Mindfulness in Teaching and Art

Opening the Quintessence of Creativity for Others

Photo Submitted By Artist, John Davis
Story By Christina Heintzelman – cheintzelman@benchmarkmediallc.com

Teacher, art facilitator, artist. John Davis never took an art class in high school and came to his profession later in life, mainly because of his intimidation toward his own creative process. In fact, he did not delve into art until he was in college. “I graduated with a degree in business from Penn State but took all my electives in art because I felt that I had missed so much. After graduating from college, I spent fifteen years in Corporate America working for AMP in mid-level management. Art went by the wayside.” He did continue with adult education in the arts by taking evening classes at Art Association of Harrisburg, Mechanicsburg Art Center School and Galleries, and other community art programs.

But Davis realized climbing the corporate ladder was not what he wanted for his life. “I felt the corporate world did not have the mission I wanted to focus on in my life, which is making the world a better and more meaningful place. So, I jumped ship and applied for a position at Milton Hershey School because I believe so strongly in their mission of serving students with grave socio-economic needs.” He started as a houseparent and held that position for four years. He then worked for a few years as the President’s staff assistant. During this time, he became involved as a board member for Jump Street and Art Association of Harrisburg and was the President of Hershey Art Association. At this point, he started seeing the therapeutic value of arts and focused on that as well. “While in this position, I began to work on various projects with the arts so increasingly became more interested in this field and eventually was hired on as the full time Coordinator of Visual Arts for pre-K through 12.”

Davis now wears many hats at MHS as in addition to his position of Coordinator of Visual Arts he has added Art and Gallery Educator, and art teacher at the high school level. “I provide services and coordination for all art related special projects, after school programs, curating gallery shows, community projects and co-advising the National Art Honor Society,” he says.

Davis’ goal as a teacher at Milton Hershey School is to show his students that they have a natural propensity toward creativity even if they are in doubt about this. “One of my initial questions to students is ‘how many of you think you can’t draw or paint?’ and almost every hand goes up. And then I say, ‘you are going to prove yourselves wrong.’”

One of his methodologies in this is his use of the Zentangle method. Zentangle was created in 2004 by Rick Roberts, a multi skilled practitioner with a lifelong understanding of meditation and mindful living, and Maria Thomas, a highly skilled calligrapher and artist. Zentangle is an American method for drawing, which promotes concentration and creativity. The focus of Zentangle is mindfulness, which is a major focus in Davis’ teaching. In addition to Zentangle, he uses the creation of mandalas and painted kindness rocks to assist students in mindfulness during a creative project.

“In additional to mindfulness, I focus on Social and Emotional Learning (SEL), which is a methodology that helps students of all ages better comprehend their emotions, to feel those emotions fully, and demonstrate empathy for others,” he says. He uses this to aid students in feeling comfortable with themselves and their feelings.

“The course is designed for students to learn the basic principles of art, but it is also a way to teach students creative problem solving and critical thinking skills. When a student asks me ‘Mr. Davis, is this what you are looking for?’ I answer, ‘I don’t know. Is this what you were looking for?’” He then adds, “If a student spills a cup of water on a watercolor painting s/he has been working on, I suggest that we just let it dry down and see what was created because as Bob Ross says, ‘there are no mistakes, just happy little accidents in art.’”

Davis spoke about an MHS program for career-focused education (CFE), an education tool that allows students, through academic programs, to pinpoint their professional path and focus on one career field. “The results of questionnaires to employers show that they are looking for critical thinking and problem solving as part of a core competency base that employees should have, and study in the arts facilitates these particular skills,” he says, suggesting that an art background will help in most any field.

One of Davis’ current special community projects for MHS is the large mural being installed in the area of Hershey known as the West End Development Area. He is working with Linda Billet, a local well known mosaic artist. This project will include the Hershey community, MHS, Lower Dauphin County, and Hershey High School. The mural will focus on an important topic of today – diversity, equity, and inclusivity (DEI) – and will be on the side of Cocoa Beanery, a coffee shop located next to The Englewood, a music and food venue which interestingly used to be a large dairy farm barn, supplying milk to Milton Hershey for his chocolate. “This mural will represent kindness and welcoming to everyone in the Hershey community,” Davis states.

“MHS has collaborated with many community and corporate entities throughout Hershey and many of our mural and other art projects can be seen throughout the city’,” Davis adds.

 Davis spends some of his free time working in his specialty, therapeutic art, by cofacilitating with a Certified Clinical Trauma Therapist in a therapeutic art program, with the Center for Hope and Healing (CHH) in Camp Hill. CHH is a trauma counseling practice that specializes in treatment for adults and children who have become imbalanced from traumatic responses to distressing and life-threatening events. “I am humbled to be able to teach at this facility because I learn so much from every single client who is willing to participate in the art program.” Toni Shearer, owner and director of the center, has this to say about Davis: “Because of John’s art background and his experience in this type of expressive therapeutic work he has been able to upgrade the quality of the work done by our clients, taking them to a higher level of expression than they may have been able to achieve before taking this program.” She says that many of their clients are women who have been in abusive relationships and adds that Davis’ kindness and empathy to others has allowed these women to feel safe within the program environment.

In addition, Davis has an art studio in The Millworks. “I wanted to have an opportunity like this for twenty plus years before it presented itself to me. Originally, I became inspired by the Torpedo Factory Art Center in Alexandria, VA. I always thought how cool this would be to be an artist in a place like that, learning from other artists and engaging with the public.” Fast forward and Davis finds The Millworks right here in Harrisburg and becomes one of the original tenants.

There is not just one area of focus for Davis as an artist, as he works in oils, acrylics, watercolors, mixed media, 3-D, mosaics, and drawing. His work, though, always focuses on places he has traveled, the inspiration he felt and how he can interpret what he has seen into how it makes him feel using a representational style of painting. In addition to viewing his art and seeing what he saw, the viewer can also respond through their personal feelings elicited through what he is representing. Davis always does photography or a thumb nail sketch first in preparation for his paintings.

Davis’ focus in the arts is not what he produces as art to be viewed or purchased but what he can do to open the creative and emotional healing in others. “The bottom line for me is I don’t care if I ever become a well-known artist or even sell my work, my passion is to assist children and adults connect with their expressive side through visual arts to help them find their passion and healing, where applicable, in their own journeys. It is a navigation through life. I’m just the vessel or the facilitator for them.”

Davis says, “I am living my best life right now. I can say that I am doing just what I wanted to do when I grew up – and I believe that I have finally grown up.” He adds that even after he retires from teaching at MHS he will want to continue working as a facilitator to help others unlock their creative potential and find their true self through expressive arts programs. “I’m also going to become the art teacher for my three beautiful granddaughters, who, along with their mom, have specifically asked me to do this,” he laughingly adds.

Davis concludes with stating that Central PA has always had such a strong work ethic that often when someone reaches retirement age it may be unclear to them what other areas of interest they may have other than the job that filled many years. For him, it is important to face retirement knowing that he still has a complete other chapter, or maybe an entire book, of giving to the community through expressive arts.

You can find Davis on Instagram artistjohn1961, on Facebook John C. Davis Artist, or at the Millworks in Studio 321.