Full Circle

Kirsten Morelli, a Free Arts staff member, shares her story of growth. She takes us on a journey of her experience with Free Arts, from participant to professional. Read her words below:

I may be a relatively new staff member, but I’ve been a part of the Free Arts Family for over 15 years. My life is a testimony that art does indeed heal, and mentoring is what really makes it work. Like many served by Free Arts, my childhood was clouded with the effects of generational poverty, homelessness, substance-dependency, mental illness, and incarceration. By 11 years of age, I had moved seven times in Arizona’s Public School System- bouncing back and forth from the Phoenix Metro Area to the small towns of Central and Northern Arizona. My story with Free Arts began in sixth grade when I left my Grandmother’s home to live with my mom and two younger sisters at the YWCA in Phoenix. This shelter provided a safe place for us while my mom got back on her feet, but it also opened unique opportunities that would shape my future. The staff at YWCA noticed how I spent hours creating colorful roses containing scenery within the petals. Naturally, they assumed art camp was the perfect place for this tween to spend her summer days. Let’s just say I didn’t exactly appreciate the creative pressure. drumming, sushi making, and swing dancing were all among the wild ideas Free Arts offered me. I told them “I can’t”, and they relentlessly believed that I could.

One experience in particular has always stood out. In a new project, we were to make plaster masks. The thought of creating a plaster mask made me feel a great deal more uncomfortable than timidly tapping a drum offbeat. To me, it was a cruel copy of my facial structure because “big noses just weren’t beautiful”. I absolutely refused to do it. Thankfully, there were caring adults in the space that recognized my resistance and provided alternatives to the process. A few Volunteer Mentors took nervous kids like me to a separate room. There, they gently covered my face in plaster strips and encouraged my bravery for giving it a try. The next day of camp, I arrived excited to finish my mask because I had felt so supported by the people there. It became an abstract self-representation. Molding an animal’s face on top of my own gave me a sense of control over the way I was seen, and that was a big deal. I chose to sculpt and paint a white tiger’s face to honor my love for cats and a cherished memory with my mom and sisters at the zoo. The biggest takeaway for me hasn’t been a piece of artwork, it was the feeling of that first step towards self-love and belief. Free Arts worked their pyramid-of-hope magic. My life trajectory was deeply impacted by that chance to experience the wonderful sense of self-efficacy from trying something that, at first, felt scary.

This is where things start to feel very serendipitous. At a restaurant I worked at, I spoke highly of the volunteer work I was doing and shared the progress and final product of a mural I painted at a music clinic. A fellow creative co-worker shared his experience as a Teaching Artist for a really cool nonprofit that provided trauma-informed art programs for kids in foster care, group homes, and homeless shelters. It was particularly meaningful for him because, as a child, he was a participant in the organization’s programs. It all sounded too familiar, and I told him about the Multicultural Arts Camp I had attended. With that, I rediscovered my long lost Free Arts and quickly became a fully immersed camp volunteer. For five weeks straight, I was that supportive and caring adult for kids in MAC, Theater, and Hip-Hop Camps. I started to connect with some of the program staff and share my story. Becoming a Volunteer Mentor in an 8 week program was the next step in my journey. Not long after my Weekly Mentor Program closed, a new role opened up in the organization. I felt my heart shout, “Hey! I can do that.” Now, as the Program Assistant, I treasure this opportunity to really get my hands on the work that Free Arts does so wonderfully. It’s been a whirlwind of an experience to see a dream like this become the truth I live every day.

(Kirsten pictured on the right in the photo below)