Artists in Schools & Communities
Pittsburgh Linden K-5
It all starts with a single thread, and we are all bound by this thread.
Tina Williams Brewer began her work as a talented artist and dedicated teaching artist during the 1980’s with encouragement and support from one of her creative mentors, Jeanne Brenholts. Jeanne was a gifted fiber artist who thrived on sharing ideas, creative processes, and innovative materials with those around her. The thread continued to stitch together pieces and people when Jeanne’s daughter Mary became Director of Artists in Schools & Communities at PCA&M where she has developed a reputation as a passionate advocate for teaching artistry and high quality arts in education experiences, as exemplified by Tina’s extraordinary work around the region.
A significant and enduring partnership between Tina and Pittsburgh Linden K-5, a whole school language elementary Magnet located in the neighborhood of Point Breeze, began 20 years ago when Tina was invited to be a part of the launch of Pittsburgh Linden’s Centennial Celebration, a year- long K-5 school-based arts and humanities component with support from the Pennsylvania Humanities Council and the Superintendent’s Office of Pittsburgh Public Schools.
The following year the Linden PTA and school staff asked Tina back to implement a PCA&M Artist Residency Project, in partnership with the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, with 2nd and 5th grade students. The 10-15 day residency projects in which students create collaborative legacy story quilts have taken place every year since 2002.
Through these creative experiences a collaborative spirit was born between two artists: fiber artist/teaching artist Tina Williams Brewer and mixed media collage artist/art teacher Deborah Lieberman. They believe a lot of the successes with the projects and their partnership are due to their like-minded approaches and willingness to listen to and respect each other’s experiences and perspectives, modeling this mutual respect for and with students. Over the years, Tina has become a mentor to Deborah who has been able to take what she has learned from working with Tina and use it to make her teaching a deeper and richer cultural experience for students. Tina feels that working with Deborah has helped her shape the way she conveys her messages and stories to participants. The annual residency projects have evolved into reciprocal giving, living, and growing between Tina, Deborah, and Linden students with more pieces being stitched together, literally and figuratively, each year.
Over the years a safe, nurturing space has been created in Deborah’s art room for students to share and express their thoughts, ideas, and reflections (oral, written, and visual) in response to creative processes, concepts, and works of art. Through these residencies with Tina, students are able to engage with and embrace many cultures with an emphasis on an African American lens, always tying back to African Aesthetics. They are provided with multiple opportunities to explore other cultures, symbols, and customs throughout the world and use these influences to enhance and deepen their own artworks. Students are asked to think about where they’ve lived, what communities they’ve lived in, and where they and/or their families come from. These cultural connections are the springboard for each residency to help empower students by validating their voices and how they fit into the world.
Every year students are given an opportunity for a visual tour of Tina’s “special box of treasures,” which is like traveling the globe through fibers and artifacts from various places. The histories and stories always mesmerize the students and get them truly engaged with their projects, while being given the opportunity to use beautiful fabrics such as batik and shibori. Depending on time, logistics, and/or schedules students are able to create their own fabrics using dyes, discharge techniques, stamping, layering, collage, photography, sewing techniques, beading, and collaborating.
Over the years Linden’s legacy quilt artworks have evolved, conveying concepts such as building and reaffirming one’s character through effort, achievement, and success, “See the Change ~ Bring the Change ~ Be the Change,” and various themes reflected in Tina’s story quilts including Hail to the Fire’s Light – the implicit value of volunteerism; Migration Blues – a reflection on the great migration; Sing Courage – personal fortitude and standing strong in one’s beliefs; There are No Mistakes – the essential nature of resilience; Close Ties – a story of the underground railroad.
Inspired by Tina’s quilts, unique fabrics, and multiple creative processes participating students are inspired to create their own legacy quilt squares and/or medallions, investigating concepts such as empathy, self-identity, and courage by using symbols, colors, and patterns to explore cultural commonalities, personal meanings, and context with fabric and stitchery. Student success is embedded into each project and much of Tina’s work through the years has been created in response to Deborah’s students’ queries and reflections. Because of this focused “reciprocal giving, living, and growing” students understand and appreciate that their unique voices, ideas, and artworks are valued. Creating their quilt squares/medallions and collaborative legacy quilts has become a right of passage for Linden students to be cherished and remembered.
Over the years, students have come back to visit the school and let Deborah know they still have their personal quilt squares and what special memories they have from the residencies. In 2019 Deborah had the opportunity to visit a former student for her high school graduation and in her home above the mantel were her and her older brothers quilt pieces. These are legacy projects in so many ways, i.e., long lasting and far reaching creative learning experiences that stay with students long after they have left Linden but still connecting us all together piece by piece, stitch by stitch and story by story.
In 2018, Tina Williams Brewer was the recipient of the Pennsylvania Governor’s Awards for the Arts, Artist of the Year award. She attributes this in part to her long history working, learning, listening, reflecting, and creating with Deborah Lieberman and her students. From Tina: “To Governor and Mrs. Wolf, I thank you . . . and for your graciousness. For the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, who brought me out of obscurity in Homewood PA…to give me a place to tell my stories and to embrace children – they are our future. They are our love.” In 2019 the Pittsburgh Public Schools’ Board of Directors honored Tina for her long-term relationship with Pittsburgh Linden K-5.
P.S. Mary Brenholts’s father Walter Brenholts attended Linden Elementary School in 1939-41!
With ongoing support of the Pittsburgh Linden PTA, school administration, the whole school community, and the PA Council on the Arts, Tina and Deborah have been able to implement their exemplary PCA&M Artist Residency Projects for eighteen years, with another project taking place virtually in 2020-21:
In February-April, 2021 42 5th grade core group students and Pittsburgh Linden K-5 art teacher Deborah Lieberman experienced the school’s annual Artist Residency Project with Teaching Artist/Fiber Art Storyteller Tina Brewer virtually! Tina also met with each of the Linden’s K-4 classrooms at least once or twice throughout the residency. PCA&M provided the 5th graders with watercolors, markers, fabrics, various glues, scissors, hole punches, and much more so they could creatively explore this year’s theme of Sharing our Planet, which is one of the school’s International Baccalaureate – Primary Years Programme areas of focus. Tina introduced students to a variety of female artists, including Selma Burke, Alma Thomas, and Frida Kahlo, and discussed the importance of recognizing and understanding their contributions to art and the impact that they have had on the world. Leading up to the hands-on portions of the project, students looked closely at Tina’s quilts and listened to her describe her planning and creative processes, including the influences, stories, and symbols behind and embedded in her work.
Tina and Deborah sought to promote deeper observations, stronger skills, and a sense of individual accountability as students learn to care for our humanity and work toward a healthier planet, always striving toward a better quality of life. Using a multi-step process, students created personal collages that served as memory boards on which they could capture the essence of sharing this planet, how we are connected, and how they can contribute to it using their gifts and strengths to bring about changes, whether big or small. They used colors, images, words, and symbols to represent and express their ideas and feelings through their works.
Throughout the residency there were many group discussions to check for understanding and to gauge where the students were in their thinking and creating processes. They looked forward to Tina’s stories and the knowledge and care she shared with them every day, feeling a sense of empowerment by making art with such an internationally renowned, inspirational artist who lives in their own city.