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STEAM-Powered Transformation: Abigail Gómez and the Art of Learning

Get ready for an artistic adventure with Abigail Gómez, the force behind Arte Libre VA! Explore the fusion of STEM and the arts, discover the magic of children's books that celebrate culture, and learn how public art is shaping communities. A dynamic professor at Shenandoah University and the visionary executive director of Arte Libre VA, Abi shares her remarkable journey into teaching and her unwavering passion for the arts, emphasizing the power of creativity in higher education. Discover how Arte Libre VA is making arts education accessible to underserved youth, creating a sense of community through public art. Abi also delves into the vibrant celebration of Dia de los Muertos (you're invited to join the fun in Winchester on Nov. 2). Join us for an inspiring conversation that explores the transformative potential of art, cultural diversity, and the promise of growth.

[01:23] Abi's non-traditional path to teaching and her passion for the arts.

[03:18] Introduction to Arte Libre VA and its mission.

Dr. Diane: So let's talk for a moment about Arte Libre, because I know that that has been sort of your heart child for a while. What does your nonprofit do? Give us sort of a layout of how you've grown in the last couple of years as well.

Abi: So we got our 501(c)3 just before the Pandemic started, so all of our initial plans had to shift and pivot, using these terms that we've become so familiar with. And we were able to provide free art kits to youth in need. Throughout the first year of the Pandemic, we put out over 1000 art kits and got them in the hands of young people, which was a really exciting achievement. And ever since then, we've been partnering with organizations that serve youth, so we don't have to duplicate or try to start from scratch, creating our audiences. So we focus on youth of color, youth from low socioeconomic status and things like that to be able to make sure that there's access. So, a couple of things with our nonprofit, we go to the youth. We don't have a brick and mortar location. So part of our quest for equity is addressing this geographical access challenge in our community. We don't have reliable public transportation here, and everything really is accessible only by car. So we're bringing the arts experience and the arts workshops to youth to our partner locations, such as the Hanley Regional Public Library System. We've worked with Kids Club before. We work at Fremont. Like I mentioned, we work with the Winchester Public Schools, Frederick County Basic Rec program. So really trying to work through the existing structures to provide youth access to the arts.

[05:16] The integration of arts into STEM (STEAM) and its importance.

Dr. Diane: I know, for me, I know that you helped to change my journey. I had thought of things in terms of STEM, and you were a huge advocate for the A and making it STEAM. And if you don't know what the A in STEAM is, it's the arts. So you've got science, technology, arts, engineering, and math. I was wondering if you could share an example of how you might take something that was traditionally STEM based and add that arts component to enrich it. And as you said, provide equity and access in ways that maybe we don't think about normally.

Abi: Absolutely. I think one of the examples we can talk about are the programs that you and I have collaborated on before together. Whether it's bringing professional development opportunities or even searching through inspiration from children's picture books to find those inspirations and making those connections. And even if the subject and content revolves around an environmental cause, including sciences or math. I know that we've done projects before where the story involved efforts of recycling and environmentalism and bringing those components, those materials that are created and necessary for a lot of the STEM fields and projects and using those in the arts and being able to take these things and materials and apply them in a different way and look at them a little bit differently, to create something beautiful from it. We have examples of using recycled plastics to create bags and mats and even tapestries, wearable art in that way. We always apply the sciences and math in creating art anyway, whether it's measuring grids to make sure that your image is going to look right on a mural, or whether it is understanding the nature of pigments and those chemical reactions to create different colors. It all integrates so beautifully.

And you almost can't separate one from the other. You can't separate the STEM fields from the arts or art from science and math and technology. -- Abi Gómez

[07:37] Examples of integrating STEM and Arts in education for all ages.

  • Using recycled materials to create art

  • Exploring the chemistry of pigments.

[10:37]Examples of STEAM adjacent picture books

Abi: I love these children's books that integrate Spanish language, even if they're not completely in Spanish, and I think normalizing that is a really smart thing to do, especially at these younger ages.

Dr. Diane: Are there other books that you've discovered that you love to use when you're working with kids?

Abi: There's one. So my son Xavier is almost six and in kindergarten.

Dr. Diane: How is that possible?

