DAREarts Atlantic 2015: Mi’kmaq Culture Empowers Youth Achievement

Alan Syliboy with the students of St. Joseph’s A. McKay ES. Photo by Trish Gibbon.

Thanks to our supporters The McCain Foundation, Northbridge Insurance, Scotiabank, and RBC Foundation, October has been an inspiring Mi’kmaq Heritage Month for nearly 100 grade six children from three Nova Scotian schools; they’ve been “dared” to step out of their comfort zones and to entrench themselves in a world of arts and culture.

The students from Astral Drive ES, Riverside EC, and St. Joseph’s A. McKay ES each spent a week with DAREarts’ Atlantic Team, consisting of Lead Teachers Laura MacKinnon and Trish Gibbon, plus artist-educators Alan Syliboy, Henri Gielis, Alexis Milligan, and June Zinck.

Every workshop was filled to the brim with team-building, inspiration, connection and reflection. Each class started their week by meeting renowned local Mi’kmaq artist Alan Syliboy, who introduced the children to his animation Little Thunder, inspired by Mi’kmaq legends and petroglyphs. He emphasized the importance of storytelling and learning from one’s elders, a theme that was woven throughout the week. Afterward, the classes began the inward journey of creating their very own characters, guided by the DARE values of Discipline, Action, Responsibility, and Excellence.

DAREarts Atlantic Lead Teacher, Trish Gibbon, instructed the students in the use of acrylic paint on canvas as they created their own petroglyphic-style characters – personal “superheroes” that embodied an important life lesson. School staff and our team were astounded by the final pieces, as vivid colours and unique characters boldly leapt from each canvas. Prior to DAREarts these students had minimal access to the arts at school.

Once the paintings were completed, the students formed groups and were asked to consider the following question: If you had discovered these paintings in a cave, what story would they tell? What life lessons can be learned?

The grade sixes at Riverside EC proudly showcase their paintings. Photo by Trish Gibbon.
The grade sixes at Riverside EC proudly showcase their paintings. Photo by Trish Gibbon.

Story creation led to drama, as each group was asked to project their ideas into tableaux, transforming concepts into motions and gestures. This was an incredible accomplishment for many of the students, as focus was difficult at times. However, within minutes the whole class was eager to demonstrate their carefully crafted tableaux stories. Artist-educators Henri Gielis, Alexis Milligan and June Zinck used their theatrical knowledge to guide the students through the creative process with great energy and enthusiasm.

The workshops invited the students to explore culture and identity, as well as find positive means to express themselves and interact through their creative works.   For one of our schools, the camaraderie and improved behaviour of the students allowed them to share their art and tableaux in their first school-wide assembly of the year, previously not possible due to the amount of violence in the school.

The students from Astral Drive ES. Photo by Laura MacKinnon.
The students from Astral Drive ES. Photo by Laura MacKinnon.

Using the arts as a positive outlet has already improved the lives of these students dramatically, and will continue to help them achieve success in their growth as young leaders.

Students from St. Joseph's A. McKay celebrate their hard work at the DAREarts Atlantic Showcase. Photo by Michelle Doucette.
Students from St. Joseph’s A. McKay celebrate their hard work at the DAREarts Atlantic Showcase. Photo by Michelle Doucette.

On Wednesday, October 28th, the DAREarts Atlantic Showcase took place at the Alderney Landing Centre to celebrate the achievements of these dedicated young artists. It was fitting that the reception space was circular, as we welcomed close to 100 teachers, parents, community members and media into the room to celebrate as a newly-formed DAREarts community. Every guest that arrived paused in the doorway, looking in awe at the impressive, colourful collection of work. If the talent, potential and commitment of these young artists and leaders was in doubt before, it vanished as each guest entered the room. For the students, seeing their artwork hung with care in a space outside of school for celebration and public recognition was transformative. Their confidence and pride soared – qualities that will stay with them long after the event is over.

Mi’kmaq artist and mentor Alan Syliboy was present and spoke with the students and their families, emphasizing how impressed he was with the quality of the paintings and with the students’ commitment. In his public remarks, he spoke about the importance of the arts in nourishing young lives and how glad he is to be part of DAREarts Atlantic. The students were overjoyed that Alan was there to celebrate their achievements alongside them, as his artwork and encouraging presence was a constant source of inspiration throughout the project. His recently published book, The Thundermaker, was also on display and many students went home with this treasured reminder of the power of the arts, storytelling and leadership.

We would like to thank all of our supporters, volunteers, and the staff at each school who made this year’s program a resounding success.

The DAREarts Atlantic Team. Photo by Michelle Doucette.
The DAREarts Atlantic Team. Photo by Michelle Doucette.

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