Paintbrushes for Peace: Can Art in Schools Inspire Adults to Get Along?

Artist Karen Blessen shares the emotional story of what propelled her to create a children's art program for social change.

This young boy created art for Darfur. (Photo: Willie Baronet)

MasterPEACE: Young Artists Making a Kinder World was born out of a tragedy that occurred in front of my home in the Lakewood area of Dallas at 2:21 a.m. on August 19, 2000. A young man was senselessly murdered, and as an artist, I processed this event through art and writing.

The result was "One Bullet," a story published in the Dallas Morning News in 2003. The piece investigated the psychic toll of one murder on four individuals in the immediate path of destruction—the twin brother of the victim, the best friend who was with the victim that night, the homicide detective assigned to the case, and the mother of the alleged shooter.

I couldn’t forget things that were said. The best friend said, "It's not correctable. It's not like you can just say, 'Well, do this and it'll all be better.'" The victim’s twin brother said, "What is there to say as far as my feelings? I'm completely crushed. We live in a violent world and celebrate it. You're the cool top dog in your group if you're the most violent guy."

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From the mother of the shooter: "Being a parent, I always wanted to fix it, fix it. But I couldn't fix it. There was nothing I could do." And from the homicide detective: "That's just the kind of society we live in—where it's OK to take a life. There are too many heartless people."

Shortly after this story published, I illustrated Peace One Day, a children's book that tells the story of filmmaker Jeremy Gilley's quest to see September 21 named by the United Nations as the International Day of Peace. Jeremy's commitment and tenacity inspired me. I was compelled to think about what I could do to influence children to embrace peace, concern for others, and kindness as something more cool than sarcasm or cruelty to one another. I asked myself if there might be a way to use art to educate the heart, and that is how MasterPEACE was born.

MasterPEACE is a program of 29 Pieces, a nonprofit arts organization that I cofounded. Since 2007, we’ve brought MasterPEACE to16 Dallas schools and 3,000 students, including refugee children from war-torn areas, gifted and talented students, at-risk youth, children in affluent private schools, a high school for pregnant and parenting teens, and college students.

MasterPEACE is in a growth spurt. Thanks to support from Participant Media's Marigold Ideas for Good competition and other generous funders, we've created a 250-page MasterPEACE manual, and we're in the middle of a pilot project to train educators and counselors at schools, museums, and counseling centers throughout the city. The teachers are teaching MasterPEACE to their students. God willing, we aim to take MasterPEACE to every child in Texas, then nationally, and beyond.

Through the series of 14 hands-on, project-based MasterPEACE lessons, students dive beyond cognitive learning and are empowered by a process that awakens something deep within. In MasterPEACE, students receive STEAM education (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math) in a curriculum that incorporates reading, writing, math, engineering, and public speaking skills—along with art—into project-based lessons.

Our goal is to awaken the artist in every child we work with. And when you awaken the artist you awaken the love of making things, the love of creativity, and the pride of positive accomplishment. Like a flower turning to the sun, the joy on the faces of our students tells us that the hope of genuine social change has begun.

These are solely the author's opinions and do not represent those of TakePart, LLC or its affiliates.

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