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Art as Peace Building by Laurie Marshall

Art as Peace Building by Laurie Marshall

Seasons of Hope Singing Tree

Art can serve as a preventive medicine with the power to transform the effects of violence individually, within a school, and in the greater community, as seen through three projects.

As art educators, we can “critique” senseless violence—mistreatment, exclusion, intimidation, bullying, violation, abuse, corruption, murder, and war—by unleashing the power of our students’ creativity. In this article, I’ll talk about how art is preventative medicine with the power to transform the cycle of violence, sharing my philosophical context. I’ll focus on three realms: (1) Art healing the effects of violence on the individual, (2) Art unifying divisions within a school, and (3) Art for building peace in a greater community. For each realm, I will give example projects.

Context Philosopher Rudolf Steiner, 1861-1925, said that the terrible blood letting of the 20th century was a result of the fact that people couldn’t express their souls (Lachman, 2007). I’m using the word soul to mean the non-physical aspect of a person—the unique essence of a person that is gone when he or she dies, as well as that which gives our lives purpose and meaning. As art teachers, we make the safe space for young people to express their souls, and, thereby, help to both prevent and heal the experience of violence. I am using the definition of violence by peace researcher Johan Galtung (1969), which includes people not reaching their potential, which leads to having a significantly lessened quality of life. Art teachers have the power to engage the whole school as a place where the sacredness of life is made visible, lively, beautiful, and authentic. Through the art on the walls, inclusion and diversity are celebrated and the students and their community are engaged in a dynamic process of healing.

Buddha described life as 10,000 sorrows and 10,000 joys. Human beings are constantly being wounded. That’s life. No one escapes. Human beings are constantly healing. That’s life, too. Through a deep natural process, we heal. Art is intrinsically healing. It turns sorrow into a shared story. The destructive force of life is changed into the creative force in art. Pain, grief, loss, alienation, and confusion get handled, shaped, painted, sculpted, released, communicated, and transformed into beauty. Art teachers promote the flow of creativity, where the hormones of connection and happiness are released—oxytocin, endorphins, and dopamine (De Dreu & Carsten, 2013). We have all experienced the magical alchemy of the creative process or we would not be in this field. We help students find peace of mind as they express their feelings, participate in self-reflection, and learn about the endless reservoir of imagination within them—thereby experiencing more faith and trust in themselves and others. And, since healing happens when there is peace of mind, art teachers are inherently “Peace Leaders.” We play a crucial role in crafting a positive school culture that supplants violence, bullying, suffering, alienation, and division. Art rooms provide the space, tools, and materials for the expression of a wide range of human experience: pride, respect, discovery, exploration, success, grit, perseverance, self-inquiry, grieving, humor, laughter, learning, play, love, and joy. Where there is joy, there is peace. In art, we have an antidote to violence.

I envision art departments around the world as hubs of soulful sharing that transform schools into vessels of well being where peace equals mastery, strength, and being cool. This vision comes from 40 years of making art with young people in a variety of settings: as a teaching artist and certified classroom teacher in public schools (in rural Virginia; inner-city Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; and Santa Rosa and Oakland, California), as a multiple-subject Waldorf teacher in a public charter school, and as an international collaborative mural artist. I come to this vision with humility in the face of the enormous complexity that the issue of violence encompasses. Solutions must be sought in many realms, including supporting families, spreading prosperity, transforming media, having logical gun control, and encouraging mental health practices. One of the solutions is also to make full use of the vital role that art teachers can play in decreasing violence in schools.

Realm One: Art Transforming Individual Violence

Though art teachers are not trained as art therapists, we are constantly seeing the emotional struggles of our students through their artwork. The act of expressing emotional pain in the art class allows for healing to begin. We can direct young people to get professional help when we see danger reflected in their drawings. Here is one story about how self-expression resulted in the discovery of purpose and healing for one student.

When I’m teaching an art class, I let my students know that if they have an image that is pressing to come out, it takes priority over assignments. This was the case with Josie,2 a 9th grader who transferred to my class in rural Virginia from Colorado during the middle of the school year. She had a mostly shaved head and cut marks on her arm, and would barely look anyone in the eye. Her words were few as she made small, tight ink drawings. She became more adventurous when we used pastels. She drew a screaming girl with a figure behind the child, standing in a doorway. I suggested she add a shadow to the figure. After getting the initial shape blocked in, she blew the chalk and the shape of a hand emerged, which she developed. Filling in the surrounding darkness was her final step. She got covered in black chalk. She washed her hands and came back the next day to continue filling in the darkness and washing herself clean at the end. It turned out that Josie had been raped by her stepfather. In creating this image, she transformed herself. That terrible experience lost much of its power over her life when she captured the sheer terror on paper and shared it with others. She put her 30" x 20" pastel in the high school art show. A person offered $75 for it, which she refused. Her drawing was a symbol of her triumph and she wanted to keep it. Her new schoolmates were moved by her courage, gave her respect, and welcomed her in their conversations and social life. She talked to the adults in her life about what happened and began therapy.

