How would you describe the past year in one word? Riverhead students answer that question through expressive art

Expressive art therapy, whether through visual arts such as drawing or painting, or through music and writing, can be a powerful tool for expressing feelings and emotions and releasing anxiety. 

Jo-Ann Dellaposta, an art teacher at Riverhead High School who has become an expressive art facilitator, said art can serve “like a pathway for a personal remedy for healing.”

“It’s almost like a coping mechanism that helps someone to work on those challenges without judgment,” she said. “It’s merely expressing. And being able to use that for like a meditative purpose for their own empowerment.”

With more than 20 years’ experience in the Riverhead art department, Ms. Dellaposta said she came up with a project for the entire school community to substitute for an art show that typically serves as a culmination of the academic year, but won’t happen due to COVID. The pandemic has altered so much about the school year, forcing Riverhead students into cohorts and remote learning at the start of the year. And the district’s contingency budget meant no sports or other extracurricular clubs and activities that students typically gravitate to.

In an email to students, teachers and staff in early March, Ms. Dellaposta pitched a simple idea and invited anyone to participate in the community project: Express and reflect on the past school year in one word. Then, create some type of visual around that word on a 3-by-5-inch white index card.

She hoped to get at least 100 responses to use in creating a larger visual to help members of the school community see how others have been feeling and “to understand that we’re not alone.”

Just before spring break, as the initial submission deadline approached, Ms. Dellaposta worried that not enough people had been willing to participate. But soon, a flood of cards arrived and she extended the deadline to allow more people time to contribute to the project. More than 200 cards have now been received.

What stood out were the common words students used, such as “stressed,” “overwhelmed,” “lonely,” “anxiety.” They speak to the challenges students faced in the past 13 months in adapting to the unprecedented circumstances created by the pandemic.

“Each time I got a new response I would just kind of feel what they were feeling, just based on the word or the image,” Ms. Dellaposta said.

The quality of the artwork didn’t matter; that was never the intention. Ms. Dellaposta stressed that someone could draw stick figures. It was about the expression.

Junior Emma Eager said she chose to focus her art on simple symbols as well as the abstract and the feelings certain colors could evoke. She chose the word “draining” to capture her experience over the past year. Within her drawing, she colored the letters r, a, i and n in teal and used a blue shadow to highlight the word “rain.”

“I chose contrasting colors to draw the viewer’s attention to the word within a word,” she said in an email. “To enhance the apparency of ‘rain’ even more, I added a variety of lines coming from the bottoms of the letters at a slight angle, giving the connotation of rainfall.”

She hoped to capture the negative feelings that can result in “monotony, drudgery drabness,” Emma said.

A heavy school workload combined with the monotony of remote learning created an environment where days seemed largely the same and lacking new experiences, she said. She said art is a way for her to express herself and can be helpful for her health.

“Drawing and painting, especially during this pandemic, has been a healthy coping mechanism by which I can take a few hours to just focus on creating, rather than thinking about the rest of the world,” she said.

Ms. Dellaposta said there were responses that took a more positive outlook with words like “hopeful,” “happy” and “fun.” A handful of teachers and staff members submitted cards as well, with words like “challenge” and “flexible.”

The goal is to assemble the cards in the shape of the Riverhead Blue Wave logo on a board that will be on display at the front of the high school.

“The images are striking, even if it’s just a scribbled line,” Ms. Dellaposta said. “It just says so much.”