Art to Reconstruct Young Minds

Thea Foundation’s Arts Reconstruction program is opening doors and minds in public schools. 

By Dwain Hebda, Photography by Brian Chilson

Arts Reconstruction

Sara Brannen isn’t the longest-tenured teacher at her alma mater Sylvan Hills High School, but the second-year instructor is making waves nonetheless. Among her classes, 60 students are engaged—enthused, even—for art, something that’s got even some senior colleagues knocking on her door.

“I’ve heard students comment, ‘This is my favorite class because I’ve never done anything like this,’” she said. “Other students say, ‘I feel like I’m working in a factory and we’re making all these cool things.’ I thought that was pretty neat.”

The project that’s caught the students’ imagination is paper-making, made possible through the Arts Reconstruction program offered by the Thea Foundation. Students break down natural fibers into pulp and turn that pulp into one-of-a-kind paper. The characteristics of each sheet are unique, driven by the type of fibers in the pulp and dyes that are added.

“I really feel like when you get students engaged on that level it makes art more relevant,” Brannen said. “It’s a contemporary craft, so it’s something that’s useful to them right now. They get that immediacy.”

Brannen’s experience is just one of the success stories of the Thea Foundation, a North Little Rock nonprofit organization devoted to nurturing creative expression among the state’s K-12 students through extracurricular and in-school art programs throughout Arkansas.

Arts Reconstruction partners with cultural institutions and arts organizations in Arkansas to provide new and amplify existing arts programming within schools. In layman’s terms, this means bringing educators together to learn new and different types of artistic activities to incorporate within existing curriculum.

In Brannen’s case, this took the form of a weeklong paper-making class that included how to operate the beater, a specialized machine used in paper- making. She also received training in crafts that incorporate the handmade paper for a finished product that is artisanal from the ground up.


“We learned how to sculpt and dye the paper with natural substances like onion skins and blue jeans and we also used some paper dyes,” Brannen said. “We learned how to transfer images onto wood using a gel medium.

“Then we also learned how to do book binding with different stitches. We’re going to use our handmade paper to make books in my class and my students are very excited about that—more excited than I thought they would be to make books.”

Nick Leopoulos of the Thea Foundation said the program is one way that the organization is lighting a flame of programmatic innovation rather than cursing the darkness of reduced arts funding in public schools.

“There’s loads of research on how desperate the funding situations are for arts programming in the state, but we realize that there’s a bigger picture out there,” he said. “We don’t always want to lean on that as a complaint for ‘Hey everyone should spend more money on the arts.’ We know we have to be an integral component of actually fixing that.”

Part of that fix is changing the mentality of the arts as mere extracurricular diversion and highlighting the integral role artistic expression plays in students’ overall development. This is the cause art advocates have taken up with increasing fervor as education budgets are winnowed nationwide.

A 2014 study, for instance, conducted by the University of Arkansas and published in Education Week, divided 1,800 students into two groups. In the first, 5,500 students from 123 Arkansas, Missouri and Oklahoma schools were assigned to visit Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville and 350 were given tickets to attend a live theatrical performance at a Fayetteville theater. The remaining students, assigned in corresponding numbers to control groups, experienced neither activity.

The result? In addition to a higher appreciation for and desire for further consumption of the art itself, those exposed to cultural experiences demonstrated more tolerance and empathy as well as better critical thinking skills and a higher attention to detail. Leopoulos said similar opportunities exist for programs like Arts Reconstruction to make a definitive statement about the value of art within the educational construct. 

“With the state recently adopting new guidelines for the arts, the folks over at the Department of Education have made good strides in creating ways to chart students’ progress in the arts and give examples of that progress,” he said. “We want to try to help interface with that and give teachers another way to achieve the goals they need to achieve.”

Which may explain why Brannen’s peer teachers frequently drop her a line about her paper-making project in an effort to replicate such success in their own classrooms. Part of her advice: Prepare to learn almost as much as you teach.

“My students are even running the show and teaching me new things,” she said. “They are constantly like, ‘Can we put this in the Holland Beater?’ ‘What about this?’ I’m continually learning new tricks.”

Arts Reconstruction Participants

North Little Rock High School: Visual
Lakewood Middle School: Strings
Crestwood Elementary: Visual
Boone Park Elementary: Strings
Seventh Street Elementary: Strings

Sylvan Hills High School: Visual

Hall High School: Strings
Parkview High School: Visual
Central High School: Visual
Mabelvale Middle School: Strings
Forest Heights STEM Academy: Visual