The Art of Learning
After-School Arts Program Helps At-Risk Girls
Soon after seventh-grader Martha Turcios learned that floorcloths were hand-painted canvas floor coverings made by women in Colonial times, she set out to make one of her own. Floorcloths are one of many art projects Martha has taken on as part of Alexandria’s “SOHO” program, an art-based mentoring program for at-risk girls.
SOHO stands for Space Of Her Own, which defines the end goal of the program: to help each girl construct a beautiful, personalized space where she can do homework, journal, reflect, and enjoy a private space away from the distractions of a busy, often chaotic household.
SOHO girls are matched with volunteer female mentors who are not professional artists, but are willing to attend weekly art classes together with the girls to help them learn artistic concepts and techniques and create expressive and functional objects of art for their bedrooms. Projects have included “dream chests,” mirrors, personalized desk chairs, lamps, and wall hangings.
“When I first saw the drawing for my floorcloth, I didn’t think I could do it,” says Turcios, who attends Francis C. Hammond Middle School. “But I loved all the colors and patterns. It looked bright and confusing and I wanted to try something difficult.”
Taking on challenges is what the program is all about, says Amy Creed, a social studies teacher at Francis C. Hammond Middle School and a SOHO program director. “When you take a risk, push your boundaries, and create something beautiful, that’s the best confidence builder out there. That confidence then spills over into the other academic subjects. We’re exposing girls to achievement through art.”
As the girls work on their art projects, they’re also talking with their mentors about schoolwork and college, something many of these girls may never have discussed as a real possibility.
T.C. Williams High School history teacher Laura Beers, another program director, is also the daughter of a fine artist. She doesn’t mess around with “popsicle stick” projects; she dives right into textiles, glass, paint, and woodworking, and introduces the girls to concepts like color theory, and principles of design and composition.
“When they’re finished, they have a beautiful piece of art and they see the rewards of planning, patience, and concentration,” says Beers. “These are skills they can apply to school—essays, for example, take a lot of planning, brainstorming, outlining, and concentration.
To take something that was in their mind and turn it into a real tangible thing makes these girls feel tremendously successful.”