Saturday, May 18, 2024

A student works on a tile as part of the “Pandemic Experience” art project at Graham & Parks School. (Photo: Liana Trail)

As the world continued to grapple this spring with the repercussions of living through a pandemic, Emily Newmann, Liana Trail and the fifth-graders of Graham & Parks School turned art into a mechanism for channeling emotion.

When her husband died in 2012, shortly after her parents, Newmann turned to art to help grieve. The work informed the 2015 exhibit she co-curated at Maud Morgan Arts’ Chandler Gallery, “Images of Grief and Healing,” and Newmann continues to use art in her practice as a clinical therapist.

During the pandemic, Newmann wanted to use her passion for group work and forming connections to help children process their emotions.

“I felt like doing a community art project that would help kids express what [the pandemic] was like would also help them kind of process the loneliness and process the feelings, but also feel very powerful. And they would see their strengths and resilience,” Newmann said.

“The Pandemic Experience” project in the Graham & Parks School courtyard in Neighborhood 9. (Photo: Emily Newmann)

Upon receiving a grant of $2,760 from the city’s Cambridge Arts agency, Newmann teamed up with Trail, a Graham & Parks art teacher, to create “The Pandemic Experience” project, in which each fifth-grader could contribute their own clay tile design to a collective mosaic. The structure provided a blend of individuality and unity.

“[A tile] is like a painting … it’s like their own canvas that they can really create. So they don’t have to work together,” Newmann said. “It can come together in a community way. But they can also show their individuality in their own tile.”

A student tile speaks to many people’s experience during the pandemic, highlighting Hulu and Netflix. (Photo: Liana Trail)

Starting in February, Newmann and Trail led weekly classroom discussions for three classes about what children experienced during the pandemic. While many of the 62 children spoke, including from a sheltered English-immersion class with kids from places as disparate as Ukraine, Peru and Israel, the most expression came through by making the tiles. Students used messaging and storytelling to explain their experiences. “There were definitely a few kids who talked about coming here during the pandemic and leaving their hometown, and then they’re here in the pandemic and they can’t see their family that’s back in another country,” Newmann said.

“One girl’s tile is amazing,” Newmann said of a work saying that hope overcomes sadness and stress. “I don’t know, I was just kind of struck.”

Another student tile speaks of hope. (Photo: Emily Newmann)

Mudflat Studios, a nonprofit pottery school in Somerville with a store in Porter Square, provided materials and fired the tiles when the students were done creating. Newmann is a potter at the school.

With the help of Cambridge builder Andrew Calorio, the tiles of each fifth-grader were mounted in wooden frames and installed permanently in the courtyard of Graham and Parks. At a June 15 celebration, students spoke about the pandemic and what the tile project meant to them.

“Playing ice hockey was my only lifeline to socially interact with kids my age. It just felt so good to see all my friends every week at practice,” said Mia Yamaguchi, whose tile featured the sport.

A clay plaque in the Graham & Parks courtyard explains the project to future visitors and students. (Photo: Emily Newmann)

“I showed some things that were new, some things that stayed the same and some things that changed to be safer,” Maia Katz said.

Newmann said the experience validated her beliefs on the impact art can have toward healing and fueling creativity even in the hardest times, and is looking to do more.

“I know how powerful art can be in self expression and healing,” she said. “It just made me want to do more of it. How do I get [this work] into different communities?”