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Arts Toolkit

Arts Toolkit: Visual

Kentuckians in Visual Arts

Artist-in-Residence Susan Mullins
Berea, Kentucky

Susan Mullins

Who Susan Mullins Kwaronhia:wi is a Mohawk from the Kahnawake reserve in Canada who lives in Berea, Kentucky. She grew up learning the traditional songs, stories, dances, and crafts of her people, passed down from generation to generation before her. After college in New York and a visit to Kentucky 25 years ago, she began developing projects for schools based on Native American art and culture. She met Kentuckians Jennifer Rose and Judy Sizemore, who encouraged her to work with the Kentucky Arts Council artist-in-residence program. Mullins’ workshops take the riches of her heritage and turn them into an educational and artistic springboard for students, helping build awareness about history, cultural tolerance, environmental issues, and the traditions of her people. In addition to her work as an artist-in-residence, Mullins works as a professional artist, working with jewelry, beadwork, painting, and other crafts and performing traditional songs and dances around the region.

What “I develop and present two types of programs for my students. The first is an in-school residency that includes four classes per day during a 5- to 20-day program, each class lasting about 45 minutes. I keep the same students through the whole program. The program centers on making jewelry, beadwork, painting, featherwork, weaving, and other traditional Native crafts, such as the dream catcher. At the end of these in-school courses there is a presentation—usually a dance, a musical piece, or a play—produced and performed by the class for the school and community. The second type of program is an outdoor Native American cultural village. I help organize six to eight stations, each featuring an artist from a different Native American tribe and a specific art form or aspect of Native culture. These include presentations of storytelling, dance, arts and crafts, and music. I plan these to be held in a park area or on the school grounds. Anywhere from 900 to 1,200 students participate, and artists come from all over the country. In addition to coordinating these programs throughout the state, and in accordance with standard curriculum as an artist-in-residence, I spend a good deal of my time perfecting these traditional art forms, as well as recording music and working in the shop casting jewelry and doing metalwork.”

When “I don’t have an average day, really, but I divide my time between organizing these programs and working in my jewelry shop.”

Susan Mullins

How “A lot of the information I bring to a class is very new to students. In the first days of a class, I spend a lot of time breaking down the stereotypes kids usually have about Native Americans and our culture. Most kids don’t have a grasp of it yet. Some even react in a defensive or aggressive way, given what popular culture has shown them at home, in movies, and on TV. But by the time a program is finished, a lot of the same kids who had angry reactions in the beginning were coming up to me and giving me big hugs. They had learned real respect for their own heritage through the artistic and cultural traditions of other people. Whenever I return to a school or a class, a lot of the kids are ready with lots of new questions and stories to tell me about their own ancestors or family origins. They had learned new respect for their environment, convincing their families to try recycling or other measures. And even if I can only reach one child in a class, that’s worth everything.”

Why “When I saw that I could develop a career educating people about something so close to me, I decided to go for it. I remember calling my mom after those first few programs and telling her, ‘Guess what I’m doing!’ It was really exciting to know I could take my own experiences and history and turn it into something that could directly benefit others, especially children.”

Getting There “I spent nearly four years preparing these programs, researching every archive and resource available concerning my people’s history. Doing so gave me an extensive background of knowledge from which I could develop stories and projects. This is the best way to prepare for a project like this—maintain a deep background. Also, teachers should realize the value of storytelling and how different it is for kids than learning from books. You can directly communicate an idea or meaning through a story. Kids really appreciate and learn from the way you speak with them. And most importantly, remember that deep inside every person there is an artist. It’s just a matter of finding that thing that will open up the artist inside. I’ve seen the impact it has on a child when they see something grow out of their own creativity, especially when they’re able to share it with someone else. Look at what I’m doing—I’m expressing myself through my own particular education. Take in everything you can from your teachers so that you can have a depth of knowledge to express your own ideas.”

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