HOW CAN THREE WEEKS of creating art projects possibly help calm a dispute that has confounded diplomats, politicians, and religious leaders for decades? Swampscott resident Debbie Nathan, founder and executive director of Artsbridge, has entertained versions of that question since 2008, when her nonprofit ran its first summer training session to promote understanding between Israeli and Palestinian teenagers, on “neutral territory” at Beverly’s Endicott College.
And Nathan usually gives the same answer to cynics who wonder what art can possibly do: Come have a look at Artsbridge in action. This year, 30 students, divided among Israelis, Palestinians, and — for the first time — Americans, are at Brandeis University through July 24, their participation funded by donations to the organization. Teens from each side of the conflict arrive curious, wary, and emotionally saturated, raised on story lines that have become tangled over the course of generations. “All of a sudden, they’re put in a situation that begins to question that narrative,” says Nathan, speaking in June from Israel, where she was overseeing orientation for the current session.
Group art projects are a key part of Artsbridge. Teams of students must figure out their medium, their message, and everything in between. At first, Nathan says, “their artwork is kind of shallow — ‘Let’s make a painting of a peace sign with people holding hands.’” Over time, however, something deeper emerges, such as the Feelings Tower three students made in 2010, a rickety sculpture fashioned with assorted cardboard shapes and images to represent their “unstable feelings as they relate to conflict.”
Each year, the works are shown at an on-campus exhibition. Being able to communicate through a finished creation matters, but the process matters more. There is small talk and soul-baring, finger-pointing and handshakes, down time in dorms, and most crucially, listening. “For kids used to saying what’s on their mind, and the louder the better, that’s pretty huge,” says Nathan, who is also an art therapy instructor at Lesley University in Cambridge.
The Artsbridge concept stems from the several years that the now 54-year-old Nathan spent living in Israel in the 1970s. She looked for a way for Israeli and Palestinian youths to learn about one another in a “safe environment,” far from the constant friction that kept them separated. Through artwork, she says, students find commonality and gain insight that words often fail to provide. ‘‘This isn’t a peace program,” says Nathan, a mother of three whose husband, Peter, is on the board of directors for Artsbridge. “We work toward giving them the skills they need to make a difference in and between their communities.”
Noor Nashef, a 17-year-old Palestinian in Israel, took part in Artsbridge two years ago. She says collaborating with strangers was challenging. “When you have to share [art] with another person you are just getting to know, it makes it much more difficult,” she says.
Now back home in Israel, Nashef, who is Arab, still treasures the experience, but is pragmatic when it comes to its wider impact. “I don’t think Artsbridge can make a difference on a big scale, and it’s not because the program is unsuccessful or not capable of doing so. It’s because not everyone is willing to open their minds to other people’s lives and stories.”
But then she adds: “The people who believe in change are not giving up. The hope of change still excites.”
To Nathan, that must sound a lot like Artsbridge.