From Washington Park Beat July-August 2008

Profile of Success: Virgi Driscoll, Award-Winning Artist and Activist

By Patricia Obletz

  “I am enough of an artist to draw freely upon my imagination. Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.”

- Albert Einstein

Virgi Driscoll is a lifelong artist who is as passionate about helping children develop creativity in arts classes as she is about drawing and painting. She not only inspired her students’ powers of observation and ability to solve problems, she taught them art history, art criticism and aesthetics. She says that art is a staple in English, European and Japanese schools. Her long list of accomplishments includes citations of excellence and other awards from the White House, national and local arts education associations, and art jurors and art critics.

Virgi Driscoll and I met at a SE Wisconsin Painters & Sculptors’ meeting in 2006, a few months before she was elected Chair of our chapter of Wisconsin’s oldest fine art society. We became friends.

Virgi’s most recent student project was the second annual, hugely successful “Visioneers Design Challenge Competition (sidebar).” This multi-talented, multitasker Wisconsin native also developed the “Visual Arts Classic” for middle and high school students in 1986. In summer, she assembled arts teachers to design long-term problems for students to solve in painting, art and jewelry classes. The VAC began in two schools; now it has over 60.

Last May, Virgi agreed to talk about why everyone needs an arts education. She said, “I grew up on a farm. We were poor, but I had crayons and was always drawing on the brown paper grocery bags that my mother ironed for me.

“I made art my teaching career and earned my degree at UW-Milwaukee, BS in Art Education, and MS in Art.

“I taught art at Greendale High School before and after my three sons arrived.

“When my children were older, I became active in Milwaukee Area Teachers of Art (MATA) and then Wisconsin Arts Education Association (WAEA). I became president of MATA for one year and then was asked to run for president of WAEA. I won and my two-year term turned into four years when the president-elect couldn’t take over.

“Ernest Boyer, director, Carnegie Institute of Learning, now deceased, wrote a book on secondary schools and how they were failing. He believed that the arts help children learn. When I invited him to speak at an WAEA conference, I said we couldn’t pay him. He came anyway.

“From there, I became president of the Wisconsin Alliance for Arts Education, WAAE. I was urged to run for the National Art Education Association Secondary Division director. I won.

“I also chaired the State Arts Standards Committee: dance, theatre, music and visual art. They are very comprehensive yet serve as a guide for teachers to develop their own standards.

“Upon retiring from teaching, I became executive director of WAAE. From 1993 to 2000, I focused on how the arts fit into brain research. I organized conferences on this. I brought in top researchers nationally to talk to school board members, school administrators, guidance counselors, curriculum coordinators and arts teachers. It had a large impact on change in the schools at that time. Many schools and teachers introduced these concepts into their teaching.

The arts make children and adults human.

“The arts teach empathy and compassion by opening outlets for self-expression; they offer different points of view on universal life experiences and promote good emotional intelligence. Knowing how to handle your feelings during positive and negative experiences is what emotional intelligence is.

“We use our emotions when we create and, when we create, we express our feelings in a positive way.

“I worked with teachers on a research project called ‘Arts PROPEL,’ in which K-12 students take charge of their own learning. You give them a safe environment by making sure they know that they and their ideas are important, then encourage them to express themselves and take creative risks. Children can learn and take charge of their own learning at every age, whatever their abilities.
The power of the mind and self-confidence enable people to overcome adversities and do well in school, work and relationships.

“Today, too many teachers don’t experiment with different teaching methods until their students can learn what they need to know.

“Today, the arts are treated like extra credits. The focus is on math and science, perhaps because they’re job-oriented. And because life-skills results with the arts aren’t always immediate.

“The first language children have is arts-based: they play, dance, create and imagine. They imagine a world of their own. But kindergarten now is used to teach reading and computing. Since children progress at different levels, not all are ready to read at the same time.

“Kindergarten used to build on a child’s early experiences by inspiring creativity through the arts, which teach creative problem solving. By third grade, children learn that the arts aren’t valued in school, unless their teacher makes arts assignments exciting and takes them on field trips.

