Art Students KCAI Get the Opportunity to Become Published Authors

“Focus! Focus! Focus! Focus! What’s that?” -Olivia

For five consecutive years, more than 100 students at the Kansas City Art Institute (KCAI) in Kansas City, Missouri, have graced the world with their artistic creations inspired by their own, personal Six-Word Memoirs. In 2021, however, students and recent graduates had the opportunity to directly collaborate with Six-Word Memoirs on its book, A Terrible Horrible, No Good Year: Six-Word Stories On the Pandemic by Teachers, Students, and Parents, a creative way to publish student writing.

Professor John Ferry discovered Six-Word Memoirs in 2016, after listening to an NPR segment that covered the project. Inspired by the concept and its potential within the art world, John introduced Six-Word Memoirs to his “Image and Form” class that fall, and he’s been using it ever since.

When John starts his Six-Word project, he introduces it by having his students write at least five memoirs about themselves, to be shared with the class. Students are then to select the memoirs they believe are the most meaningful, and illustrate them. It’s a simple process, but requires some introspective decision making - an important skill for art students to learn. As a result, John has experienced almost everything in the Six-Word illustrated form; from the superficial and lighthearted to the powerful and personal.

“Creation in solitude led me here” -Brigid

The possibility of publishing student work came up for the fall of 2021. In the art world, student self-publishing isn’t terribly difficult, but to also become written authors? John thought it was too hard to pass up. So, in addition to his fall class students, John reached out to other art students in various majors and years at KCAI, and explained the parameters of the assignment. As the saying goes: ‘a picture is worth a thousand words,’ but this time, those words could only be six.

As a prompt, focusing on the pandemic was an unusual artistic request, as John’s students are generally used to simple instructions. “In the past, when I’ve assigned the project, it’s usually pretty open-ended: write a Six-Word Memoir and illustrate it. So, I like the fact that this was more specifically about the pandemic.” He encouraged these young artists to reflect on their pandemic experiences in a positive light, in the hope that they would emerge with insightful lessons about themselves and their lives. The assignment was a test of vulnerability, and John believes that with the added level of student book publishing - which can make people play it safe - was more of a motivator for his art students than an inhibitor. “I think in many ways it was very therapeutic for them, to get their emotions and feelings about the pandemic out through their art,” he says.

A professional artist and painter himself, John mentions the benefits of bringing the outside world into the classroom through the project and student publishing. Aware of the various factors which govern work in illustration, John finds that having a specific prompt with illustration guidelines can simulate the controlled freedom of working with clients in a professional environment.

(R) “How to treasure what you have” -Miranda
(L) “His voice unmuffled. The beautiful sound” -Zoe

He wasn’t wrong. His students covered themes of productivity, socializing, time, and pop culture, but through the lens of the pandemic. John also noted that everyone that contributed shared an eagerness for having a place to publish student writing, and this book topic idea motivated them to push themselves creatively. “I think class book publishing can be a really exciting moment—it was for me when I got my first piece published. A lot of students were thrilled that I included them in the project, but everyone was thrilled to have a chance at seeing their work in print.”

As a veteran user of the Six-Word Memoir concept, John plans to use it for the rest of his teaching career. “In my years of teaching, this is, by far, my favorite project to give my students. I honestly feel like I get the best response from it. For the most part, students really surprise themselves, and the ones who get really engaged start enjoying writing as well.”

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