By healing herself, Josie was then able to help heal the world. She sent the image to the National Association for Child Abuse Prevention to use in their efforts. I arranged for the pastel to be in the survivor’s art show put on by the Pittsburgh Action Against Rape. Josie’s willingness to share her image came from a clear stand: “I want other children to know they are not alone” (personal communication, March 14, 2000). Art played the role of helping her find inner peace, which is an essential step for preventing violence. In healing herself, Josie gave strength to others who have experienced violence.

Figure 1. Child Abuse.Pastel on paper. 20" x 30".

Realm Two: Art Healing Divisions Within the School

Division within schools comes from differences being perceived as dangerous. Human beings have deep wiring from 3.2 million years as hunters and gatherers that causes us to see a person outside of our “tribe” as being a threat. People also have competing wiring, which causes us to be curious about, and fascinated by, those who are different. Art makes differences the source of new understanding, connection, and richness. Art is the model of different materials coming together to make a new thing. Pen and paper join to make an image. Hands and clay make a sculpture. Paint, wall, and brushes create a mural.

When students walk into art class, they are walking into the paradigm of the place where differences are needed and celebrated. It is the place where each student’s unique view of the world is asked for and valued. While teaching the Visual Art Standards, we strive to create the opportunity for the students to express what is theirs alone to say, and to experience that they will be enriched and strengthened by the messages of others. Making students conscious of the importance of differences in creating art is part of their training to be Peace Leaders of the school. The following is an example of such a project.

We Are 1 Tribe (Figures 2 & 3) was made by 25 students at the Arts & Ethics Academy in Santa Rosa, California, many of who had been incarcerated. I walked into a classroom where the teenagers used foul language, showed disrespect to each other, and were disengaged in artmaking. The tension was palpable between rival gangs in the class: the Sureños, who wore blue, and the Norteños, who wore red. The class had students from other backgrounds as well: African American, Native American, White hippies, and students who identify themselves as “rednecks.”

Figure 2. We Are 1 Tribe. In progress.

Figure 3. We Are 1 Tribe. Acrylic paint, plaster-impregnated gauze, fabric, wood, yarn. 10' x 4'

This collective sculpture was inspired by the Owerri Igobo’s mbari houses of Nigeria. In that tradition, young people spend 9 months away from their village under the supervision of a master craftsman. They make mud sculptures of ancestors, future children, and invented animals to honor the creator goddess. This experience trains the young people to consult those who are gone, the unborn children, and the natural world when important decisions are being made. After I shared the story of this tradition with the students, I invited them to make a collective sculpture with the controversial name, We Are 1 Tribe. In a guided meditation, I asked them to imagine a loved one who are dead, a yet-to-be-born child, and/or their most-loved animal. They drew whatever arose from their imagination as the basis of their sculpture. They made armatures for the sculptures out of paper towel or toilet paper rolls and cardboard mailing tubes, bound together with masking tape. We used newspaper and more tape to shape forms, which were then covered with plaster-impregnated gauze. (See Figure 2.)

Again inspired by mbari houses with their bold geometric patterns, we painted a backdrop for the sculptures, which incorporated the red and blue colors of the two gangs in class. At a girl’s suggestion, we painted purple in the center to symbolize the gangs uniting and making something new.

The finished sculpture (Figure 3) is a celebration of the imagination, sorrow, hopes, and beauty of the teenagers in the art class. The figure without hair in the middle of the sculpture honors 16-year-old Alex, a Sureño member who was killed in a gang-related shooting. The student who made him wrote: “I hope that Alex will live on when people see my sculpture and hear his story”(personal communication, February 5, 2010). The tallest figure on the right of the sculpture symbolizes the future son of one of the students, with the colors of the Norteños on his hat. The young Native American man who made him wrote: “I hope that my son, Anthony, will live life without having to worry about the next day and the next month’s rent. I hope that he finds work that he loves doing and gets paid well. My son means a lot to me. He is a piece of me to live on when I leave this world” (personal communication, February 5, 2010). I used this collection of loved ones, animals, mermaids, and firebirds as a powerful visual metaphor make our lives bigger and richer.

The process of making the sculpture helped the students feel more like members of a common group. By the time we finished our project together, the students still cursed like truck drivers, but they showed more respect to each other, were deeply engaged in artmaking, and were proud of the collective work they created.