“One or two art classes a week just aren’t enough to awaken creative thinking. In Milwaukee, kids aren’t getting art at all. Even the Milwaukee art schools have cut way back on the arts.

“‘No Child Left Behind’ should be left behind. These tests also may not be geared to accommodate economic and cultural differences. Nor do all kids test well. Testing for it has forced teachers to focus on a narrow range of subjects, which excludes the arts. This fact alone devalues arts classes.

“Children whose parents appreciate and support the arts come to school with a stronger creative base. Many art galleries and summer park concerts are free.

“Einstein is a classic example of the creative mind. His wasn’t analytical, and he hated school. But he became very successful once he used his creativity/imagination..

“The ability to solve problems creatively is a necessity in the 21st Century. The visual and performing arts teach creativity to young children, to everyone.
Creativity is Spiritual and Everyone Can Develop It

“Stimulating and inspiring creativity from grades K through 12 teaches kids how to think their way through adversity and save themselves. Creativity is spiritual and it’s vital and possible for everyone to develop.

“Research proved that students who graduate from high school with straight A’s, but never take arts classes, haven’t developed the right side of their brain, the creative problem-solving side.

“Educators used to think that the IQ score of a child entering school was fixed. Happily, this proved false, ensuring positive outcomes for kids no longer branded by a low IQ.

“Howard Gardner, Hobbs Professor of Cognition and Education at Harvard School of Education, adjunct professor of neurology at Boston University School of Medicine, says that humans have nine different intelligences, which include the arts.

“Music isn’t the only art that stimulates math and science skills. They all impact on other learning in the curriculum. There’s a good connection between science and the arts, yet they’re not connected in public schools. We do children a disservice by not offering arts classes. Since there’s no funding, communities need to advocate for school arts programs.

“Visualization helps children grasp new subjects more quickly than anything else. Unfortunately, few teachers encourage students to draw or paint to learn a subject in a different way. Visual learners need to recreate what they’re learning in order to understand it. We should be respecting visual learners; they’re the ones who will make change in the world.

Expressing feelings through the arts improves attitudes

“Our schools are missing a key ingredient in success. They wouldn’t be if children had more creative freedom daily through self-expression, which many schools don’t value. The fact children can control their feelings by expressing them through the arts makes a big difference in their attitudes.

“A retired Roosevelt School of the Arts principal felt that she could have fewer administrators to control behavior if children were engaged in the arts. Those children loved school; they could express themselves, enjoy themselves, because they were encouraged to be themselves at their own level. There were no problems with violence in her school.

“When we dance, paint, learn to play or listen to music, our brains at every age develop new neurons, which keep our minds alert and interested in life, teaching us new things.

“If children don’t learn how to balance their feelings, they can have trouble responding to adversity. For example, children involved in the arts will learn about their feelings and how to react to a bully. We need to understand ourselves to be able to keep our balance. The arts help us do this, which makes them essential.”

Annual Visioneers Design Challenge Competition

Virgi Driscoll was recruited to organize an art design project first conceived in 2001, but never implemented. Given that design in the 21st Century is an integral part of business, it needs more attention in schools. Virgi’s version of this project expanded a one-day event to a semester, possibly a year, connecting middle and high school art teachers and students to architects, digital photographers, animators, fashion designers, urban and rural planners, web designers, videographers - students choose from 11 different categories. The professionals challenge them to solve a commercial design problem. The professional designers donate their time for this. The first Visioneers Challenge projects were judged in April 2007 at UWM Peck School of the Arts. Student teams and individuals came together for a day, lunch included, to exchange ideas with each other, have their projects assessed and solve a new problem on site. The second one was held in April ‘08 and was very successful.

Funding for supplies and transportation to the judging day in Milwaukee is a problem for schools; grants are being written for next year. This program not only prepares students for their future, their teachers learn to think differently. Everyone involved becomes inspired, including the designers.


