by Nick Fierro
A little paint and a little clay can go a long way.
If you’re an immigrant or refugee newly making your way in St. Louis, artistic expression might take a backseat to other priorities, such as finding a job or a home.
“When you’re trying to fit in in a new country, maybe creating art isn’t the first thing on your mind,” says Jeane Vogel, executive director of Webster Arts. “Maybe it’s the tenth.”
A new program offered by Webster Arts and the International Institute of St. Louis, or IISTL, seeks to change that. Since the beginning of March, Vogel has led a team of teaching artists and volunteers at the International Institute campus in a six-week series of free classes aimed at refugees and immigrants.
The response, Vogel says, has been greater than she ever expected: turnout nearly tripled between the first and second session.
“We had people at IISTL tell us, ‘we’ve never seen these people smile,’” she says. “It’s so heartening that [the participants] are able to start telling their stories and sharing their culture with people who understand.”
The program, which is entering its fourth week, has been in the works since last July, when Vogel approached the International Institute. A grant from the Trio Foundation has funded a variety of materials and a stipend for three teaching artists: Edna Patterson-Petty, a fiber artist from East St. Louis; Corinne Didisheim, a fabric artist; and Melody Evans, a clay artist. A team of volunteers helps facilitate the sessions and in some cases, translate into Nepali or French, as many of the participants hail from Bhutan and the Congo.
“They’re certainly able to interact with other St. Louisans in a way that they might have never before,” Vogel says. “Volunteers [are] lining up to be a part of this project with us…they can see ‘this is something I can do for immigrants.’ I think there are a lot of people of good conscience concerned about how we’re treating people right now, especially [those] from abroad; this is something that they can do.”
Although the program concludes in April, Webster Arts is already looking for funding to do more in the future, Vogel says. Since the program isn’t based on an existing model, the collaboration with the International Institute has allowed for flexibility.
“IISTL asked, 'What if there are only a few people?’ 'I don’t care,' I said—if there’s two people, we’ll work with two people,'” she says. “Numbers aren’t important; the impact in people’s lives is important.”
The projects that participants have finished will be available to view at the International Institute in May; Webster Arts may also highlight some at the upcoming annual Webster Arts Fair in June.
“We truly believe in collaboration,” Vogel says. “It’s amazing what we can do when we have enough compassion to reach out to people and not be afraid of them.”