Abi: I know it happens so quickly, but it's really been this fun journey. As he is loving books and learning to read and starting his literacy journey, I've been able to benefit from the books that he has, things that interest him, what he connects with. And it's sort of this real time test subject a little bit for these different books and ideas that I have stemming from them. But one of his favorite books right now is called Zombies Don't Eat Vegetables. And this is another book that integrates vocabulary and words in Spanish. And just it's not translated, but it's just a little bit of vocabulary that really normalizes this sort of spanglish that a lot of us find ourselves using from day to day. And the story is that Mo, this one little boy zombie, just does not like zombie food. And he doesn't like to eat toes or fingers or anything like that. And he loves vegetables, and his parents think vegetables are so disgusting and they can't imagine that they have a zombie son that doesn't fall into this zombie culinary category. But it's really interesting, and it also provides this great launching point to talk about different foods from different cultures. And it's okay if we don't like something, and it's okay if somebody else does like it and provides, again, a beautiful opportunity to think about art applications with that, whether you're drawing food, imagining something. And what I really like doing is getting out playdoh and things and imagining, like, what would you create if you were a zombie, or what would you create to eat if you didn't like zombie food? That sort of thing.

Dr. Diane: I love that. And as you're talking, I could even see adding on that community garden aspect where you use the math to measure it and figure out how big is your plot going to be, how far apart do you need to plant the vegetables, what are you going to plant? And you go through the process of cultivating and then you get to try the things that our reluctant zombie would prefer to eat. And so you could actually connect really tangibly to the book as well. So I love the fact that it lends itself to the art and to the science, and you could connect to your plants and vegetables unit as well.

[15:03] Announcement of Dia de los Muertos celebration and public events.

  • [18:52] Significance of Dia de los Muertos and Nov. 2 event details

Abi: So one of the biggest events that I have throughout the year is Dia de los Muertos Celebration. So this I started two years ago. This will be the third year that we've done it at Shenandoah University with my FYS class, the first year seminar. And we wanted to create some sort of collaborative opportunity for the entire class to engage in creating or contributing to a piece of public art. My class is called The Power of Public Art. So we explore that and how it applies to social justice and things like that. So my student mentor at the time, Elias Aguirre, is from Mexico, so my interest in Mexican and Latin American culture, along with his lived experiences, led us to hosting a very spur at the moment Dia de los Muertos celebration, where we were able to engage with student musicians here at the university. And my class created the art elements of the ofrenda, which is the altar and different things like that. And it was very successful for how few weeks we had to plan it and pull it off.

So last year we were able to create an event with much more planning and much more intention, and we actually took it off campus and brought it to the heart of the Winchester community. We hosted it at the Taylor Pavilion on the Old Town Walking Mall and we were able to engage with folkloric dancers from Oaxaca and from some other states in Mexico who were able to bring their gifts of dance and theater to the event. We were able to work with many more musicians at Shenandoah and a conductor. So we had almost 20 musicians and singers cantantes out there just celebrating and sharing their cultural traditions.

So we're really building these bridges and sharing this beautiful cultural celebration not just within the Mexican community, but the Latin American community and the greater community in Winchester. So it's been a beautiful educational opportunity, a chance for people to share their culture and share their gifts and for us to all gather and celebrate.

It's not what we oftentimes associate with death and loss in Western culture, where it's a somber and very sad and introspective time. But this is rather a chance to celebrate the fact that these people who we loved and lost are still remembered and we still hold them with joy in our hearts and our souls. So it's really a special and beautiful, vibrant celebration.

Abi: Everyone is invited. This is a free public event. It'll be hosted at the Taylor Pavilion on the Old Town Walking Mall in Winchester, Virginia. And if we happen to encounter horrible weather, if it's raining and very cold, our backup location will be on Shenandoah University campus at the Brand Student Center. So this is an example of a lot of the artwork that was created for the ofrenda. So this ofrenda, or altar is sort of the visual centerpiece of these celebrations. The elements on it incorporated are very specific and very symbolic and all mean different things about the celebration in this journey. So these artistic elements, including the paper flowers, the butterflies, the Calaveras that are included, were all sculpted and created by my students and other students at Shenandoah.

