Purpose of the Narrative Project

The Narrative Project is a one-week long process for classrooms of different ages and experiences that builds self-awareness and community through visual and oral storytelling.  Students are asked to choose a significant story from their lives and express this story in six, abstract images. Students will:

1.     learn about abstraction in art and analytical visual thinking
2.    make art that is personal and compelling
3.    explore multiple aspects of storytelling
4.    reflect on their own lives
5.    strategically contextualize personal experience
6.    present their finished work in an oral presentation
7.    create and enhance community through active and empathic witnessing


The project is based on an assignment developed in my Beginning Drawing and Composition course that requires students to tell a story from their lives in six abstract images.  Students choose a personal story that is important to them, and that often reflects very real issues in our world including loss, mental and physical health challenges, disabilities, being a minority, immigration, and oppression of many kinds. Alongside moments of difficulty are moments of triumph. In the sharing of their projects, students experience active witnessing, being brought together through empathy and reflection; the experience is life-changing for both the artist and the audience.  Since 2010, I have been assigning the Narrative Project in my drawing classes, reaching close to 500 students with the process. 

The process includes lecture, group activities and discussion, demonstration, and a slide presentation with professional artists’ work, and student samples, all of which lead and inspire students to create their own artwork.  Students are asked to express their story using only 6 abstract images, conveying tension, mood, direction and emphasis with only shape, line, and tones of grey, in relationship to the edges of the page. While this is a visual challenge, and a potent activity for students of all ages and experiences to explore, the results are twofold: the visual artwork is powerful, direct, but the level of sharing and honesty that occurs within the classroom is life-changing. Students choose personal stories, as mentioned above, that often reflect moments in their lives where they defined themselves in the face of untold challenges. While the benefits of storytelling/ personal disclosure have been widely used for healing, community building and social justice, the combination of art and this level of storytelling is less well-known. Making images of unparalleled beauty is healing in its own right, and many students comment on the power of transforming the difficult emotions into something new and separate from themselves; these images/ objects then take on new life by being shared. Because of their abstract nature, these images also have a level of unfixed meaning that invites discussion and honesty in unique ways.

The Narrative Project offers a memorable, hands-on experience to promote student self-awareness and success and to provide the community with unique educational opportunities that define, express and transform lives. 

Support for the Project and Larger Vision
The project is supported by Berkeley City College in the form of a year-long sabbatical, bringing the Narrative Project to other schools throughout the United States. Activities during this time include outreach, project facilitation, and development of teaching materials for use by other faculty. A final phase includes collecting images and stories from participating institutions to create a Narrative Project Commons - a digital, shared space of art and word that empower, reflect, and build community and cross-cultural understanding among students and faculty across the country. 

Classroom Photos and Student Artwork
Please check in to see added photos of artwork as they happen.  

Feedback from Participating Institutions
"This was a wonderful professional development experience for all of us…Yours is an excellent model for creating meaning though the arts--many powerful stories were shared.  Moreover, you have a gift for speaking about art with a vocabulary that brings the subject to life.  Your presentation is sophisticated yet highly accessible for young people.  You held the bar high and students met it.  They are proud of their work."  
- Nancy Draina, Academic Dean, Colorado Rocky Mountain School