Arts Spring 2014

The art of meaningful engagement

Jill Eggers

Jill Eggers encourages anyone interested in volunteering or learning more about the art program at St. John’s Home for Children to contact her at eggersj@gvsu.edu. To see more of Eggers’ own artwork, visit jilleggers.com.

by Mary Isca Pirkola

photo by Bernadine Carey-Tucker

Jill Eggers believes in the transformative power of art. She has seen it occur both during her own creative practice and while teaching art to others.

An associate professor of art and design, Eggers has taught primarily painting classes since coming to Grand Valley in 2000. Early in her career, Eggers worked as a substitute teacher while she took night classes at the Art Institute of Chicago in preparation for a graduate program at Yale University.

Having grown up in a calm, suburban environment, Eggers said she was unprepared for the reality of the inner-city school where she worked.

“I was the third teacher assigned to that classroom since school had started, and it was only October,” said Eggers. “I was given a couple of packs of paper, a box of pencils and a budget of $150 for the entire school year of seven art classes a day.”

Eggers faced her challenges with a fierce determination to stay and try to make a difference. She drew from her meager salary to buy additional supplies and solicited donations from suburban school teachers and art supply stores. Most importantly, she connected with the students.

“I was losing students to street violence all the time. I tried to create a safe space, and basically taught them how to draw,” said Eggers. “Out of that, some amazing things happened. It was calming for them. They thrived in a focused training experience with support and encouragement. And they found success at something — for the first time in their lives for many of them.”

Their success gave Eggers a sense of meaningful engagement, but also created a huge quandary in her life. “I didn’t know then how to reconcile the difference between my art making, which at the time seemed such an elitist luxury and privileged intellectual inquiry, with their real-life pain and suffering,” said Eggers.

Recently, Eggers looked for ways to recapture that early experience of helping youth in need. Over the past year, Eggers has developed and taught a volunteer art class at the D.A. Blodgett St. John’s Home for Children in Grand Rapids. The class meets at KidsFirst, an emergency shelter for children 7-17 who were removed from their homes because of abuse or neglect.

“I met with the home’s performing arts director, Kathleen (Hanley) Bode, ’12, and was motivated by her dedication to these children and her belief in the transformative power of the arts,” said Eggers. Bode has developed a range of arts programs at the shelter.

Eggers recruited volunteers, including Grand Valley students, to help with the Saturday art sessions.

“We encourage them to experiment with the materials and not worry about if it turns out good in an artistic sense. It’s not for somebody else, it’s for them,” Eggers said. “I really enjoy this work because it is so different from what I do at Grand Valley, where I must evaluate and be critical and offer judgments on the work and progress of my students.”

Volunteering at KidsFirst affords Eggers a chance for something more.

“It also provides me with an opportunity for the type of connection I had with my kids in Chicago,” she said, “this time in a very healing environment, so I’ve come full circle.”