Brains Relate to People Just as Lungs Breathe Air

By Russell Gardner, MD

Illness comes to mind when you hear “mental health,” even though the people who started using the health word wished to give these medical problems a positive twist. But let’s now think truly on health and normality. I think a person feels healthy when warmly connected to other people and in good standing with them. If one feels or acts quite differently from others, and if this disturbs folks to boot, the person may get an “ill” label, and maybe that’s right. Illness is real. But what is it? Research has shown that health and illness depend on people and that our brain deals with people like our lungs deal with air.

“ . . . how other people think and feel, good and bad, make big differences for anyone . . .

Do you feel liked and respected? Or do others hate you, or barely tolerate you, or give you “no standing”; think of school cliques. Some people need to deal with bullies. I hated some persecutors in my own life. Then later, I sometimes expected a new person to bully me, like I had to replay that old movie. Other people help, of course. They take one’s side, restrain the bully, or fortify one. But what happened back then caused downstream turbulence. Basically, how other people think and feel, good and bad, make big differences for anyone, in childhood and throughout life.

We all connect with so many others in reality, memory and imagination; even living alone, we have family, friends, workmates, schoolmates, people in religious services, or notables on television, or in books. You may see strangers once or regularly. When people show you kindness, nod their heads, and shake your hand, it feels good. (Well, sometimes not, like when they don’t mean it.) And laughter may enter the scene, with friends or strangers.

Let’s think on laughter as a tricky signal. It usually means you feel good. But if you hear mockery from others in snide comments and pointing fingers, then you don’t feel so good. Strangers, schoolmates or workmates may do it. Family members may mock their victims. It may be fun as in teasing, but sometimes teasing gets aggressive, like when kids tickle each other and someone says “stop!” If the other person doesn’t stop, it may change from play into a fight for who’s going to win. And we know that some family members physically and sexually abuse younger or weaker ones.

In general, when you know another person likes you, you feel boosted. Any person feels “healthier” if others show respect, affection and warmth, and have done so life-long. You walk taller, “without a care in the world.” And when such loved ones pass on or otherwise leave one’s life, you may feel very bad as you mourn. For some people, losses can cause very bad times indeed.

Respect, Warmth and Positive Laughter are Healthy

Respect and warmth usually happen amongst one’s “own kind.” Brothers and sisters once fighting tooth and nail may get close in later life (though some early hates hang on lifelong). Now think on people not your “own kind.” Having a common enemy may clarify feelings. Squabbles fade quickly when common foes threaten you and your family or another group you belong to. Sometimes leaders play on our tendencies to rev up our hate emotions towards “bad” folks, those with a different skin color, religion, accents, gender, origins, economic means, dress, or education.

Return to the laughter signal again. When you mock an enemy, that person may feel strong resentment and may say so. And you and I, let’s say we’re bonded, may find our own mocking of our mutual enemy delicious (“did you see his face?!”). Think of school athletic contests, for example. To defeat the “hated” team from the other side of town, you get intoxicated with your and your teammates’ mutual strength. Later, as “good sports,” you drop the pose of warfare and laugh together as “jocks,” losers congratulating winners, all “hard feelings” gone, all done in play. Of course, similar things go on seriously too; they take on powerful reality when the enemy gives a reason for war, as US leaders tell us they did, so that then individuals go to battle for real, many end up dead or wounded, not only physically, but mentally as well.

All psychotherapies work with effective therapists

Returning veterans often have post-traumatic stress disorder: PTSD. Sexual and physical abuse also cause it. The medical diagnosis means that severe stress caused brain changes with flashback memories and difficult decision-making in normal circumstances without abuse. Learning under fire causes some soldiers to find their new reality hard to figure out. One loses judgment. Depression occupies them too, and loss of self-esteem. Fortunately, though not easily, talk and sometimes medication therapy help, in group or individual sessions. Much research has examined these treatments, and many other kinds of treatments too. All psychotherapies work. But not all therapists are effective. Treatment works best when therapists communicate warmth and respect for the people they help.

Like the heart pumps blood in the body, the brain in the body guides relationships, all of them, normal and troubled. Thus my brain, when I was worried about a possible new bully, reacted automatically; I got fearful, defensive, and lost my sense of humor. But, my brain gains perspective when I talk it over and tell my story to nice people. I feel more distance from the problem. Better thinking kicks in. If I’m all wrong, we laugh. Or if my upset comes for good reason, then others may help me on what to expect and what to do. At times, medicines may help. But if I take that step, I would hope that others might help me decide whether benefits outweigh the side effects.