The art teacher strategically creates projects that bring diverse groups within the school to co-create, thereby giving rivals a common experience and a physical symbol of their success. By doing this, the art teacher plays a role in transforming the whole school, making it a place of joy, beauty, and learning. Art teachers are installation artists. The hallways, bathrooms, stairs, and outside walls of the school are up for creative input. As Peace Leaders, we listen to the administrators and teachers about what will serve the highest goals of the schools and generate projects that envision success. Wonderfprojects can result from asking the question, “How can I help engage the students in areas where they are struggling?” (See Figures 4 & 5.) History, math, English, and science can be celebrated on 8' x 4' pieces of ¼" Masonite, on paper, or on freestanding murals made of framed plywood with hinges between the boards (Figure 4).

Figure 4. The Web of Life. Biology free-standing mural made with 75 7th-graders at Rappahannock County Elementary School, rural Virginia. Acrylic on wood. 8' x 16', portable.

Figure 5. You Can Always Count on Math. Made with 60 high school art students at Westinghouse High School, inner-city Pittsburgh, PA. Acrylic on wood. 8' x 4'. Hung in a front hallway.

As Thomas Moore, author of The Care of the Soul, points out: The soul’s instrument is imagination (Moore, 1992, p. xiii). The more imaginatively we treat the space of the school, and the more imagination we foster in students, the more nurtured the students will feel. Nurtured people are not violent. Every square inch of the school can be harnessed to display student work. Creativity is contagious, so we encourage the other teachers to understand that they, too, are installation artists. Our job as Peace Leaders is to communicate love, inclusion, and appreciation on a daily basis to the staff, students, parents, and community.

Realm Three: Art as Peace Building Within the Community

The artwork generated in our classes has work to do in the community, as well. Its beauty, fresh vision, and originality are needed to combat the despair, suffering, and cynicism of our time. We can take art to the libraries, malls, nursing homes, hospitals, prisons, airports, bus stops, abandoned storefronts, construction fences, and billboards. (See Figures 6 & 7.) By doing so, we add joy to our communities, which helps lead to peaceful communities.

In addition to taking student artwork to the community, the art department can be more proactive in promoting peace through collaborative murals and international exchanges. One such structure is Create Peace Project’s Singing Tree mural, in which the art students invite the community to collage a symbolic work of a tree on the earth in space. The collaborative painting reflects the community’s values or a desire to transform a challenge, such as violence. This mural framework teaches leadership development through The Partnership for 21st Century Skills’ “4Cs”: collaboration, communication, creativity, and critical thinking ( It is used to bring awareness to an issue by envisioning positive solutions and sparking innovative actions. Inspired by a child’s vision of the whole world making a painting together, everyone is welcomed to help make the image of a tree on the earth in space, creating a forest of Singing Trees.3 The art students, as Peace Leaders, choose a tree to honor, come up with a driving question, design the overall image, paint the background of the galaxies on wood, and prepare the pieces. Each participant creates an individual colored pencil drawing on paper—a leaf, a bird, part of the trunk, a star, part of the earth—which is then fitted together and glued into a unified image on the board. Part of the fun is distributing, hosting, and collecting the images. Reaching beyond the school walls, the art students invite their classmates and those in the community who are affected by the issue to envision the world they want to see and draw it.

The collaborative mural process, where 50-1,500 people add their vision to a cohesive whole, provides a structure for the creative genius of the community to be expressed. Singing Trees are a visual model of democracy and a vehicle for peace building. Science, math, English, social sciences, emotional intelligence, and art standards can all be met through this project. Since 1999, 32 murals have been made with over 14,000 people from 50 countries.

One example of the use of a Singing Tree is by Everett Middle School in San Francisco, which lost a student to gun violence in 2001. Each year they devote a week to Peace Studies. In 2011, they created the Cypress Singing Tree of Peace (Figure 8), where students share the action they plan to take into their community to create peace. Now the students have a physical reminder of their collective commitment to solving conflicts non-violently.

Figure 6. Inner Landscapes. Helen S. Faison Arts Academy, inner-city Pittsburgh, PA. Acrylic paint on wood.

Figure 7. Inner Landscapes. Holy Names Upward Bound, abandoned lot in Oakland, CA. Acrylic on wood.

Figure 8. Cypress Singing Tree of Peace. Acrylic paint, colored pencil and paper on wood. 12' x 24'

Singing Trees are used to build global citizenship. Students in Elbert, Colorado, created the Aspen Singing Tree of Heroes with people from homeless shelters, women’s shelters, as well as youth in Haiti, Mexico, and Peru. One of the art students suggested the image of three aspen trees to symbolize unity, since an aspen forest is a single organism.

