The Art of Understanding
American Graduate Champions commit their time, skills, and resources to ensure young people succeed, playing active roles in improving educational outcomes for students — and creating positive environments daily for youth in their communities.
As part of the American Graduate initiative, KET is recognizing Kentuckians who are champions of education in our communities. This month we salute Chenoweth Allen, who works to ensure the educational success of individuals in a variety of important settings.
When Chenoweth Allen was in college, she majored in art history — and then went on to a career in volunteerism, and as a stay-at-home mom. But when she returned to school, it was to pursue a career in art therapy — one which allows her to further her interest in psychology and use her art background to help people make changes in their lives.
“My job is to help people best express themselves through using art,” said Allen, whose caring demeanor and open smile invite her students’ trust.
“Different media have various therapeutic benefits,” she continued. “Pounding clay or working with finger paints is a good way to release energy whereas working with collage — or actually sculpting with the clay to create a symbol — you’re going to have a different therapeutic growth or healing.”
Allen divides her time among three institutions in Louisville:
- the Family Scholar House, whose four locations provide housing and support services for single parents pursuing four-year college degrees
- the West End School, a public boarding school for boys from disadvantaged backgrounds; and
- Kentucky Refugees Ministries, which provides help and support for new arrivals to this country.
The Family Scholar House
“One of the things that’s really cool about working at the Family Scholar House is the adult women I work with. They are really motivated to change, to break the cycle they have been in,” she said.
“They are wonderful to work with in art therapy because they want to know about themselves, they want to recognize all they have overcome to get where they are.”
There are three ways an art therapist helps people achieve such growth, Allen explains: through the process itself of making art, through the product that they create, and through participation in the creative process.
“That’s the verbal dialogue about the art,” she said. “Participation is that deeper questioning, or in groups, how they participate with each other. And what’s very cool is that it can be any one of those parts at any given time. Some days it might not be at all about the end product.”
The West End School
When working with rambunctious adolescents at the West End School, Allen also finds that putting them to work in a medium as exciting as shaving cream can have a lot of benefits in releasing energy and frustration. And if they’re having a difficult time in the classroom, a piece of art they’re proud of can give them the confidence to boost their academic achievement as well.
“What I love about West End School is that these are really outstanding young men who may not have had opportunities that other kids would have had. Part of my role is to help them navigate those weekly adjustments between home and school, and to really figure out a sense of who they are.
“It’s about building a success identity and helping them express themselves. This particular group of boys I’ve found has really high expectations of themselves and because of that, they get really frustrated really easily. So helping them with art is a way of helping them through that.”
Kentucky Refugee Ministries
Underlying all her work is the message that betterment of self is possible and can be realized through art. In the case of Kentucky Refugee Ministries, the immediate barriers of language and socialization could stop immigrants in their tracks, but Allen is able to provide a safe place for them to grow in ways as simple as practicing their new language or remembering and grieving for the country they left behind.
In each of these institutions where Allen brings art and hope, her goal is the same: to open each person’s eyes to the person Allen sees, who speaks to her through their art.
“I can see possibilities through their art and through their conversation that they are not yet able to see. And then, as we work together, they can see,” she said.
“By recognizing themselves as survivors, recognizing their strengths, they are able to change their paths. And the way that happens is that they see it in the art — and then they are able to see it in themselves. Their creations are what is healing.”
KET’s education coverage is part of American Graduate: Let’s Make it Happen, a public media initiative made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.