BA Student Applies Lessons on Socially Engaged Art to Wilderness Therapy
Through art, Elisabeth Baird provided an alternative avenue for struggling teens to address emotional challenges
February 9, 2019
BA Art student Elisabeth Baird feels most inspired when making art —not in the solitude of her studio, but with other people. As a future teacher (she is earning an art education licensure), Baird draws on the power of art to inspire understanding and connection. So when she learned about socially engaged art in a class from Professor Dan Barney, it seemed a natural fit.
Like other artists who engage in social practice, Baird is interested in taking art out of the traditional gallery or museum setting and into communities and classrooms. In contrast to other art forms, socially engaged art focuses on human interaction and social discourse, with the final product —if there is one —holding less value than the collaboration itself, and the social or political change that occurs as a result.
As Baird learned about various socially engaged artists, she started to consider the potential of using art in this way. For example, what role could art play in an outdoor therapy program for teenagers struggling with substance abuse, or other emotional or behavioral concerns?
As a wilderness guide for such a program, Baird anticipated that art could have a powerful impact. In her experience, those who experience healing through therapy “get out of their heads and into the land and take time to meditate,” she said. “I started wondering if maybe we went out there and did art with them, it would help them touch the land and have meaningful experiences, where they could think about what was happening to them in a different way.”
With permission from her supervisor at the outdoor therapy program, Baird began to develop a curriculum for participants with input from Barney and her coworkers. To implement the curriculum last fall, Baird visited different groups on the trail and made art with them, sometimes working with groups and other times with individuals.
With the goal of helping program participants connect on a deeper level with each other, their group leaders, and—near the end of their journey—family members, Baird focused on building relationships first so that people would feel comfortable experimenting in art with her. She did this by spending time with them, asking questions, telling stories and sharing parts of herself.
For each activity Baird directed, the group or individual used the land, or their own bodies or voices, to create art that would help them process something significant they were experiencing. Often, Baird said she felt she was improvising as she tried to adapt the activities to the needs of her students, but she almost always received positive feedback. For example, after building sculptures from naturally available materials with a group of teenage boys, one of the boys told Baird it had taught him an important lesson.
“He was making this rock sculpture and it kept tumbling over and he kept getting really frustrated,” Baird recalled. “But he said that as he was stacking those rocks and they kept falling over, he realized he’d been doing the same thing in his own life, where he keeps trying to build something that breaks. And he realized that it’s ok. He just needs to keep rebuilding.”
Baird heard many similar responses over the course of her internship. “Sometimes [participants] just needed an avenue to address what was going on that was different than talking,” she said.
As an artist and a teacher, Baird wants to continue engaging others in the art making process to see “how far art can go to help people connect.” Ultimately, she wants to contribute to building communities, whether in a therapeutic, classroom or neighborhood setting.