Telling Stories Through Visuals

Organization: The Center for Folk and Community Art
Address: 1800 Michigan Avenue
Miami Beach, Florida 33139
Phone: 305-534-8807
Fax: 305-534-8807
Contact: Stewart Stewart, Executive Director

Youth Served: 1500
Ages: 4-20
Focus: visual arts
Setting: schools, senior citizen residences and centers,
community centers
Program Budget:$140,000


Getting Started


Telling Stories Through Visuals is a program of The Center for Folk and Community Art (CFCA). CFCA is a grassroots, non-profit arts organization, whose purpose is to use the visual arts as both a tool of intervention and a method of education in order to help communities and individuals address human and social issues. Comprised of artists, writers, and community activists, the CFCA brings cultural arts together with human services to increase awareness, understanding, compassion, cooperation, and change in communities. CFCA was founded and is staffed by Dena Stewart, a folk artist with teaching experience; and Stewart Stewart, a folk artist with public relations and administrative experience.

In 1992, feeling their own studio art experience was not enough and seeing the trauma that Hurricane Andrew had left behind, Stewart and Dena Stewart started working with children who were traumatized by Hurricane Andrew. They helped these youngsters talk, write, and paint about what they saw, felt, and heard during and after the hurricane and put that experience together in a 45-foot long mobile mural. This mural toured the Dade County museums and later became the backdrop for President Clinton's Homestead, Florida Hurricane Andrew Town Meeting. Out of this experience, the program Telling Stories Through Visuals was created, and the tone for future work was established.

Based on this early effort, the CFCA also received recognition from the Cultural Arts Committee of The Miami Coalition which works to provide community education on the power of the arts as a resiliency tool for youth, cataloging community and funding resources, co-sponsoring community programs, and publishing a newsletter, Collaborate. This Fall, the Cultural Arts Committee will publish ART WORKS! Collaborations That Change Lives, a photo-journal on six collaborative prevention projects using the arts. One of the programs profiled in ART WORKS! is Telling Stories Through Visuals.

Telling Stories Through Visuals

Telling Stories Through Visuals is an arts education/intervention program that teaches children and youth how to translate perceptions, feelings, and experiences into writing and visual art. The Telling Stories program is organized around issues that affect a "community." Working with schools and other community agencies, CFCA artists conduct a series of two-hour workshops with the individuals affected by the issue. The artists teach participants how to tell their stories through the use of visual images. Basic art techniques are taught. The drawing process starts on paper but then is transferred to canvas and colored in. Two to eight workshops are held at each location, depending on the participants' ages and abilities. Using the narratives and artwork created by the participants, CFCA artists construct a movable mural; stories and pictures are combined into a mosaic and affixed to large wooden panels, which are hinged together in pairs. The murals are exhibited in public areas so that many people will see them and better understand the lifestyles and attitudes of the people most affected by the issue.

Telling Stories Through Visuals murals have been featured on the nationally syndicated television show, Hard Copy, on NBC News, on CNN and C-Span stations, and on all the network evening news programs.


Telling Stories Through Visuals:Getting Older

  In the project organized around What It Feels Like To Grow Older, Telling Stories Through Visuals is implemented with seniors and youth, This gives youth the opportunity to develop caring relationships with an adult role-models (which they may otherwise lack in their personal lives) and provides participants with new perspectives on other generations. The sessions start with sensitivity exercises. Youth put pebbles in their shoes, smear Vaseline on their eyeglasses, place cotton balls in their ears, all to experience what it is like for adults to lose mobility, sight and hearing. These young people then are partnered with seniors and listen to their stories about growing older. Some of the stories are written up; others transformed into poems or other pieces of creative writing. These pieces of writing are edited by CFCA, though the language and voice of the authors are preserved. Then, seniors and young people together create visuals on canvas based on the writings. The poetry, quotations from the stories, and visual images are combined into a montage on panels.

