DSC_0102At Laura Tryon Jennings’ summer workshops next to the Art Complex Museum, hugs are almost as common as the creations her students dream up.

For five years the local award-winning artist has been motivating campers from Camp Wing to unlock feelings and emotions through exercises that call on the heart as much as the mind. The students start as complete strangers to Jennings on day one, but after seven mornings of art and open dialogue, certain bonds are woven between her and the children.

 

On the final presentation day for her most recent group, a dozen girls from Crossroads for Kids’ leadership program, tears filled Jennings’ eyes while she embraced the campers one last time as they walked out the door.

“Often times the kids will say their favorite thing is getting hugs,” Jennings said.

The morning started with “couch time,” a favorite among the students since their arrival in the studio. They had been working on a big project all week long and it was time to share their final products with the rest of the group. Squeezed close together on comfy chairs, the campers went around in a circle revealing their inspirations for the boxes they created. Some depicted the campers’ favorite places and others represented their future aspirations. Some students used color to evoke certain moods, an impressive technique for children with limited knowledge of art prior to Jennings’ workshop.

“How does your box represent your heart’s desires,” Jennings asked. “What sort of things have you discovered about yourself in these last seven days?”

“When I grow up I want to have some of the same things my mom wanted to have,” one camper replied as she pointed to her artwork, a model of an elegant bedroom carefully fashioned out of wooden pieces and fabric.

Sixty-five percent of Crossroads’ campers are from neighborhoods in Boston while many others come from eastern Massachusetts and Cape Cod. As Crossroads’ creative arts director Andrew Davids said, many of the students come from underprivileged backgrounds and lack the sort of creative thinking experiences Jennings’ program provides.

“A lot of these kids don’t get exposure to art,” Davids said. “A lot are from low-income families and it’s a struggle. This is a big opportunity for them.”

Whatever introspective question Jennings asked about their work and how it made them feel, the campers were not bashful to answer. In fact, Jennings and her two helpers, Doris Collins and Beverly Hovey, have noticed the more personal prompts they give the campers, the more they open up to share their stories. It’s that precise sort of candor that Jennings wants her expressive exercises to awaken.

“Even if they can get a small taste of expressing themselves right now, in real life they will be able to be that much more open,” Jennings said. “We ask questions here that no one’s ever asked them before.”

As couch time wrapped up, the campers went back to work placing final touches on their paintings and arm castings. Jazz music played quietly in the background to set the tone. Jennings bounced from student to student to offer her help and advice on their projects, but by then, each girl had her own proud vision.

When Jennings was younger, her mother did similar work by teaching children to read. Even during tough times, she would host ex- change students in the family’s small apartment. The passion for serving others, Jennings said, is something she’s glad to have inherited.

“Even if I walk in here feeling tired in the morning, I feel I always get just as much out of this as the kids do,” Jennings said. “It’s amazing.”

To Jennings, Collins and Hovey, it’s exciting to wel- come a new group but tougher to say goodbye. In the seven days the campers get to spend in the studio, intimate experiences allow them to forge a cohesive unit. There are no secrets. Instead there are laughs, tears and plenty of hugs.

“I just wish I could follow each and every one of them,” Jennings said. “I know they’re going to do good in the world and accomplish a lot in their lives.”