Art of Hearts is a non-profit organization that conducts art therapy workshops for children in developing countries who have experienced hardships. We recently interviewed Jewel Tolbert, who founded the organization, to talk about her work.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
Tell us a little about your background and what inspired you to build your non-profit Art of Hearts?
I was born in Liberia and my family immigrated to the United States when I was young. Since a very young age, I’ve been a lover of the arts and children. Figuring out what to major in during college presented an uncertainty for me. I knew I loved the arts but I thought a career in medicine was the better way to go.
Fast forward to 2014, and I was going to Liberia after 20 years spent outside the country. I linked up with the founder of More Than Me Academy, Katie Meyler. I knew I wanted to volunteer in some way with the arts and with children, which I had the opportunity to do working with the students at More Than Me Academy. We conducted art workshops around self-love, which went really well. When I came back home, I developed the business plan for Art of Hearts and that’s how it grew.
How have your art workshops been used as an output for holistic healing and expression?
We target children that have experienced something or have been in a traumatic environment. By fostering these workshops I noticed that the kids are excited to express themselves through art, and excited to have access to the materials to do so.
For the kids, we work with something like crayons, which kids in the US and other parts of the world might take for granted. They are excited to just have access to the supplies. When it comes to the lesson plans in schools, unfortunately, there is just no bandwidth to include art in the curriculum. I find that given the opportunity, the kids’ excitement transfer into the work they make.
Liberia and Ghana are the first two countries Art of Hearts was launched in, why did you select these countries and what has the response been to your organization by the Liberian community to date?
I chose Liberia because of my heritage. I felt like I needed to start at home. From the 2014 visit and trial workshop, I saw the need and the response from the students and administration. The goal isn’t necessarily to draw the kids into art as a profession, but by exposing them to the world of art we feel like it could be helpful to stimulate creativity in any profession. Overall the response from Liberia was warm, we would have liked to have been invited to more schools but circumstances on the ground changed once we arrived.
I went to Ghana because my brother lives there and he was instrumental in helping with logistics and finding partner schools. When we went to Ghana, the principal of the school where we did our workshop told us that the teachers would love to incorporate this kind of activity into their material but they just don’t have the knowledge.
Who are some of the partners you work with in the US and in Africa that help support your program and contribute to its success?
In terms of partnerships, we don’t have any right now but we are working on this for 2016. For the workshops we conducted in the past, we raised the funds specifically to purchase the supplies. We feel like it would be easier to reach more people if we had the backing of a large supplier like Crayola. We’ve been able to do the work we’ve done to date just by supporters who see our vision and want to support our work. With individual donors we were able to facilitate 5 workshops and with corporate sponsors we would be able to do a lot more.
A lot of people don’t take art therapy seriously. While taking on this adventure and offering it in Africa, we’re going into it understanding that everyone won’t be receptive. We went to Nigeria while we were in Africa and the artwork at some of the galleries was amazing. By exposing the students in other parts of Africa we can inspire them to create work that can be displayed in a gallery someday as well.
Beyond art therapy having the ability to impact the lives of so many children, what plans do you have to work with local artists in Africa and around the world to potentially work as peer mentors or instructors in some of the programs you may offer in the future?
We have had people approach us on ground in Liberia and Ghana that wanted to work with us. The plan is to form partnerships with select schools in West Africa. One of the concerns shared by a teacher when we were there was that the students would have this one-time great experience but then not have the ability to build off it. We’re positioning ourselves to return to our partner schools and continue working with the faculty to continue our work after we’ve gone.
What else should our readers know about Art of Hearts and how can they get in contact with your organization to donate or offer resources?
I aspire to have the organization work without my physical presence, recruit people that understand the vision and help the students year round. I’ll have a few more fundraising events this year and plan to return to Liberia and Ghana at the end of the year to conduct more workshops. We’re working on grants and continuing to spread the word about the work our organization is doing. People can visit our website to donate or to travel with us on our next trip. We are also happy to accept in-kind contributions such as accounting, media and, travel services. Readers can also find us on Facebook and Instagram.
Featured photo courtesy of Jewel Tolbert