WILLIAMSTOWN -- As fans hummed away at Buxton School last Friday, students in the international Artsbridge program got to work on their collaborative art projects. The 21 students - from Israel, Palestine, Jordan and the United States - are engaged in a three-week intensive program built around group art making and dialog.
Some students were at work in the video editing room in the school's new art facility, while their classmates were out filming in the afternoon sun. In the main studio and an adjoining room, other students were organizing and brainstorming for their projects - all still in their early stages.
Artsbridge was founded in 2007 to provide supportive environments where Palestinian, Israeli, Jordanian and American teenagers can develop constructive partnerships. During the three-week intensive programs, students work in pairs on a film or other visual art project, in conjunction with the group's ongoing creative dialog practice.
On July 28 the students will exhibit their work on the Buxton campus. The day's events will include children's activities, outdoor games, a crafts table and a barbeque. Deborah Nathan, founder and executive director of Artsbridge Inc., will also provide an introduction to the program.
While living in Israel between 1976 and 1979, Nathan began to seriously question the ideas of borders and enemies that seemed to saturate life in the region.
An Israeli merchant she worked for bought his leather from a Palestinian friend in the West Bank, for example, even though it required elaborate schemes to do so. She also recalls living on a Kibbutz near the Jordanian border and sharing friendly waves and gestures with soldiers on a nearby Jordanian guard tower.
"So philosophically, the idea of borders and enemies and who is an enemy and what is a border and how are those determined was always a question for me," she said.
As an artist and art therapist, Nathan focuses on the affect of trauma on young people and families and teaches art as a tool for conflict mitigation. She founded Artsbridge during an intense period of Israeli-Palestinian viloence, as a way to allow Israeli and Palestinian teenagers to interact safely throughout the year.
Students typically discover Artsbridge by word of mouth, or through one of the group's partnering organizations in Israel, the West Bank and the United States.
The three-week programs have previously taken place in Boston, Nathan said, so she is appreciating the benefits of a rural environment. A Buxton alumna pursuing her master's degree at Lesley University in Boston, where Nathan is associate professor of art therapy, had introduced her to the small, progressive boarding school, where summer art camps have been taking place for about 10 years.
"Being at Buxton is a huge treat," Nathan said. In addition to the warm welcome the group has received, she said, it's "more of a secluded environment, which I think helps immerse [the students] in the work that they are doing."
A holistic process
A typical day in the program begins with a morning meeting, during which students discuss interpersonal issues and issues of identity. In the afternoon, they work in cross-cultural pairs on various art projects that involve theater, music and mural painting.
The handful of Artsbridge faculty and counselors engage the students in conversation and help generate ideas for them to think about throughout the program, Nathan said, but the goal is to allow them to develop their own projects and processes.
"We don't give them ideas," she said. "The requirement is that [the pairs] work together to create a piece of art, and they are able to write a narrative about it and that at the end of the piece, both of their voices are heard." Visitors to the exhibition will be able to view both the written narratives and the artwork.
Similar programs around the world utilize art making and other physical activities to help bridge cultural differences, Nathan said, but none of them engages as deeply in both art and dialog. It's a holistic process, she said, where dialog and art are mutually beneficial and symbiotic.
Art making can benefit conflict resolution in many ways, she said. Students may not always be aware, for example, that when they are working together on creative projects, they are resolving conflict. "Whereas when they have dialog they think of it as conflict resolution."
From a therapeutic perspective, it's also a way to process the emotions that may arise from the difficult conversations in which the students are engaged every day.
Making art together also helps develop creative dialog skills.
"When you're trained in dialog it's usually left-brained," she said. "It's usually logic and reason. That's not how we approach dialog. We approach dialog out of curiosity, out of a desire to understand one another. And you need to be creative."
Bringing it home
The three-week intensive is part of a larger process, Nathan said, where students will continue to work with the partnering organizations after they return home.
The faculty maintains contact with most of the students who have graduated, Nathan said, "And from what we're seeing, it's making a difference in how they relate, and in their desire to want to do something in their communities, to change their communities for the better."
Graduates are given opportunities to take part in service projects in their home communities and also to serve as mentors for new Artsbridge participants in the year following the program.
Many graduates eventually join professions that are not directly related to conflict resolution, Nathan said. But the program is not aimed at creating diplomats and professional mediators. Rather, students can apply the skills they learn in the program to all areas of life.
Netanel Kafka, an Artsbridge alumnus from Haifa, Israel, who has returned to be a counselor in this year's program, said that participating in Artsbridge was a life changing experience. The disagreements he and his partners encountered were opportunities for them to work through challenges as a team.
"This is a great opportunity to work on problems - not necessarily in terms of Israelis and Palestinians but people just in general," he said.
Students face many challenges during the three weeks, beyond those associated with cultural conflict, he said. "Everything is challenging here - I mean homesickness and the dialogs and the really, really intense and tough schedule. But it's really gratifying."
Standing in the shade of the art building, Kafka commented on the surrounding hills and fields, which stand in sharp contrast to the more arid climates of the Middle East.
"I just love places like this," he said, "all green and quiet - and you get up in the morning and it smells like rain. It's surreal."