Telling Stories Through Visuals: All About Crime


All About Crime is another project conducted by the Telling Stories Through Visuals program. The sessions in this project focus on the causes of violence, addiction, disease, and dysfunction. Some of the participants include at-risk youth in school-based after-school programs, repeat juvenile offenders, and senior citizens who have been victims of crime. Discussions focus on values, attitudes, and the causes of crime. Creative art work and written narratives describe participants' feelings about crime. Seniors express their fear of juveniles; youth express their alienation from mainstream community life. This common alienation becomes the vehicle for bridge-building through the creation of a movable mural based on their experiences.

The All About Crime movable mural is used to educate the public in a non-threatening way about the world of crime and its impact of people's lives; to bridge the gap between those people who live with crime and those people who do not live with it but want to understand more about it. It has been exhibited in the Miami Herald Building, the Miami Youth Museum, the National Bank Tower Building, and the Metro-Dade Library system. Panels are added from subsequent All About Crime workshops.

The assumption behind these two projects is that by improving children's artistic, social, and academic skills; by fostering collaboration among children, youth and senior citizens; by building personal responsibility for actions and attitudes; and by creating a mural for public education-through all of these strategies-violence and crime can be prevented.

The Importance of Small Working Groups and Building Trust

While 1500 children and youth from ages 4-20 participate annually in various Telling Stories Through Visuals projects, each class includes no more than 20 participants, and sometimes as few as five. "One-on-one attention is the key to developing trust with each participant so that he or she will be comfortable enough to reveal personal information relating to the issue," notes artist Dena Stewart.

Meeting once a week for two hours at a time over several months, the classes focus on getting participants to take risks, to think creatively, and to break down self-imposed barriers to expression. Many of the young people have trouble identifying and expressing their thoughts and feelings. Similarly, participants have difficulty believing they can make art. Youth and seniors are encouraged to focus on their personal stories. By asking many questions, the artists help them visualize the people and places in their stories. They "help them put meat on their stick figures" and show them how to draw cars, streets, landscapes, interiors, and objects relevant to their experiences. No judgments are made about the content of the stories or participants' artistic abilities.

Working with Schools

Some of the CFCA workshops, including those addressing crime, work closely with the Dade County Public School System (DCPS). The Deputy Superintendent of the DCPS oversees the DCPS participation in Telling Stories Through Visuals projects. Guidance counselors and teachers help identify students who would benefit the most from participation in each project. Some projects are conducted in school-based after-school programs sponsored by the Dade County Public Schools. School principals and/or assistant principals are involved at each school site. Some projects have been replicated with other school systems in other cities around the country.

Paying for the Program

Telling Stories Through Visuals is supported by small grants and contracts from schools, public and private organizations and agencies, and by individual donations. Each project also relies on substantial in-kind donations--sketch paper, colored markers, canvas, plexiglass, paint, door panels, etc.--from area merchants.

Lessons Learned: Doing Homework in the Community

Telling Stories Through Visuals explores topics that are sometimes painful for participants and controversial for communities. Therefore, it is important to work closely with community institutions that have experience with the issues and direct contact with families and other community members. It also is important for staff to understand the many sides of issues before starting the projects, and to clarify for leading community institutions the purpose and nature of the projects.

CFCA invests considerable time and energy in community homework. In preparation for the All About Crime project, CFCA staff went out on "gang patrols" with the Dade County Police Department to speak with gang members as well as with police officers who deal with juvenile offenders. They worked with school administrators to identify those schools located in high crime areas. CFCA staff personally contacted those schools to explain the program, request participation, and obtain student referrals. To reach senior citizens who were victims of crime, CFCA contacted community centers in high crime neighborhoods.



The Art Works report will be available by contacting:

The Miami Coalition for A Safe and Drug-Free Community
Cultural Arts Committee
University of Miami/James L. Knight International Center
400 SE Second Avenue, 4th Floor
Miami, Florida 33131
Tel. 305-375-8032
Fax: 305-371-6645