A simpler peace-building project that reaches outside the community of the school is Create Peace Project’s Peace Exchange—an international exchange of art and messages of peace between students of the world. The Peace Exchange uses peace cards (6" x 8" postcards) to foster connection and spread peace. The students begin with simple peace practices such as closing their eyes, putting their hand on their heart, and remembering a time they felt at peace. They share their vision, creativity, and wisdom about peace on the postcard, while learning about life in the country with which they are exchanging cards. Before the cards are sent, they are exhibited in the halls of the school. The senders of the cards then receive cards from students in another country, who received their messages of peace. The project connects students to themselves, each other, and students across the continents—bridging cultural, religious, and racial boundaries. Over 27,000 young people from Nepal, Uganda, Ghana, India, Haiti, Colombia, and the United States have expressed their souls and touched another through this simple process. (See Figure 9.)

I end with a personal story that has contributed to the passion I bring to the vision of art departments across the nation playing a conscious role in creating peace on their campuses. The first person who was killed by Seung-Hui Cho at Virginia Tech in 2007 was my former art student, 19-year-old Emily Hilscher of Rappahannock County, Virginia (Figure 10).

Figure 9. Students from Ghana share their images.

Beginning when she was 8, Emily came to my art camp in a close-knit community of 7,000 people in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Emily’s art was rooted in nature, whimsy, and affection. I remember a watercolor painting she made of a white swan surrounded by deep ultramarine and mountains in the background. Passionate in her devotion to the natural world, Emily was studying to be a veterinarian in her first year at Virginia Tech.

There, Cho took her life, as well as his own and 31 others, in the largest mass shooting in U.S. history to date. After the massacre at Virginia Tech, I flew from my new home in San Francisco to Emily’s funeral. The high school’s sign, which is usually posted at sports events and school holidays, read: “We love you, Emily.” The memorial service was held on the high school track. At the end of the ceremony, white doves were released against the blue April sky. In the height of sorrow at this senseless loss, I heard Cho’s name mentioned twice—both in the context of the tragic consequences of the mental health treatment he did not get (Jenkins & Schulte, 2007).

Figure 10. Emily Hilscher, who lost her life in the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting.

When I returned to California, I had a dream about the young man who succeeded in causing others to feel the magnitude of his pain. Cho was 8 in the dream—the same age that Emily was when I first met her. He was furious. He kicked me in the stomach and sent a sickly yellow-green light from his eyes into mine. As this strange light entered me, I felt my body change. I looked into a mirror and saw that I had become Asian. I was aware that, even though I had a different body, my soul remained the same. It was the clearest experience I ever had of my soul as a distinct entity. Cho looked at me with tears running down his enraged face and said, “I had a soul and no one saw it.” The dream message from the person who killed Emily confirmed my commitment to do everything in my power as an art teacher to build peace. I strengthened my stand that each student who comes across my path has a space to express his or her soul in the art class.

In this article, I’ve shared three realms where art can transform the effects of violence—individually, within a school, and in the greater community. The practice of art actually rewires the brain to move from “difference as danger” to “difference as richness.” As our world increases in complexity, the arts have an increasingly vital role to play to the set the stage where peace is possible and violence is prevented. I invite you to continue your brave work creating images with your students that transform grief, celebrate uniqueness, and share fresh hope and vision within the school and beyond its walls. We never know how far-reaching the effects of our work can be. We never know when tragedy might be staved off by a safe space created by an art teacher. With the clear intention of using art for self-awareness and connection, the promise in Emily’s and Cho’s short lives will grow in the beauty that is created by those of us who are left behind.


De Dreu, & Carsten, K. W. (2013, July 16) Oxtonergic circuitry sustains and enables creative cognition in humans. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience. Retrieved from content/early/2013/07/16/scan.nst094.abstract

Galtung, J. (1969). Violence, peace, and peace research. Peace Studies Journal, 6(3), 167-191. Copenhagen, Eijers

Hacket, R. (1996). Art and religion in Africa. New York, NY: Cassell.

Holzman, R., & Marshall, L. (2011). Let’s create peace. Daily Peace Practices, 12 Art-for-Peace Projects and Peace Studies. Retrieved from CreatePeaceProject. org

Jenkins, C., & Schulte, B. (2007, May 8). Cho didn’t get court ordered treatment. Washington Post. Retrieved from article/2007/05/06/AR2007050601403.html

Jensen, E. (2010). Art with the brain in mind. San Francisco, CA: Josey-Bass

Jensen, E. (2013). Turnaround tools for the teenage brain. San Francisco, CA: Josey-Bass.

Lachman, G. (2007). Rudolf Steiner: An introductions to his life and work. New York, NY: Penguin.

Moore, T. (1992). Care of the soul. New York City, NY: Harper Collins.

O’Dea, J. (2012). Cultivating peace—Becoming a 21st century peace ambassador. San Rafael, CA: Shift.

Palmer, W., & Crawford, W. (2013). Leadership embodiment. San Rafael, CA: Create Space.


1 Michelangelo

2 Pseudonym.

3 Instructions to make a Singing Tree

4 More information on the Aspen Singing Tree of Heroes project can be found at:

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