Nóra L. Ritók:
The positive influence of art activities on poor communities
Soon after I began my work as an art educator in an extremely poor area of the country, I realized that in order to achieve lasting results with underprivileged children, their families – in fact, the whole community they live in – must be taken into consideration.
Twelve years ago I created a framework for what I believed was “effective” art education. This is Igazgyöngy (“real pearl”) Foundation, based in the village of Berettyóújfalu in South-East Hungary, one of the poorest parts of the country. The Foundation operates a basic art school in six different locations in the area, subsidised partly by the state, partly by donations. We educate 670 children, 70% of whom are underprivileged; 250 live in deep poverty, most coming from gipsy families.
The school focuses on visual arts education, which has been successful since the very beginning. Our students have won many prizes at national and international student art exhibitions (500 on average each year).
What makes our school special is that the focus is on complex personality development – which noticeably improves students’ motivation for learning at school –, as well as personal and interpersonal competencies, which improve their chances in life.
We developed a number of assignments for the children that contribute to bridging the educational gap by helping them develop their fine motor skills, observe and interpret the visual world, grasp the essence of phenomena, and improve their logical thinking. These assignments also help to naturally integrate different fields of learning.
However, we soon realized that the problem of socially integrating these underprivileged children can not be solved inside the school alone. Most of them grow up in families where the parents are undereducated and unemployed, so the children have no positive examples to follow. Therefore, the Foundation mapped the areas of possible positive intervention. Our focus was on three closely linked areas: education, family care and community development. We also realised the need to improve cooperation between the institutions responsible for these areas.
Our family care activities aim to create a partnership with the parents, to help the families develop more liveable surroundings and outline a possible future for these underprivileged children. We have developed a number of good practices that have proven to have visible results and have also been adopted by other communities. These include the home garden programme, making bio-briquettes (fuel blocks) for heating, restoring their houses, health programmes etc.
In order to improve village communities, we have started to extend our art education practice and involve the parents as well. During the art workshops we organised for the children in the small villages, we noticed that parents were willingly taking part in the various arts and crafts activities. They joined in when we were decorating the village hall and the nursery school with wall paintings. Later, when a sponsor made it possible for the children to paint on stretched canvases, we invited a well-known gipsy story teller and suggested that the children choose an episode from one of the stories they were hearing and depict it with acrylic. They could take the canvases home and the whole family could join in on completing their initial composition.
This cooperative family action led us to our most recent project in which we get the parents involved in a more purposeful, planned way. We are trying to teach them some traditional handicrafts, which would allow them to perform some meaningful activities other than their daily duties, as well as give them a possible source of income. We have started teaching them needlepoint. We gave them some motifs traced from their children’s drawings, small pieces of needlepoint canvas, and showed the mothers the various stitches. These women had never done any embroidery before; they are undereducated, some of them are illiterate. After several meetings, much discussion and encouragement, we managed to get 15 women (most of them gipsies) to do needlepoint pictures in one of the segregated villages.
The embroideries were a bit stiff at first, and the choices of colour were also quite faint. Despite this, they were pleased with their own first accomplishments, and grateful that we were supportive. Then we showed them the original drawings of the children. As had been our intention, they felt encouraged by this; their use of colour became bolder and they started to use their imagination much more. By the third attempt, they did not need any further instructions; many of them started to use a wider range of stitches, seeking original solutions.
Afterwards, the small images became the central parts of patchworks used for textile objects, like bags. In a neighbouring village, one of our volunteers had been teaching women to sew the bags. We are planning to teach them to produce other objects as well (glasses or pencil cases, for example), decorated with embroidery that bears the naive charm of children’s drawings. We also mean to widen the range of handicrafts in these communities, for most of the people who live here have not the qualifications to take a job – even if there were any available ones.
Our first attempts have convinced us that these art activities will have a strong positive influence on the community, as well as strengthen the self esteem of the individuals, provide the children with a possible model and insure some income for the family.
The author is an artist, art teacher, founder-director of the Igazgyöngy (“Real Pearl”) Foundation.
 Basic art schools provide extra-curricular activities. They are not part of any particular school, they serve the needs of schoolchildren of different ages, coming from different schools in certain neighbourhoods. They serve to complement compulsory school education, and so are meant for children who have a keen interest in one form of art or another. Any child may attend them; there are no special entrance criteria.