The first step

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It began with a large heart, divided into pieces. Artist Wesley May starts all his workshop paintings with some representation of a medicine wheel, which is typically represented as a circle divided into four equal quadrants. This time, at the ASWB Education Meeting, it was a heart, in four colors, spanning four canvases.

May, a member of the Red Lake Nation of the Ojibwe people, is an artist who works to help others explore their own creativity and build a sense of community. His workshop, which kicked off the two-day meeting, started with attendees drawing with pen and paper at their tables.

His first instruction was “write your name.” That sounds simple, doesn’t it? But what counts as a name? Is a first name sufficient? First and last? Full legal name? Would a nickname count? May’s guidance kept participants in a liminal state of mind, questioning whether they were doing it “right.”

In art, May understands, there are very few right answers, and even fewer wrong ones. He guided the group through drawing a circle and then some lines that touched the circle, coming to a point toward the center… more lines that connect those points, again moving toward the center. As attendees drew, May moved among the tables, offering guidance and reassurance. Eventually, what came through on many papers was an image of a dream catcher, a talisman that originated with the Ojibwe people.

“Everything we do in art applies to life,” May said in a conversation following the workshop. “Our approach to life is the same as our approach to that blank piece of paper.” With his instructions, May was letting participants find their own way into the drawing process. “We all know how it feels to take that first step,” he said, which is often the most intimidating part of any endeavor.

Attendees were encouraged to continue drawing as May approached four blank canvases arranged in a grid. He used acrylic paint to start a communal artwork across the four canvases, beginning with that large heart. He then welcomed ASWB members to join his painting process. One person added a face, another painted a tree. There were stars, squiggles, and initials on the canvas, all in varied colors with no master plan.

Even though the hour for his workshop was over, May continued working on the painting, which was moved to the foyer outside the meeting room. “I can add to [the painting],” he explained, “but that’s all I can do. When they see that they started it, they see what gets created.” He continued painting, adding color and dimension to the heart, carefully surrounding the marks created by the original participants.

“I’m not here to lead the charge,” May said. “I’m here to unleash potential.”

It’s a process he’s been working through for more than 20 years, with large and small community groups of all ages. He especially values working with youth on the Red Lake reservation in Minnesota, where he and his late wife established a community space for young people. At one tribal gathering, 20,000 attendees worked with May to create a community artwork.

May kept the painting going. During breaks, he encouraged ASWB members who stopped to admire it to pick up a brush and add something. He painted palms and had attendees add handprints and shaded lines and shapes added by the group to make everything more cohesive. Flowers appeared, along with a burst of pale blue in the center of the medicine wheel heart. The medicine wheel, May explained, symbolizes four ways of being: spiritual, mental, physical, and emotional. The blue in the center represents the light in all of us.

At the end of the conference, ASWB members could pick up a print of the finished artwork, which had been photographed by ASWB staff member Linda Hogan. The finished artwork will hang in ASWB headquarters in Culpeper, with a note about the workshop.

These community paintings “are different every time,” May said. “But it always comes back to the same thing,” a renewed focus on community, a renewed sense of exploration.

As many attendees experienced, that first mark on paper is often the hardest. “I know how it felt to take that first step,” May said. After decades of teaching and painting, he still has empathy for everyone facing a blank page, and he knows that art can show us “how bold and confident we can become as we move through life.”

“To know and not do is really not to know,” May said. After his workshop, attendees at the ASWB Education Meeting had done, and hopefully they left knowing something new about themselves. They can all say, in May’s words, “I did it. I own it. I took that step.”