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Fears imagined, realized, shared and sometimes faced

Northview—When Monroe Slusser heard art teacher September Buys give an assignment about facing fears, the Crossroads Middle seventh-grader said she knew exactly the fear she wanted to feature, and how.

The “only at Target” doll in a pink box — named Angel The Overthinker — comes with a detached head. In its place, a swirl of metal. What it signifies, Monroe said, “is a fear and a struggle… I struggle with anxiety, like someone will give me a glance and I will overthink that. The wire that comes out of (the doll’s) head is all her crazy thoughts, and there’s yarn coming out of her head — that’s her spine.”

Eighth-grader Ethan Wells had trouble narrowing his fears to one, so he did three white charcoal drawings about his Top 3: spiders, heights and the dark. The first drawing: your basic eight legs. The second: a figure on a sky-high ledge. And the third: all those grabby, scary arms and unseen figures reaching out to who-knows-what in the blackness.

Buys’ 90-plus students could draw, paint, collage, create digitally, sculpt or assemble their ideas. 

“I started this with a slide show of a ton of artists that make sort of fear-based work, then they brainstormed a list of five or 10 of their own and made sketches of their ideas,” she said.

“Now they themselves have created artwork that has personal meaning. It’s more than a pretty butterfly; it’s ‘I know how to make art that expresses what is going on inside my head.’”

— art teacher September Buys

Whether less common, such as a fear of prosthetics or of chickens; more common like Ethan’s; or profound and topical such as a fear of a step-parent or of being wrongfully arrested, Buys said “these are pretty significant, and it’s a pretty touchy subject that can get deep quick. 

“I like to give students opportunities to take it as deep as they feel comfortable. And I think it helps them when they go to a museum they’re more able to ask themselves, what was the purpose behind this work, and what’s the meaning? Because now they themselves have created artwork that has personal meaning. It’s more than a pretty butterfly; it’s ‘I know how to make art that expresses what is going on inside my head.’”

Monroe’s piece, while heavy on its own, goes even deeper. That it’s available at Target means Angel The Overthinker will be popular. And it has  a $00.00 price tag, so shoppers can readily take one home and make it their own.

Buys said she has led similar assignments such as creating visual representations of their biggest pet peeves, and one called “cute and creepy,” where students were tasked to create one of each.

“Sometimes fears settle in and you don’t want to share them. And other people don’t want to share theirs. But when you do share them, it’s like ‘Cool, other people have that too.’”

— eighth-grader Ethan Wells

“I just like to do stuff that elicits lots of different responses, because that’s how artists work,” she said. “I want them to think and behave like real artists. Real artists express their own ideas and their own thinking. And it’s important to me that they have a wide variety of mediums to choose from. 

“I teach a lot of skills, then follow with a choice project where they can apply those skills based on whether they’re a 2D thinker or a 3D thinker. And sometimes ideas are just better expressed as a sculpture than as a drawing.”

Ethan said his passion for art really took shape last year in Buys’ class.

“I think it’s making other people feel what my art is trying to present,” he said. “I want people who see my art to know what I am trying to put forward.”

The three fears he drew — dark, heights and spiders —weren’t awkward to share with his classmates, Ethan said, because “I already show those fears a lot, like ‘Agh!’ when there’s a spider, and I feel like a lot of people relate to all of those, so I was kind of happy to share. 

“Because sometimes fears settle in and you don’t want to share them. And other people don’t want to share theirs. But when you do share them, it’s like ‘Cool, other people have that too,’ and you feel like you don’t have to hide them anymore.”

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Morgan Jarema
Morgan Jarema is a reporter and copy editor, covering Kent ISD, Forest Hills and Northview. She is a Grand Rapids native and a product of Grand Rapids Public Schools, including Brookside and West Leonard elementaries, City Middle/High School and Ottawa Hills. She found her tribe in journalism in 1997 and has never wanted to do anything but write. For 15 years she was a freelance journalist for The Grand Rapids Press, covering local schools and government, religion, business, home & garden and lifestyles. She and her husband, John, think even those without kiddos should be invested in their local schools and made to feel a part of them. Read Morgan's full bio

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