Students Go Outside the Classroom to Interact through Art

Dr. Judith Peck, Professor of Art of the School of Contemporary Arts, teaches a 200-level course each semester entitled Art and Interaction. In the course, art, psychology, social work, and law and society students, regardless of their class status, will concentrate on fieldwork in underserved areas and how the individuals in those areas socially interact with art.

"The course was oversubscribed this term. Students have said repeatedly the class has changed their lives, because they are out of their comfort zone and they begin to see individuals as humans rather than mentally ill or as criminals," said Peck. "You get to know the person and see the world from their point of view."

The class meets in an ordinary fashion, but students also have additional work outside of the class.

"We meet twice a week in a regular class session. Then, additionally, students go for 10 weeks to a site of their choosing with a group of maybe three or four students; they set up and do an art workshop (drawing, painting, sculpting, crafts)," Peck explained.

Students enrolled in the class are mandated to volunteer at prison, foster care and mental hospital sites once a week, including the Bergen County Jail in Hackensack, Shelter Our Sisters women's shelter in Wanaque, Rockland Psychiatric Center in New York and Youth Consultation Service Holley Child Care and Development Center in Hackensack. Most, if not all, students organize a car pool to get to the sites and have an active communication amongst the sites' administrative staff.

"At first I was extremely nervous having to work in the Bergen County Jail. The initial orientation and tour was intense. On that first day we actually experienced being in the jail while it was locked down due to a security issue," says Elyza Velez, a junior.

Velez is a contemporary arts contract major with a concentration in art therapy and was able to use this class to interact through art with a women's drug unit in the Bergen County Jail.

"My group was scheduled to work with the women's drug unit and when we met them, it wasn't as scary. I grew close to the ladies in the drug unit as we shared our artwork every week," Velez said.

Junior social work major Rachael O'Brien commented, "I worked with prisoners at the Bergen County Jail when I took the class two years ago. I could tell that what I and my two partners did every Wednesday morning really impacted the ladies we met with. I enjoyed the class as is, and I feel as though that class can be attributed to my major change and my new found enjoyment for working with groups."

Melissa Wallace, a sophomore psychology student, took the course this previous fall and worked for ten weeks with the Strengthen Our Sisters women's shelter.

"The strategies we learned about in class seemed to work really well when we were doing the different projects with the kids. The best experience at SOS was when I was helping a young boy named Jordan with a mural we were all working on. While we were working together he seemed to start to better understand the concepts of teamwork and sharing. I thought it was really awesome that working together on simple projects could have such a positive impact on the children's lives," said Wallace.

This program started out as "Art On the Outside," forty years ago in 1973. It was originally funded by a grant, DHE under Title 1 department of higher education. The program received the grant for three consecutive years, and ever since, has been integrated into Ramapo's course catalog. The school also helps provide art supplies for students to bring to sites.

"[Students] learn how to do a critique to improve the self image of participants," Peck explains. "They can find something personal, relating to their experiences, and provocative, especially with the elderly. The students that enroll in the class are interested in others, and aren't afraid to do something they've never done before and to make a difference in their own lives and in others' lives."

Dr. Peck utilizes her own published texts to teach the class, including "Art and Interaction," "Artistic Crafts Inventive Creations From Cast-Offs" and "Art Activities for Mind and Interaction." She also teaches a course entitled Art As Therapy, a 300-level class that also counts as a Social Science general education requirement, which concentrates on the psychology and development of children through their creative, therapeutic illustrations.