By Jeanné McCartin
We All Belong: Art and Friendship Go Hand-in-Hand, a recent addition to the Children’s Museum of New Hampshire's programming, is the direct result of listening: the museum listening to its community and its art gallery curator to a single friend.
"What We All Belong has done is it formed a community of people who all have different backgrounds," CMNH Gallery Curator Tess Feltes says. "It is exactly what I wanted. … I hope this is something we just do for forever."
The series of art class sessions targets adults learning English as a second language, refugees, immigrants and their children as well as all museum members, adult and child. While registration is suggested, the program is free thanks to underwriting by New Hampshire State Council on the Arts and a private donor.
"We opened it to the Children's Museum community," Feltes, who initiated the project, says. "It's a place, a way … for members and recent immigrants to become friends."
Feltes pitched the idea to the museum after a moving conversation with a friend who immigrated from China about seven years ago.
"(She) was taking classes at the Dover Learning Center. She said some of the people in the class were feeling afraid to go out in public. That saddened me," Feltes says. "It puts a face on (an issue); someone who talked about apprehensions of her own and of others."
Feltes, who has worked at the museum for about a decade, was aware of its mission of inclusiveness. "So," she adds, "I felt it was the right place for a program that would address this."
Other museum employees had heard similar sentiments. So when the idea was proposed, the museum embraced it, Vice President of Development and Community Engagement Paula Rais says.
"('We All Belong') was a response to what we were hearing from our members and from volunteers that were new citizens, and feeling disillusioned about the negative sentiments they were hearing in the national arena, and worrying about what that meant to them in their new country. It was not what they had been feeling all along and it was kind of a shock, and disturbing," Rais says. "So, we wanted to do something that was not politically motivated; we can't go into that realm as a Children's Museum. But we wanted to address that feeling."
Feltes' suggestion fit the bill. It was traditional CMNH family programming that honored the institution's mission. "We used art," Rais adds.
A class session runs once weekly for six weeks and meets after school. Two have been held to date. Another is scheduled for March.
The classes are welcoming, fun and importantly lead to conversation and relationship, Feltes says. An artist herself, she recognized that creative group activities within a relaxed setting naturally lead to chatting.
"It breaks down barriers," Feltes says. "Doing something expressive together is an opening to inclusion I think. I think we 'share' creativity."
The project holds concurrent creative classes for participants' children, who have their own space and are guided by museum educators. It allows for both age brackets to explore art, make friends and exchange interests, not to mention eliminating a need for child care. "It has worked out really beautifully," Feltes says.
To date, classes have featured "very simple" watercolor, Chinese brush painting and abstract acrylic exploration. Feltes' role is one of sharing ideas, giving prompts and encouraging. The results: "Everyone's artwork looked so different and was very reflective of different cultures," Feltes says.
"We All Belong" is the first art endeavor for some participants. Others had been practicing artists in the past and found "it felt good to have a paintbrush in their hands again," Feltes says.
And then there was – is – the shared stories and friendships. Participants felt free to practice English without a formal structured class, and they would share stories about their lives, homes, children and the world, Feltes says.
"They feel welcomed and appreciated here. … So we just had a great time expressing ideas," Feltes says. "And where language might be an obstacle, the art becomes a means of communication. They were all so expressive."
Rais says many of the all-women adult participants also shared the benefits reaped from taking part.
"Rani, from India, said that since moving here a year ago, she has been rather lonely without feeling a part of a community. In India, she taught blind individuals," Rais says. "While she participated in We All Belong, the group immediately told her about the New Hampshire Association for the Blind at the McConnell Center. They also told her about the conversational classes held there and the other services offered in the community of Dover."
Raja from Morocco shared her experience with a painful divorce and offered support to another participant going through her own."They both live in Dover and plan to meet again soon."
Ana Garnica moved to the United States from Mexico City nine years ago. She's been involved with the museum since the birth of her daughter "in many different ways, bringing the culture of Mexico to the community," Garnica says.
"It's a way to get together with so many cultures, so many nationalities," Garnica says. "The Children's Museum brings us together as one community, regardless of where we're from … and the kids get together, another benefit, right?"
Were it not for the children's classes, she and others would be unable to attend, Garnica adds. "Because who would take care of the kids? So that's a really nice thing."
The art is relaxing, and often helps those taking part find or rekindle their creative side. But more importantly, it's a place to develop friendships.
"I feel blessed to have the Children's Museum in my community," Garnica says. "You feel you're a part of it, everyone knows your name. … I have pride in my community. I have never left without a shiny face. They are my friends."
The children have a similar experience, working with museum staffers Nicole (Colie) Haahr and Meghan Bullis, "who are gentle, encouraging and fun-loving," Feltes says. "The children were so beautiful and enthusiastic. They would come in after their opportunity to play and create, and would be so encouraging of their mothers. It was so sweet; that had to make me smile."
The final gathering of Session 2 (which saw most from the first session returning) best demonstrates what We All Belong created, Feltes says. Without any instructor prompting or class organizing, the participants took it upon themselves to create a meal for the last class, each bringing a dish from their own culture.
"I have tears in my eyes just thinking about these women and beautiful children. I think We All Belong really hit the target; I think they really felt like they belonged and not just those from other cultures, but those from the Seacoast community," Feltes says. "It was one of the nicest things I've ever done at the Children's Museum. The whole goal is creating a program like this to welcome others and make them feel that they are accepted, a part of things."
Go & Do
What: We All Belong: Art and Friendship Go Hand-in-Hand
When: Next session begins in March
Where: Children's Museum of New Hampshire, 6 Washington St., Dover
Admission: Free, reservation suggested
More info: Visit www.childrens-museum.org or call (603) 742-2002
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