By Dr. Angela Lyonsmith, Artist and Art Therapist
As an art therapist, I routinely see the value of the language of art to transcend where words falter. I have witnessed the potential of art making to create an atmosphere of connection in which barriers to interacting and sharing meaningfully about our lives is possible. Whether through movement, words, visual imagery or music, the capacity to make and share is rooted in an understanding of the evolutionary behavior of art that considers art making a means of “making special” of elevating the ordinary to something extraordinary (Dissanayake, 1992). As humans evolved, this capacity to set apart, elevate and convey complex meanings through the arts continued to flourish. From this perspective, art making is part of what makes us human and is integral to our ability to communicate.
Aaron Slater, Illustrator is the most recent addition to Andrea Beaty’s impactful Questioneer picture book series. Each book in this series weaves life lessons with the everyday exceptionality of childhood imagination and ingenuity, while adeptly challenging racism, classism, sexism, ageism and ableism through stories that feature diverse characters and narratives. In this book you discover a character who uses art to express himself; finding words increasingly accessible in a rich visual vocabulary of imagery and storytelling. Beaty describes that “Aaron’s dyslexia informs who he is, but it does not define who he is.”
Early in my career, I worked with adults identified with developmental, cognitive and physical disabilities and have supported children and families navigating learning difficulties. I have found art making to be a profound means of expression, storytelling and method of removing barriers to successful engagement. The arts are wide and provide limitless avenues for expressing our experiences and learning through color, movement, form and sound.
Importantly, through the story of Aaron Slater and his teacher, Miss Greer, you and your child can experience an opportunity to empathize, question and observe what it means to value the perspective of someone whose brain works differently. Said another way, we can recognize that people are neurodiverse; that disability and ability exist on a spectrum; and our education system and societal structures could and should nourish spaces that cultivate and build upon the capacities of each person. For Miss Greer and the kids of Grade Two, Aaron creating an illustrator garden at the end of the hall offers tangible permission for each student to exercise their creativity and be valued for who they are.
As an art therapist and educator, I lean into the use of art making as a tool of communication, perspective taking, social emotional learning, community building and opportunity to experience pride and accomplishment. Art can provide a visual vocabulary that embodies the depth of our experiences even when we yet lack the words. Art provides a way to recreate and experience beauty and hold the heavy and hard feelings that we are bound to encounter. Art connects us to each other and allows us to witness our shared humanity across differences of identity, place and time. It is part of what makes us human and can offer us a window into someone else’s perspective and experience of the world.
Dissanayake, E. (1992). Homo Aestheticus: Where Art Comes From and Why. New York: Free Press.
Dr. Angela Lyonsmith is a mom of three amazing humans, an artist and art therapist. She is a founding Director of Kids Create Change, has worked as an art therapist and supervisor for two decades and taught in the graduate art therapy departments at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago and Mount Mary University. She is passionate about the intersection of art making, community building and wellness. Follow her on Instagram, @artwithpeople.