About This Project
Everybody has a story.
That story, formed by many unique experiences, shapes who we are. Sometimes it’s exciting to share those stories and experiences with other people, but sometimes they are too painful or frightening to remember. Sometimes sharing those stories is difficult because we don’t know what to say or how to say it. For a refugee, getting someone to understand their story or background can be even more challenging because of language barriers. That’s where art comes in.
Art is an incredible medium — a sort of universal language, if you will. Art allows its creators to transcend barriers erected by language and culture, so it can be one of the most meaningful ways to communicate between different groups of people.
There's something special about art: no words or speech are required, but somehow a specific combination of colors and patterns in a painting or drawing can have a profound emotional effect on its viewers. And this incredible poignancy can be captured in any piece of art, no matter the age or experience of its creator.
Children make up an incredibly significant part of both the global and local refugee populations — nearly half — and, as such, should have their stories told. But they can too easily be dismissed as silly or naive. Though smaller in stature, the voices of children can be bolder and more compelling than those of adults, but the first step is providing a platform for them to tell their stories. Art can do just that.
My Art, My Story wasn't slated to look like this. Initially planned for April of 2020, this project was going to be a show of youth refugee art, except in person, held in the rotunda of the Iowa State Capitol. But with difficulties meeting with students this spring and restrictions surrounding large gatherings due to COVID-19, a new plan was hatched. With the help of Des Moines Refugee Support, a face-masked art party was held at Evelyn K. Davis Park. The works created by the students at that event have become the subject of this online exhibition.
Each piece began as an outline of Iowa traced on an otherwise blank canvas. The students were given a choice of markers, colored pencils, and paints, which they used to decorate their canvas however they chose. As you may notice, each work of art is accompanied by a handful of questions. When the artists got close to finishing, an adult volunteer would check in with each of them and ask some iteration of five personal questions. Though they may seem simple, the questions are an opportunity for the kids to tell a bit about themselves, in essence emphasizing the importance of the artist behind each canvas. Both aspects of this project (the artwork and the questions), when viewed together, allow young refugees to show their brilliance and creativity through their own works and words, thus the name of this project.
About the students and volunteers
None of this project (and I mean none) would have been possible without the help of volunteers. I'd like to give a special thanks to Alison Hoeman at Des Moines Refugee Support for her willingness to get a group of kids together, even with such unusual circumstances as these. The other volunteers, including teachers in the Des Moines district, also did an excellent job helping prepare tables, open supplies, supervise, and clean up at the end.
The student artists range in age from first to twelfth grade and attend schools around the Des Moines area. This particular group of students hails from multiple countries across the continent of Africa, but all have come to call Des Moines — and Iowa — home.
Photos of some of the volunteers, at the end of the event, and of the kids who participated (plus some more!).
My name is Parker Johnson, and I'm a senior at Valley High School in West Des Moines, Iowa. Though I appreciate art, I'm not an artist myself, by any means, so hosting an activity centered around painting and drawing might seem a bit out of place for me. But working with refugees is something I'm very familiar with, so this project seemed like a natural choice.
About a decade ago, my family worked to resettle a family from Myanmar, helping them become familiar with daily living in Iowa. It's this experience that opened my eyes to the refugee community in my state. Since then, I've worked with students in ELL programs at several elementary schools in my school district, and have volunteered my time to help refugee families in the area. With this project, My Art, My Story, I want to continue to support the refugees in our greater community and share the rich stories they have to tell.