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The Commons
Photo 1

Courtesy of Petria Mitchell

A “good luck mural” put together by the fifth- and sixth-graders at Marlboro Elementary School for artist Jim Giddings, who lost his studio and a lifetime artwork in a fire last year.

Voices / Essay

Kids respond to artist's loss

Marlboro Elementary School students speak through art and create a gift of empathy and compassion when words fail

Sue Aldridge, who teaches art at Marlboro Elementary School, provides the first contribution to a series of pieces organized through the efforts of the Brattleboro Compassion Follow-up Committee. Submissions, from Brattleboro area residents, for future publication, not to exceed 650 words, should be emailed to: or mailed to: Compassion Story of the Month, c/o Robert Oeser, P.O. Box 6001, Brattleboro, VT 05302. Please include your name, address, phone number, and email address. Earlier submitted stories will automatically be considered in subsequent months.

Originally published in The Commons issue #419 (Wednesday, August 2, 2017). This story appeared on page D2.

Compassion. I could fill a book: from the way drivers automatically take turns at the four-way stop signs in Brattleboro to the many organizations around the area that provide compassionate support.

Last fall, a situation arose, like a Phoenix from smoke and ashes — a remarkable act of compassion.

Jim Giddings’ studio burned down, and 40 years of his artwork was destroyed. His loss called out to the hearts of many.

We pride ourselves in this region for our firm foundation in the arts — we have so many artists and venues, so many genres and disciplines!

And so, support for this artist, who has been woven into our art community for as long as he had been creating the artwork he lost, built like wildfire. (Please excuse the expression.)

Starting with the firefighters from departments responding from all over the region, many friends, neighbors, and strangers rallied to give emotional and fundraising support.

* * *

One group of neighbors and strangers impressed me particularly with their heartfelt generosity and their different approach. I admit to being biased about this group, as they were a class of fifth- and sixth graders at Marlboro Elementary School, where I teach art.

Their classroom teacher contacted me to let me know about a “morning news” discussion the class had about the fire. Artwork is a tangible manifestation of an artist’s mind and voice. It seemed an inconsolable loss to these students.

The empathy and compassion they felt for Jim — particularly for the loss of his artwork, which represented so many years of growth, learning, and expression — called them to respond.

Then one student suggested, “I think we should make some art to give him.”

So began a collaborative piece that the class made and gave to Jim Giddings.

* * *

Ideas were voiced: the students knew they couldn’t replace the work Jim had lost, but they wanted to help him past such a difficult time, to voice their empathy, to give him hope and courage to rebuild his studio and restart his art.

The images that each student-artist chose to create in mono-print and scratchboard reflected this purpose. The careful choices they made in collaging the individual images into one collaborative piece showed so clearly their unified compassion.

Sometimes I forget that children, being newer to this world, are more grounded in the present and the tangible. They want to feel, and taste, and smell, and see all the world has in it.

Sometimes the loss of something tangible requires a gift of something tangible to represent overwhelming intangibles.

* * *

Perhaps this is at the root of the age-old question: Why art?

This group of students, through their actions and their artistic creation, had one answer. Art represents and communicates overwhelming intangibles and feelings. Art is a gift of empathy and compassion when words fail.

This group nailed it! And so did the recipient.

Jim Giddings was touched and told the students that their art would be the first thing hung on the walls of his new studio when it was built.

The day before school ended, he invited the group to see their work in his new studio on the other side of the hill in Marlboro.

Such a satisfying circle of compassion!

And a special high-five to the student with the perception and generous heart who made the original suggestion that started this circle.

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