work with Hamilton, Kelly and Retzlaff. The day ended with every student receiving a copy of Jezierski’s book, “Beyond the Mirror Peaceful Homes: A Basic Human Right,” and gray hoodies with a graphic of “RSPCT = LUV.”

Maass-Hanson hopes the students will learn the signs of psychological abuse as well as strategies to stay strong, hopeful and care for themselves and others in the face of such abuse, she said.

“We also hope that the students begin to recognize that there are many caring community members fighting for youth and families rights to safety, security, psychological as well as physical wellness.

“Our hope is that inviting the community to share in the experience and view the work that the students produce will not only increase awareness of the issue, but also promote dialogue and inspire positive action toward ending such victimization.”

The goal is to have the mural painted by the end of April 2013 and to invite the community to hear the music and see the art the students produce through this youth arts project.

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