More than 250 Pleasanton students recently participated in a banner-making project curated by the Pleasanton Cultural Arts Council in order to help the kids and teens regain a sense of community after the pandemic years' impact on their mental health.
The five artworks, which were dubbed the "Conversation Banners for Youth Engagement", were unveiled to the public on Sept. 30 at the Firehouse Arts Center where members of the community, city officials and youth who helped paint the banners all gathered to admire the students' hard work of the past year.
"The students consistently expressed that they were very happy with this project. It was very positive," Kelly Cousins, president of the PCAC, told the Weekly. "The kids also expressed support for one another's work and ideas ... they felt like they made new friends."
In July 2022, PCAC submitted a grant request to the city's Community Grant Program Civic Arts Category for just over $6,000 to help fund the project after seeing the success of a similar project in Livermore, according to PCAC grant writer Jan Coleman-Knight.
Coleman-Knight told the Weekly that the project's goal was to look at engaging with students through creating these banners and see how "that could be really important in terms of helping the youth in Pleasanton who significantly had suffered under isolation and the pandemic."
"What we really tried to do was contact different youth groups and engage them in collaboration and cooperation, and offer them a positive expression and a creative process and as a result, increase the communication among these groups," Coleman-Knight said.
The unique five-foot-by-three-foot banners were hand-sown by local Tri-Valley artist Thomasin Dewhurst who was hired by the PCAC to not only create the canvases, but also to help the different elementary, middle and high school students address mental health issues indirectly through art.
"I am very supportive of mental health, but using the actual words, I find, brings with it some stigma and distress," Dewhurst told the Weekly.
That's why she said she had aimed to create a "feeling of the wonderful natural ability of the young people," by having the students create the banners so that they could enter a nurturing and collaborative space of their own.
"The students demonstrated that they are very able to help themselves and each other to reach a state of self-confidence, joy and hope," Dewhurst said.
She did that by spending time at different schools like Village High School, Hart Middle School and Alisal Elementary School -- just to name a few -- both during and after school hours to work with the kids.
Four of the banners were funded through the grant while the fifth one, which the theme of the banner was about mental wellness, was funded out-of-pocket by the PCAC.
The other banners touched on themes such as holding space, indigenous land acknowledgement and environmental awareness. There was even one that the Pleasanton Unified School District Mariachi Orchestra, Estrella de Pueblo had painted, which Cousins said was special because of the student who said that it was beautiful to see the colors of their culture on something that they helped curate.
"The process itself was great," Cousins said. "We were happy about how enthusiastic the kids were about the process and they learned something about art, too."
"It wasn't just simply how to paint a banner and use all the colors and all that sort of thing," she added. "It was engaging in the whole process. That was very rewarding for us."
One example of that high level of engagement was when Coleman-Knight went to Alisal with Dewhurst to teach them about the Ohlone tribe and other Native American communities while the students broke off into groups to help paint the land acknowledgment banner.
"The fourth-grade students at Alisal engaged in a conversation with Ms. Jan Coleman-Knight and artist Ms. Thomasin Dewhurst about the plants, animals, tools and people indigenous to Pleasanton," Alisal vice principal Julie Berglin told the Weekly. "Dewhurst shared the design concept to the students who added their individual contributions to the banner by coloring items represented within the unique design. Students loved the process and were especially proud of their artistic contribution to the banner project."
Pleasanton City Councilmember Valerie Arkin, who spoke during the Sept. 30 event where all the banners were displayed, told the Weekly that as a person who has always supported the arts and as a former PUSD board trustee, she really like the idea of addressing kids' mental health issues through projects like these.
"There is research out there that participating in art, having kids express feelings with art ... it really does help the mental health of students and how they can help cope with their feelings," Arkin said.
"It's also been shown that kids can bounce back from adversity easier when they have that outlet," she added. "It does a lot of great things to help our students' social, emotional health and that's probably one of the reasons I've always been in favor of the arts in our schools and supporting that in our whole entire community."
According to Cousins and Coleman-Knight, the banners are being considered as "temporary art pieces" and said that they will continue to be displayed around the community at events like the last weekend's Hispanic Heritage Celebration at the Alviso Adobe Community Park on Oct. 7 and the upcoming Native American Heritage Month celebration on Nov. 18, also at the Alviso Adobe.