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Healing through the Arts in High School

Jamie Treacy is an art teacher who has been bringing students to the Oakland Museum of California for years, including sharing student art work for our Días de los Muertos exhibitions. We sat down with him over the summer to talk about how he hopes to encourage students to pursue careers in the arts and how art can be a part of the healing process.

Jamie Treacy is an art teacher at Skyline High School who has been bringing students to the Oakland Museum of California for years. He has even brought student art work to the Museum to be exhibited in the Días de los Muertos exhibitions. Treacy’s unique teaching style uses art as a way to tell stories. We sat down with him over the summer, as he was preparing for a new group of students in the fall, to talk about how he hopes to encourage students to pursue careers in the arts and how art can be a part of the healing process.

Amy Billstrom: Thanks for taking the time to chat with me, Jamie. It’s great to be in the classroom with you, too. So, tell me about what you are doing this summer to prepare for the coming school year.

Jamie Treacy: I’m earning a credential that’s preparing me to teach AP Studio Art, connecting students with arts careers. I really hope that they’ll see that art is not just a hobby. There are artists in Oakland—we actually live in an amazing place for that—that are becoming entrepreneurs and are figuring out how to make money from their art. Whether it’s participating in open studios, having a booth at the night market in Jack London Square, showing in a commercial gallery, or putting your artwork on clothes, there are so many ways that you can make your artwork part of your living. Connecting kids with artists who are doing that is really exciting to me.

AB: Your classes have shown artwork in our Days of the Dead exhibition, which is now a biennial exhibition, so it’ll be every other year starting in 2017. Tell us about how you got involved.

JT: One summer, I went to a meeting at the Oakland Museum of California that was facilitated by Evelyn Orantes [OMCA Curator of Public Practice]. I was familiar with the altars that are used in Mexico and the United States to celebrate Day of the Dead, but she zeroed in on this Guatemalan tradition of the kites of remembrance. It was new to me. She said, “It’s like sending a message to heaven.” I loved that idea, and when I presented it to my students it really resonated.

AB: Tell me about the kites of remembrance your students have made.

JT: Some kids really wanted to go there, like, “I’m going to use this as an opportunity to reflect about this person that I love that passed away.” But some teenagers are kind of uncomfortable with the thought of commemorating a specific person, because death is hard to talk about. Those kids might access a lesson they learned in science, for example, about how climate change in California is affecting our coasts and marine life. That way, it’s still about sending a message to something that we’ve lost but you don’t have to make a kite about your grandma or your friend that died. That is too intense for some kids.

This kite is an example of a student that was interested in doing something environmental. He had my class two years in a row and both times he did something related to endangered sea life. This one is a jellyfish.

This student really wanted to remember her grandmother but she didn’t want to just do a literal portrait. Her creative process was coming up with symbolism for her name and her grandma’s name—the artist’s name is Diamond and the grandma’s name is Rose. She brought the glitter in from home. I love projects when students are so into it that they go home and say “oh, I could bring this in!” They really are making it their own.

AB: What is a challenge you experience in teaching and how do you work through it?

JT: I can’t ignore all of the violence and loss that my students have faced. We’re doing this project that is about loss, and Skyline just lost a wonderful student, Jamari Wilson, to drowning, right before school ended. He was in my class. There was also the murder of Regina Jeffries, who was dancing at the funeral for Jamari. That was really traumatic for my students. As a teacher, you have to figure out how to keep the class going, and carry on, but also create space for grieving.

Creating space to make art to commemorate somebody is really important. It’s already a part of many of our students’ cultures. The altars that you see around Oakland that are made of candles and photos where somebody died are everywhere right now.

AB: Do you see your class as a part of students’ healing process?

JT: Yes. I really feel successful as an art teacher when students tell me that my class is relaxing. Even if it’s not a specific trauma, just the stress of being a teenager, I want art class to be therapeutic. I am not just teaching art techniques but I am teaching students how to grow as emotional beings. I am teaching them how to cope and teaching behavior and all that stuff through the lens of art.

Another thing I love about teaching art is that there are opportunities for students who might not feel successful in other classes to feel like a star or an expert. Every year there’s always a kid that excels in art class, and they’ve found what they’re good at. Nurturing that is important.

AB: How have you used the Museum as a resource for your art classes?

JT: It’s exciting to plan a trip to the Oakland Museum of California every year. So many kids that live in East Oakland, North Oakland, or all over town just never make it to the Museum. Exposing kids to the wealth of artistic resources that we have so close to us is an integral part of our class. We’ve been able to fine-tune our activities at the Museum to fit our current theme. We’ve done a Days of the Dead field trip, a scavenger hunt, and used the permanent collection to identify elements of art.

AB: Do you have any advice for teachers who want to use the Museum as a resource?

JT: Visit the Museum yourself, explore the collection, and get ideas. From there, have a conversation with one of the education staff at the Museum, and tell them what you’re working on: “I’d love to come take a field trip in November; we’re going to be doing perspective drawing. What could we do at the Museum to enhance that?” That conversation with one of the staff members is important. I’ve always had really great bouncing of ideas off of them, like, “Oh, I didn’t even think of that! Oh, you have a handout already! Okay, let’s try that.”

The Oakland Museum of California offers programs for teachers and resources for classrooms. This year for the first time ever, OMCA is offering a Días de los Muertos performance program, as well as the Museum’s in-depth curriculum for Días de los Muertos for free download. 

The opinions expressed in this interview do not necessarily reflect those of the Oakland Museum of California, its staff, Board of Directors, or other affiliated parties.