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May 30, 2023

Heart to Art

Casey Arbor is the Visual Arts Instructor and John M. Crawford Gallery Curator. She began working in the classroom as the Visual Arts Teacher and curating the gallery in Fall of 2008, and she is one of the only instructors who teaches every single student at Asheville School. One of her most interesting assignments is based on a partnership with The Memory Project, a nonprofit that works with art teachers and students to create and donate portraits to children around the world who have faced extreme poverty, violence, and loss.

Why is it important that art be a part of the academic day?

We educate the whole child at Asheville School—the arts are just as important as the other academic classes. It is shocking to me that funding for the arts is one of the first things to go in schools. Asheville School seems to know better. I dare say it is when one is thinking “outside of the box” they are exercising the very important and coveted critical thinking and problem-solving abilities. These developing skills are like muscles that need to be worked; in Art they are really stretched. We need creative solutions for tomorrow’s problems.

When did you first learn of the Memory Project, and what attracted you to it?

I still have the postcard that was mailed to me. That’s right, snail mail. It seemed too good to be true: “Creating a kinder world through art.” I picked up the telephone and called Ben, the man who began the MP. Ben says MP connects “youth around the world to build cultural understanding and international kindness.” Since that day five (or so) years ago, I have been singing his praises from the mountain tops. At conferences, I share the word with other teachers. It was a treat to have some of the portraits earn national recognition at Carnegie Hall this summer.

What has been your favorite part of participating in the MP?

MP offers a perfect opportunity to connect with something bigger than one’s individual experience. My students were to make portraits of photographed refugees. Upon completion, we would prepare the work in a protective sleeve, after putting the artist’s handprint, photograph, and a sweet message on the back of the artwork. (They can metaphorically touch hands with each other!) The portraits are mailed back to Ben, who organizes them to be hand delivered to the children.

What has surprised you?

Watching the students fall in love with the individual whose portrait they are creating. It has been such an honor to be in the room while they work so hard to create their best work for these children who have lost nearly everything.

What do you hope your students take away from the MP?

Compassion. An understanding that the world is a big place, and we can make it a little more connected and special through our compassion for others. I hope they begin to understand that while the world is a big place with big issues that sometimes seem impossible to fix, they are part of a global community and are changing lives through their work, their kindness, and their art.

What is your advice to alumni who want to unlock their creativity (again)?

We have this idea that if we don’t make the perfect marks in the beginning, then it isn’t going to work out. Perfection is found in the chaos. Remember that our most important lessons happen when we fail. Try to recall what it was like to be in the classroom, constantly learning from mistakes. Try making something for someone else…a card, a bracelet, a basket. Just do something. It doesn’t have to be perfect.

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We invite you to view the Ukrainian Memory Project portraits here. The delivery of the portraits can be viewed here.