I hope this helps you realize how much we use our brains to connect to other people for bad things yes, but for good ones too. Mental health truly means that people positively relate in work, play and all living.

Russell Gardner is a mixed-media artist, poet, author, think tank member, researcher and retired MD, psychiatrist, clinical & research; psychoanalysis. Just as Lungs Breathe Air


Mental Health Developments

By Bob Driscoll

There have been some significant developments in the last fifty years in the treatment of, and recovery from, mental illnesses.

Eighty, 90 years ago, people with mental illnesses were simply locked up for life. “Asylums” were overcrowded, scary places, like prisons. (Prisons are the asylums of today, by the way.) The last few buildings of Milwaukee County’s North Division, the unit for people with chronic mental illnesses, were finally razed about ten years ago. It couldn’t be used for another purpose because the construction was so specific to a mental hospital.

The first big medication breakthrough came with the introduction of Thorazine in the early 1950s. This drug has a paralyzing effect on patients. Hospital staff liked it because it calmed patients down and made them easier to manage.

About this same time, electro-convulsive treatment began to be used, a barbaric brain scrambler intended to shock the disease out of a person’s system. However, it can have side effects that last a lifetime, such as losing blocks of memory.

Lithium arrived on the scene around 1975. Lithium was, and is, the primary choice of physicians for treating manic-depression (the politically correct term is bipolar disorder). Lithium is a salt. Just a salt. Supposedly, it was discovered by an Australian physician who, for some reason, was feeding it to his pigs, and noticed how they would mellow out when they ate the stuff. Lithium can have a positive effect on people with bipolar disorder.

Antidepressants, anti-anxiety medications, more mood stabilizers, each category with its own long list of types and brands, have been introduced in the last 30 years. Some of these medications actually help to reduce symptoms for people who have mental illnesses. All of them have proved to be a bonanza for the big “pharmas,” the pharmaceutical companies.

In addition to lithium in 1975, the “consumer” movement, some call it the psychiatric survivor movement, began in Wisconsin. The philosophy is that recovery is possible, for everybody. The movement is characterized by education, support, and advocacy groups like the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance, Mental Health America, and NAMI, National Alliance on Mental Illness.

Grassroots Empowerment Project (GEP) is the only statewide consumer-run organization in Wisconsin. It is an umbrella organization for about ten drop-in sites around the state: Madison, West Bend, Green Bay, La Crosse, Eau Claire, Chippewa Falls, Ashland, Jefferson County, and Warmline in Milwaukee. GEP is funded by a federal block grant that is administered by the State Bureau of Mental Health and Substance Abuse. GEP, in turn, provides partial funding to the sites. The drop-in centers offer a place to socialize with people who have similar illnesses. Open hours vary from site to site. Some have lunches or dinners. All offer some kind of programming. Peer (consumer) support has been proven to be an important component of an individual’s recovery.

The Warmline, located right here in Milwaukee, is a telephone support line run by and for people who have mental illnesses. It’s available six nights a week from 7:00 to 11:00, when psychiatrists, therapists, and case managers are not available, Warmline provides supportive listening, assistance with problem solving, and referrals to other resources.

Al McGuire used to say, “Let’s hold hands and we’ll all go uptown together.” That’s what’s happening in mental health today.

NAMI National Alliance for Mental Illness (national)
2107 Wilson Bd, Suite 300
Arlington VA 22201
(703) 524–7600

NAMI Greater Milwaukee
3732 W. Wisconsin Ave.
Milwaukee WI 53208
(414) 344–0447

Grassroots Empowerment Project (GEP)
PO Box 8683
Madison WI 53708
(800) 770–0588

Warmline, Inc.
Milwaukee 53226
(414) 257–5775 office
(414) 777–4729 Warmline

Last edited by Tyler Schuster.   Page last modified on April 06, 2009

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