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In the Spotlight

Bridge of Compassion

Gifford Follows Her Heart With Art Installation at Caldwell Elementary

March 28, 2017
By Lori Ferguson

Caldwell Students

When Joanna Gifford graduates from The University of Texas at Tyler next year, she'll have a master of fine arts degree in studio art and likely more ideas for next steps than she knows what to do with. "When I was a kid, I wanted to be everything from a marine biologist to the first female five-star general," says Gifford with a rush of enthusiasm, "but I've matured, and now I'm down to about five career paths instead of 25."

A sculptor whose resume also includes actress and yoga teacher, Gifford says that after years of struggling to find her way, she's finally following her heart, creating art that sparks conversation and contributes to community well-being. "I was blessed with a very supportive and loving home, but growing up, I felt the heaviness of societal norms. For a long time, I tried to fit into a mold that wasn't me, and I wasn't very happy."

Gifford is in her early 30s now, and finally forging her own path. "It's not always easy, but I don't think it's supposed to be," she confesses with a soft laugh. "The beauty is in the struggle, which is why compassion is critical."

Highlighting the Human Connection

The importance of compassion is a central tenet for Gifford and the concept that led this young sculptor to her most recent project, an art installation at Caldwell Elementary Arts Academy titled "Bridge: Compassion.'' The piece is part of Gifford's ongoing series "Experiencing Human,'' a project that goes to the heart of Gifford's mission. "My intention as an artist is to highlight and reinforce positive and authentic human connection," she explains.

Gifford is thrilled to have the opportunity to explore the idea of compassion, both individual and community, with children from Caldwell.

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Caldwell Class Discussion

UT Tyler graduate art student Joanna Gifford explores the idea of compassion in an art project with grade school students. Below are paintings by Caldwell students for the "Bridge: Compassion'' art installation on their campus.

She was drawn back to the school – Gifford began her own educational journey here when the institution was called Caldwell Play School – nearly a year ago when she learned that school administrators wanted to bring public art onto the campus and were inviting artists to submit proposals. Bobby Markle, the principal at Caldwell, has a vision for enriching public spaces through art, says Gifford, and has joined forces with Caldwell art teacher Angela Jennings and Tyler Museum of Art interpretation manager Derek Frazier to make that dream a reality.

"Bridge: Compassion'' is the first sculpture to be installed on Caldwell's grounds, but Gifford is hopeful that others will follow.

"There are many elements in society these days bent on building up fear and anxiety and anger among people, but it's much more exciting to focus on the power of love, companionship and connection," notes Gifford. "I believe that public art installations like 'Bridge' offer a powerful means of shifting perceptions and bringing about change in our world."

Involving Caldwell Students

Bringing children into the equation heightens the potency of collaborative projects like ''Bridge,'' Gifford observes, as they can be powerful vectors for transmitting change. "Kids are so refreshing – they say what they feel and they share their enthusiasm so openly."

Initiatives like "Bridge" also offer kids a release for their emotions and an opportunity to discover that change is possible, she asserts. "I think that working on this project helped the children to better understand where they are now as well as realize that circumstances can shift and change depending upon how you give and receive empathy and love and kindness."

Although Gifford hopes that Caldwell students will internalize this lesson as well as share it with others, she admits that she didn't initially realize the important role that the children would play in the project. "I submitted my original sculpture proposal and it didn't really work, so I crafted a second, which was OK, but I wasn't really feeling it," she confesses.

By the third iteration, Gifford realized that she didn't just want to create a sculpture on Caldwell's grounds, she wanted to let students participate in the process. "Then suddenly I realized how patronizing that sounded – 'let the kids participate' – as the whole purpose of this sculpture was to enhance their world. Once I realized that what I really wanted was to collaborate with the kids as artistic partners, everything fell into place."

flag art

The resulting project has been incredibly rewarding, says Gifford. Although the children were young – participants ranged from kindergartners to fifth-graders – Gifford found the students to be thoughtful and deeply invested in the project.

She traveled to Caldwell on March 3 to install the 6.5-foot-high by 17-foot-long steel framework for the piece, then spent the afternoon with the children, talking about compassion and working with them to create 1-by-1-foot paintings that illustrated their ideas about the concept. The inspiration for the paintings comes from Tibetan prayer flags, explains Gifford. "You write your prayers on a piece of paper and let them fly up to God." There are no religious connotations to "Bridge,'' she continues, but the introspective nature of the practice seemed fitting.

Gifford returned to Caldwell on March 11 to string the paintings across ''Bridge's'' steel façade. "It was a beautiful day – the wind was blowing and the flags sounded like running water. There are around 98 of them, all in different colors; the cumulative results are pretty powerful."

Happily, the sculpture's message will not be confined to Caldwell's grounds. Gifford photographed each of the student artists with their paintings and will also be conducting video interviews with the children to capture what they learned about compassion and what they would like to share with others. Gifford will then compile these materials into a mini documentary that may be shared in future ''Experiencing Human'' exhibitions.

Connecting People and Experiences

"The whole idea behind 'Bridge' is the concept of connecting people, experiences, timelines and scenarios," says Gifford.

Caldwell Art

"If you looked into a human brain, you would see that the cells connect through a series of bridges, and that's the way I view my community. I link to the person next to me and we share an emotion or an experience. Then that person connects with someone else, whom I may or may not meet, and carries some of our shared experience into the new encounter. In building these bridges, you raise awareness – of joy, of compassion and of true human connection."

Gifford is eager to begin the next phase of her journey as an artist, but will also miss her colleagues at UT Tyler. "The art and art history department is incredible, and the faculty is amazing -- I've never met such a supportive group of people. My path to this degree hasn't been straight, but they've stuck with me and encouraged me every step of the way."

UT Tyler's art program is growing steadily, Gifford continues, and she's excited to be a part of it. "The department is quiet, but we get some really exciting stuff done within those walls."



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