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Weaving a Story: Art education students connect with local elders through service-learning project

AED 474 students from the University of Maine work with local elders to create God's Eye weaving patterns as part of a service-learning project. Photo courtesy Brandie Dziegel.
AED 474 students from the University of Maine work with local elders to create God’s Eye weaving patterns as part of a service-learning project. Photo courtesy Brandie Dziegel.

Students in AED 474: Topics in Art Education are connecting with local elders through the art of weaving.

The collaborative weaving project is focusing on the practice of circle weaving and making “God’s Eye” designs, a weaving motif and a spiritual practice of many indigenous people in the Americas, with elders of the Penobscot Nation. Traditionally, God’s Eyes are presented as gifts and designed to celebrate and bless homes. Participants were encouraged to bring scraps of fabric, fiber or other materials that may carry personal meanings to them. Several people can work together on a weaving project as it becomes a small community where people talk and exchange stories.

The seminar class offered at the University of Maine focuses on advanced research and practice in art education. Designated as a UMaine Service-Learning course, AED 474 has been taught by art educator and studio artist Constant Albertson for more than seven years.

Topics of this course vary from year to year, but the key component of this course always involves research and a hands-on project with community partners. Previous topics in AED 474 included service learning projects at Shaw House’s drug treatment program, Acadia Hospital, Eastern Maine Medical Center and various museums and galleries in the Bangor area.

The class’s focus on weaving —  the textile art in which two sets of yarns or threads interlace with each other at right angles to form a fabric or cloth — helps calm people and allow them to connect with themselves.

“We wanted to hear the narratives of our community partners,” Albertson shared. “A lot of people have a hard time opening up sitting there and not doing anything. People open up more as their hands are busy, you need something to do that has a lot of repetition, in a sense that you don’t have to think about every stitch. Weaving is very calming.”

“When you see different colors, patterns and prompts, they remind you of things that happened and things you associate them with,” Sadie Personeni, a student in the seminar, said. “I could see them [the elders] picking out certain fabrics that they liked and went well together. For example one elder associated happiness with the color yellow.”

Albertson’s goal was to facilitate the course, letting the students take responsibility in coming up with the topics, researching the subject and organizing the community project. Hattie Stiles, a student in the class, contacted their first community partner, Eastern Area Agency on Aging (EAAA), while Brandie Dziegel reached out to the Penobscot area First Nation elders. Yagmur Gunel designed the logo for the class, Alison Crofton-Macdonald created its website and Naomi Ellsworth managed its social media sites. All 10 students committed themselves to the project.

“One of the things they [students] had to do were negotiations among themselves, too,” Albertson shared .

When students in the class came up with an idea for the art project, they had to bring a sample of it to their peers. If the class liked it, they all made a sample to see how it worked.

“Coming up with a bunch of samples is typical when you teach art education. It helps you think of how you want to teach the process. Also, you want to show your students different ideas of how they might approach it,” Albertson added.

Albertson and her students visited EAAA on March 25. Despite the ice storm, students and

elders shared stories, while illustrating what happiness means to them through weaving.

When asked to represent what courage means to them, one of the elders immediately chose a material in purple.

“It was such a clear association,” Ellsworth said.

Albertson shared that the participants from EAAA were warm and welcoming to the students. “They were so interested in having fun, and maybe thinking that art is something they can pursue. With retirement, people often find that they have time to learn things they always wanted to learn,” Albertson said.

Each individual’s work will be joined together to demonstrate the strength of collaborative weaving and storytelling. The students of AED 474 created an interactive weaving board which will come together as more people link together the words that best represent advocacy to them. The students of AED 474 presented this weaving board and their God’s Eyes at the annual HOPE Festival on Saturday, April 23.

On April 16, the class visited the elders from the Penobscot Nation. From the start of this project, Albertson and her students made it clear that it was not their intention to reinforce the issues of exploitation that are historical and ongoing.

“We tried to be as sensitive as we know how to. There is a history of white do-gooders [who] say they want to help, but it is actually about them. This project is a personal relationship,” Albertson shared.

“We weren’t trying to do a good deed, walk out and feel good about ourselves,” Dziegel added. “They [elders of the Penobscot Nation] were more reassured about that through the activity. You can’t expect them to be open unless you are open, too, so as we went on with the activity, there was reassurance from both sides.”

The main reason why the students chose to work with the elders is to bridge the generation gap.

“In the beginning, I wasn’t sure how comfortable the elder population would be while working with our generation,” Jessie Hardy said. “While weaving, the elders wanted to hear what we had to say just as much as we wanted to hear what they had to say.”

Crofton-Macdonald thought that it was very easy to talk with the elderly.

“It is not so much that generation gap exists because we are different from them,” Crofton-Macdonald shared. “There aren’t as much opportunities for generations to interact and get together.”

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