Giving Gratitude for an Artistic Childhood

By Joni Starr and Guests

This time of year asks us to pay attention to gratitude and the blessings we have received. In my years as an arts educator and advocate, and in my role as MAEIA blog editor, I have had countless occasions to share research on the benefits of arts education for youth; but now I have decided to change my perspective and ask: How have I, as an adult, personally benefited from having arts training as a youth? What are some of the lasting impacts of this artistic education? To broaden the field and hear from more voices, I posed these questions to previous blog writers and gathered their comments and experiences. Here is our adult gratitude for an artistic childhood. Thanks for listening.

~ Joni Starr


Barb Whitney,  Executive Director, Lansing Art Gallery and Education Center shares:

My initial arts experience arose out of a diversion from academia: I discovered musical theatre! I sang and danced my way through high school, college, and across the country. My most heart-stopping moment, however, came through a basic drawing class. Professor Rice’s course at Kalamazoo College completely transformed my life; I learned how to SEE the world differently: as light and shadows, as edges and spaces, as pattern and rhythm.

The visual arts changed my life paradigm. I find they offer me a way to be completely unique through my own visual narrative and infinite color studies. Now, after 15 years in arts and culture and two advanced degrees, I continue to create and exhibit art, while simultaneously serving as an arts professional for multiple agencies, including MAEIA. The arts help me amplify my own joy and inspire others to DREAM toward their goals. My arts learning enabled me to positively affect my community: locally, nationally, and even internationally.

Clara Martinez, Chair, MI Dance Council and Dance Director at Everett High School shares:

As an adult, my arts education led me to my current profession and shaped my life pursuits. I am grateful for the many lifelong mentors and friends I came across in my dance training. I am also grateful for the sense of self I gained from working to fully embody myself, and know who I am. While I did not pursue violin beyond middle school, my five years spent playing the violin and studying music directly informed my world view and dancing as well. I am forever grateful for my dance and music training and it will always be a part of my daily life as well as my philosophical approach to


 Hedy Blatt, Fine Arts Consultant for Oakland Intermediate School District shares:


I grew up in Owosso, MI, a very small town, and was fortunate to have parentsthat embraced the arts. We had art and music in our K-8 school, and there were very strong music and theatre programs in the high school. I looked forward to being in the high school marching band, even though I had picked the cello one summer at Interlochen when I was eight. Since there was no orchestra in Owosso, I ultimately switched to clarinet and then to oboe, which I played through college. I often say that many of my leadership qualities were learned in the high school band, and I credit that experience to much of my professional success. I also credit my lack of visual art expertise to sitting in the back of the elementary classroom and always cutting on the fold (So all of my valentines fell apart and all the kids laughed). I think that helped me develop a good sense of humor and the ability to laugh at myself. The arts always have been and continue to be integral to me. It is why I love MAEIA and its important phrase: Together in the Arts!

Heather Vaughan-Southard, MAEIA Professional Learning Director shares:

 The arts have shaped my life. My mother was a visual artist and I spent my childhood dancing, painting, writing, and playing outdoors. Dance offered me a constant when life felt anything but constant. I was able to turn to dance after my mother’s passing at a young age and through dance, I was introduced to other women who mentored me and showed me other ways of being a woman in the world. Nearly all of my closest relationships are with people I have met in the arts or have one degree of separation from a direct collaboration in the arts. The learning I gained through dance and movement opened doors that were entirely unexpected to me, including my career in K-12 education and social-emotional learning. I honestly can’t imagine my life without the arts as a sustaining force.

For me, my dance education made the world make sense. When I became a dance major, and saw history through the lens of dance, I had new access to the why and how people were motivated to do what they do (or did). It brought time, space, and energy alive in all contexts. Dance offered me a practice of processing my lived experience with criteria, context, and a language that I could share with others. It also fostered a relationship with my body and bodily intelligence. I feel fortunate for the opportunities my arts education has provided me in building a relationship with myself, others, and the world all around.

Nafeesah Symonette, Arts Education Consultant and Faculty at Oakland University and Eastern Michigan University shares:

My arts education experience began at the tender age of 8. My mother and father enrolled me in Young Artists & Company, a small non-profit in Detroit with the mission to provide access and training of the next generation of fine artists of color. It changed everything for me. Young Artists & Company ignited my path in the field of arts education and fueled my desire to teach visual arts. As an educator in and through the arts I wanted students to experience what I had and know that they are capable of being great through the power of their own creativity and gifts. I am eternally grateful to my parents for seeing the light of art in my eight-year-old self and taking action. I am grateful to have been under the tutelage of Mrs. Joyce Ivory, when upon our first meeting, I whispered to myself, “She looks like me . . . I can be her.”

Joni Starr, Arts Education Consultant and MAEIA Blog Editor shares:

I received no formal arts training in my K-6 years, save for about a month of piano lessons that lasted until the bellows on our pump organ finally gave out. Later, I had the opportunity to participate in community theatre, sing in the church youth choir, and engage in dance lessons. There is, however, one outstanding artistic moment that is wholly saved in my memory and has impacted my life in countless ways. When I was nine years old my mother’s job with the state of Texas had her hosting an exchange group of dancers and musicians from Guatemala. The group had a performance at an outdoor venue and to close their show they invited audience members to dance with them. One lovely female dancer reached her hand out to me and I joined her. Iwas secretly hoping I would be invited because every fiber of my being wanted to dance to this music with these wonderful people. And so, I danced! It was the most natural feeling for me. I felt joyful, energized, and totally free. The experience made me feel seen and valued.

This is the impact for me, being seen and valued in my most natural state of being. This feeling has been a foundation for me almost every day of my life. I am confident, willing to try new things, unafraid of judgement, and content with my own creativity. It is a gift that never stops giving and I strive in my career to give it away as naturally as it was given to me.



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