An arts-based approach to literacy

In her second contribution to the Alt Ed Austin blog, art educator Heidi Miller Lowell discusses one of the inspirations for the new arts-based literacy program she is co-teaching this fall. You can read more about Heidi’s work on The Austin Artery website and blog, where an earlier version of her essay appeared.

Five years ago, I snuck into a crowded room in a Baltimore hotel, unaware that my ideas about education would be forever changed. Researcher Beth Olshansky became one of my heroes, as she introduced me to a constructivist model of education. I wished someone had taught me writing and reading in such an exciting and low-pressure way.

Beth Olshansky is the author of the book The Power of Pictures: Creating Pathways to Literacy Through Art and numerous published articles based on her years of research at the University of New Hampshire. She observed children who had minds filled with vibrant imaginings and stories but who did not like writing and reading.

This arts-based literacy program integrates children’s visual imagery into every stage of the writing process. Classes study the illustrations of famous authors and are introduced to art materials from the first day of class. Unlike traditional methods, this gives students a chance to tap into visual, kinesthetic, and verbal modes of thinking. Many children who have a hard time writing in other classes find that words come to them as they create art pieces for their books.

Children are motivated to finish the entire writing process so they can then create hand-bound books, complete with their own photographs on an author’s page. Each finished book is presented to the class, and the learner is invited to share his or her work in an author’s circle.

Research has shown that the learners in the arts-based literacy program display fuller expression than students in control groups. Personally, I have used this model to teach camps over the last several years, and I have been amazed with the results. Parents and students are often astonished by the quality of work produced in this program.

and The Austin Artery are excited to announce Austin’s very first arts-based literacy program beginning at Four Seasons Community School this fall. The lindergarten and first grade students will spend their Tuesday and Thursday afternoons splitting time between a quiet writing space and the art studio as they produce their own hardbound books and plays. There will even be an option for a limited number of homeschool students (grades K–2) to join me and my co-teacher, Jen Bradley.

For more information on arts-based literacy programs, you might want to check out visit Beth Olshansky’s website. You may also contact me at The Austin Artery for more information.

Heidi Miller Lowell

Mandalas and art as tools for personal development

I’m happy to welcome back artist and art educator Heidi Miller Lowell with a new guest post that includes some of her own artwork featuring mandalas. Heidi teaches art and storytelling workshops, homeschool classes, and camps at The Austin Artery.

Mandala is a sanskrit word that means circle. Mandalas are ancient spiritual and ritual symbols believed to represent the universe. Some cultures believe that mandalas are important tools for meditation. You might recall having seen monks spend endless hours pouring delicate sand designs into mandalas only to let the sand be carried away by the wind as a reminder of the impermanence of life.

In my life, mandalas have been a helpful tool for gaining insight, clarity, and becoming more authentic. Creating any piece of art is a process. When we quiet down and pay attention to that process, we learn a lot about our mind, emotions, and creative process. Sometimes the process of creating a piece of art is more important than the finished product itself. I believe that the lessons we learn in creating art can be taken back and applied in our lives, work, or relationships to help us reach our highest potential.

For example, I began creating this watercolor mandala several years ago with the intention of paying attention to my tendency toward perfectionism. As I painted delicate designs for hours, I began to know that my creative process was lacking the spontaneity and joy that I desired when making art. I was often tense and focused on making a finished product that other people would enjoy looking at.

After coming to that realization, I picked up my brush and begin painting dark streaks of what I imagine it might look like in the darkest corners of outer space. The painting might not look like much to a viewer. However, this mandala hangs on the wall in my studio and serves as a powerful reminder that I can let go and make art that is imperfect and deeply meaningful. This piece of art marks a very powerful moment in my artistic career.

I also often use mandalas to teach children mathematical concepts like radial symmetry, angles, division, focus, and proportion. Geometric mandalas have helped to teach me patience, focus, and discipline. These geometric designs have informed much of my current work.

You can learn more about making simple mandalas online. I also am hosting several workshops  on creating 3D sculptural mandalas from natural materials, as well as geometric watercolor mandalas, this spring and summer. You can find out more at

Heidi Miller Lowell

Nurturing the creative spirit through art and storytelling

Guest contributor Heidi Miller Lowell teaches art and creative storytelling at The Austin Artery, where she draws upon current research in psychology and neurology in her work with children, teens, and adults.

I do not believe anyone who tells me they do not have a creative bone in their body. I usually translate that statement to mean, “Creativity is scary. I might make a mistake. Everyone will see it.” And they are completely right. Creativity is the ultimate act of vulnerability.

Creativity is our spirit and at the core of our heart. Each one of us has a valuable story to share that has the potential to change the world through the very act of making art and sharing our tale. Maya Angelou said, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside of you.” I know that these vulnerable seeds of creativity are waiting inside each of us for the right conditions to sprout.

We humans have an innate drive to tell our stories and connect. Throughout human history, we have strived to tell our stories, even before we had words for them. The earliest humans told their stories through pictures on cave walls. Even babies begin making their marks as soon as they are able. I will forever cherish the memory of watching my own daughter squeal with delight as she discovered her own power to make a mark as she held a paintbrush in her tiny hands for the first time.

Research shows that the happiest human beings are the ones who are connected and have community. For this reason, The Austin Artery cultivates creative storytelling and art-making communities. While technical skills are valuable, we believe that art and storytelling have something far more valuable to offer society. Art is a powerful tool for creating meaning, developing empathy, and furthering our education.

The Artery’s curriculum transforms “mistakes” from stumbling blocks into pathways to new opportunities. You cannot make the wrong choice. We use story prompts with a variety of media to create layered art pieces. These layers and lessons are metaphors for our life. Some psychologists believe that the stories and art we make, even when fictitious, create parallels to our life and provide opportunities for problem solving. Furthermore, X-rays show that Leonardo da Vinci painted 30 layers on the Mona Lisa. When we continue to explore with a variety of media and add layers to our art pieces, we develop persistence. The stories and art pieces can be more touching and stunning than anything we had initially envisioned.

Additionally, I want to honor each student’s unique stories and inspirations. This means that students at The Artery don’t follow a formula to create identical pictures. In this sense, there is a greater focus on the process and meaning behind each piece of art than on the product itself. This allows each artist to unfold at her/his own pace while developing a unique style and story.

This kind of approach is powerful because stories are how we think. They require structure, order, and clarity. Psychologists call this a script or mental model. We use stories and images to persuade others, market ourselves, create our identities, and teach social values. Stories also allow us to walk in someone else’s shoes briefly, increasing empathy.

Telling our stories and creating art are more important now than ever as our schools and society grapple with the issues of bullying and other violence. When we activate the right side of the brain and tell own our stories, we tap into the creativity that is the foundation for innovation, empathy, self-understanding, and change

We live in a world that is vastly different from that of the previous generations. We communicate globally and instantaneously. News is doled out in 140 characters. People love cat memes. However, that is not what we truly crave. We crave meaning, connection, and community. When individuals and organizations identify and nurture their creativity and core stories, they create something that others connect with and believe in. That is something that can create powerful change.

This is why I want to help you cultivate your creative side at The Austin Artery.

Heidi Miller Lowell