By LESLIE COLLINS
September 4, 2013
As the two groups of women gathered in the Don Bosco Senior Center, there was a slight shyness, a little timidity.
Neither group knew exactly what to expect.
Laid before them were two white silk panels, begging for a touch of color, for a little paint.
But this wasn’t simply an art project. This was about building relationships and building bridges between two generations – the senior women from Don Bosco and the women residing in Newhouse, a domestic violence shelter for women and their children in Kansas City.
“It’s beneficial in many different ways,” Leslie Gasser of Don Bosco Centers said. “One, you have the art and the beauty created out of that; it’s tangible. Then, you have the experience that both parties participating have. You have a diverse culture and many diverse people.
“The whole idea is about mentorship, too, being able to take the experiences of these senior women and the women in the shelter and just letting that natural relationship happen through the course of the workshop.”
Called Bloomerang, the four-session workshop brought Newhouse and Don Bosco senior women together to create eight silk banners brimming with their artful creations. Each workshop brought new women on board and their mediums included paint and markers. A handful of children from Newhouse also participated.
Bloomerang’s founder Carol Bradbury led each workshop and her son filmed a portion of the workshops to turn into a documentary. Bradbury describes Bloomerang as a collaborative art experience that builds and celebrates community.
“It’s the experience of seeing one another, not through the lens of race or belief, but with color, imagination and diversity,” she said. “Bloomerang represents the seeds that we plant, that we put out there, expecting the best of it to come back. And I think it does.”
Bloomerang evolved out of several projects, including the rebranding of North Topeka, Kan., into the NOTO (NOrth Topeka) Arts District. Bradbury, an artist and designer who lives in Topeka, was part of a brainstorming group aiming to improve the self-esteem and image of Topeka. One of the areas in need of improvement included North Topeka, an area full of abandoned properties and drug houses, said Gasser, a former resident of Topeka.
“A lot of people in South Topeka would not go over the bridges to North Topeka,” Bradbury said.
Together, the group decided to turn North Topeka into an arts district and Bradbury sat on the founding NOTO Board. To unify the fragmented city, she suggested creating a community banner project. Bradbury led workshops across Topeka, and more than 300 residents ranging from ages one to 93 participated in the art project. Bradbury used their designs to create 26 outdoor banners, which now line the streets of NOTO.
“It (outdoor banners) was a visible sign that change was happening,” Bradbury said. “The fact that so many people contributed their marks to it, it was like saying, ‘I believe in this. I believe this can happen.'”
North Topeka now features a community arts center that hosts classes and provides studio space for artists. In addition, NOTO hosts a First Friday Art Walk every month, which draws 500 to 1,000 attendees, and also hosts the Day of the Dead festival as well as the BBQ Jazz Festival, according to the NOTO website. NOTO is now considered a flourishing and attractive district, Gasser said.
One of the participating organizations in the NOTO banners project included Aldersgate Village, where Gasser formerly worked. Both the seniors at Aldersgate and the children at the Aldersgate daycare center worked together on a banner and Gasser witnessed how the project broke down barriers between the two generations.
“Oh, I cried,” Gasser said. “I did because they were so cute together. There was no age barrier – that’s the cool thing about it. It takes barriers away.”
Gasser wanted to bring that same experience to Historic Northeast and thought that the Don Bosco senior women and Newhouse women and their children would be a good fit.
Through the workshops, the two groups bonded and by the end of the first workshop, the two groups were hugging each other good-bye.
“I thought it was a wonderful opportunity for the different generations to interact,” said Jennifer Lierz, child therapist at Newhouse. “They loved it – the kids and the moms enjoyed it.”
To create the all-weather banners, Bradbury will photograph the silk panels and use elements from each to create a cohesive piece of art in Photoshop. Each of the eight banners will be unique.
“It’s like working on an abstract painting for me,” Bradbury said. “I’m looking for those patterns and elements that speak, that somehow amplify the group voice.”
Both Newhouse and Don Bosco Centers will receive the completed banners, which they will use to promote their organizations.
“That’s going to be great because we’re working on putting signage in our shelter that’s more positive, encouraging and colorful,” Lierz said. “That just helps the women not only with their mental health, but physical health to see the colorful things that were made by our people.”
Paying for artwork is not within Newhouse’s budget, she said, so receiving the banners is an added bonus.
Bradbury also turns the artwork into notecards, which the organizations can use for future fundraisers.
Gasser said Don Bosco hopes to secure additional funding to expand the workshops to other organizations and individuals in the Northeast community. To donate toward the project, contact Gasser, (816) 691-2807.
“With those banners, they brought awareness of NOTO, and that’s what we want,” Gasser said. “We want people to be aware of what we’re doing here. Newhouse wants people to be aware of what they’re doing. Both organizations have survived changes and I feel like we’re going to be stronger because of it.”