The actual event itself happens at night when we use these candles and the illumination, and that's when everything really starts. So these photos were taken of the event last year, and you can see the dancers had beautiful costumes. They incorporate elements of light and color in their performances as well. This is a better view of the ofrenda itself. And one of the common repetitive themes here are the Marigold flowers or cempasuchil and the Nhawadal language. So those are very symbolic and important. They have a very strong scent, which is known to draw the spirits of our loved ones lost back to the altars and also represents the earth. And here you can see the dancers mid routine. The dancers and the elements that they bring, whether it's the Marigolds fruit, like pineapples, also have very symbolic meanings. The different dresses and costumes represent different areas around Mexico, different states.

Dr. Diane: Well, and the makeup is just phenomenal as you look at the faces of the dancers and you can see the very beautifully defined skulls. And I'm assuming that there's symbolism and deliberation in those choices as well.

Abi: Yeah, absolutely. And this is something that I share with students, and it's also probably a good PSA to remember, is that other people's cultures are not costumes. So as we approach the Halloween season, we do want to make sure to differentiate between Di los Muertos and Halloween. It is not the same thing. And unless you're Mexican, it is inappropriate to paint your face like one of these calaveras or skulls that you see here. This is culturally significant. And while the Mexican people as a whole share this rich cultural tradition with joy and with pleasure, there is sort of a line of respect that needs to be maintained. So if you are not of Mexican descent, if you do not belong to that culture, it is not appropriate to paint your face up like somebody you would see at a Dia de los Muertos celebration.

[23:24] The importance of public art and ongoing projects.

  • The role of public art in building community, fostering connection, and creating a sense of place.

  • Arte Libre VA's parking space mural project, which brings art to the streets and provides opportunities for emerging and BIPOC artists.

I believe that public art is essential to create a sense of community, a sense of connection, a sense of autonomy and place making for people who live in any particular area. And that's what we use public art for, is to again build bridges, to create more connection within the community and not just to beautify the space, which is also sort of a positive byproduct of these projects.

[25:25] Showcase of parking space murals.

  • Abi showcases images of the parking space murals created by various artists, including a dragon mural by Kelsey Camacho.

Abi: One of the projects that has been ongoing over the past couple of years with Arte Libre VA have been these parking space murals. We wanted to bring art again out into the streets, right in front of people. And in the Old Town district, it can be challenging to paint a lot of the buildings. So as we're seeing murals start to materialize on some of the walls, we hope to be able to increase that presence and also allow access to emerging and BIPOC artists. So we pulled out a couple of calls for entry for emerging artists to be able to participate in this parking space mural program. And we've had folks selected who are as young, I think our youngest was around twelve years old, and then through adults in their 60s. So just a beautiful opportunity to allow creatives in our area to share their gifts and their visions with our community.

[26:08] The symbolism of the butterfly in Arte Libre's work.

  • The butterfly logo as a symbol, representing transformation, strength, and the promise of growth.

  • Connecting the butterfly's symbolism to the transformative power of the arts.

Abi: I wanted to use a butterfly to represent that constant promise of the ability to transform and change. And even when things are messy, even when things are hard, even if you're feeling delicate and broken, that there's always a strength in us. And that the strength. There's an opportunity to persevere and to rise up, to transform, to become something else. Just because you been in one place or been in a field or have made certain choices, doesn't mean that those can't be changed. And you can always grow. You can always grow. And I think that it's a general symbol of just the idea of being uplifted and transformed. It's something that brings beauty that's important to our ecosystem. And I feel this way about the arts as well, that they allow one to transform, that they're integral, that they're such an important part of our human experience, and that there's always room to transform. You always have a place there.

[27:30] Abi's dreams for the future

  • Arte Mobile, a vehicle transformed into a mobile art studio.

  • The importance of providing tuition-free art programming and paying teaching artists for their work.

[29:58] How to contact and support Arte Libre VA.

Want to help with Dia De Los Muertos in 2023?
Turn in your photos for the Offends by October 27.

Thursday, November 2, 2023

Día de los Muertos! @ 7pm

Join FYS: The Power of Public Art to celebrate Día de los Muertos in Old Town Winchester. Gather at the Taylor Pavilion (weather permitting) to celebrate and remember loved ones who went before us. Shenandoah University musicians and singers will be joined by Mexican Folkloric dancers in front of a beautifully created Ofrenda. This community celebration is supported by Shenandoah University, the City of Winchester, and Arte Libre VA.

Location: Taylor Pavilion, Old Town Winchester (weather permitting). Rain location is at Shenandoah University.

Contact: Professor Abi Gómez,, 540-323-1343

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