Dionne Custer Edwards addresses students and parents attending the Pages 2018 open mic reading. Credit: Courtesy of Katie Spengler

In rural areas of Columbus, local high-school students don’t always get the opportunity to express themselves in healthy ways through the arts, or get the chance to visit galleries and museums.

But as a part of the Pages program, a writing program that brings high-school students to the Wexner Center for the Arts to experience different art forms to help them think differently about their writing, these students get the opportunity to express themselves in ways they couldn’t before.

Pages began 13 years ago when Dionne Custer Edwards, educator and manager in school partnerships, started working at the Wexner Center. As a writer, she wanted to start a program to integrate art into different high-school subjects that required writing to give students an opportunity to think about writing in a different way.

“I thought, ‘What if we could do more arts integration in the study of writing, in the practice of writing, and how we were thinking about how we are putting ideas on the page?’” Custer Edwards said. “Thirteen years later, we have served hundreds and hundreds of students, dozens of teachers all across Central Ohio as far as urban communities, suburban, rural communities.”

Custer Edwards said every academic year, students are offered three contemporary arts experiences: visual, film and performing arts. At the end of the program, the Wexner Center publishes various student writings and artwork in a book, and students can participate in an end-of-the-year open mic reading at the arts center.

This year, the visual arts experience was a visit to the Mickalene Thomas “I Can’t See You Without Me” exhibition, the film experience was a screening of “Hale County This Morning, This Evening” by filmmaker RaMell Ross and the performing arts experience will be the upcoming live show of Jaamil Olawale Kosoko’s performance, “Seancers.”

Along with bringing students to the Wexner Center — with free busing and lunches — Custer Edwards said three different artists in residence who relate to each experience also visit the five participating schools before and after each experience to prepare them, as well as create an opportunity for the students to discuss their thoughts.

“We get six visits where that artist is completely dedicated just to this group of students and what they’re working on and what they’re reading,” Stacey O’Reilly, an English teacher at Big Walnut High School who’s been involved with the program for three years, said. “We always make connections of what we’re seeing at the Wex to what we’re learning in class.”

O’Reilly said many of her students don’t normally have the opportunity to go to a theater or visit an art gallery because Big Walnut is in a rural area.

“To go to Ohio State University, to be on a college campus, to be in the Wex and just to get a more intimate view of that, isn’t an opportunity you would have,” O’Reilly said.

Being able to experience art through Pages has allowed O’Reilly’s students to be more confident in taking creative risks in writing and in-class discussion. But more importantly, she said, it has allowed them to express more, including dealing with loss, in which she had a student whose best friend had passed away the summer before O’Reilly’s first year in the Pages program.

“I think the program was really cathartic for him. It gave him the opportunity to express himself in ways that he wouldn’t have otherwise and it really helped him work through the loss of his best friend,” O’Reilly said.

Custer Edwards said that while seeing various students and classes dealing with loss and being able to express their feelings through Pages, one thing stuck out.

“Resilience,” she said. “The resilience of students and teachers that are going through this program.”

Custer Edwards said she hopes Pages can continue to do good work, reach out to schools such as those in rural areas or areas farther outside Columbus — like schools they’ve worked with recently that are an hour away — and allow those students to experience arts like they haven’t before.

“It’s really nice to know that there are so many schools we can be in partnership with and that we can be in service to,” she said. “That is exciting to me.”