Beth Burkhauser is a Trenton, New Jersey, native but considers herself a “transplanted NEPA Scrantonian.” She has spent most of her life, thus far, living and breathing art. She majored in art at Marywood University then taught art at various schools in Scranton for 35 years before retiring. She is now an adjunct professor of art education at Keystone College and the artist facilitator and designer for Heart to Art, a women-owned, community-based mural-making initiative. She also is the founder and director of the Hexagon Project, an international art project focused on connectedness. While she has faced tremendous adversity in her life, including the deaths of her son and first husband and a divorce, she considers her daughter, son-in-law and three grandchildren to be her biggest blessings in life.
Meet Beth Burkhauser…
What led to your interest in art?
My grandfather was an artist. We had a lot of performing and visual arts in the family. It was one of the things I found that I had ability in. I was always involved in other disciplines. I was editor of my school newspaper, and I was editor of my college yearbook and newspaper. I didn’t see barriers between those things.
Talk about your passion for teaching art…
I taught for 35 years and never did I come in and not feel challenged. I had a job right out of college. It was interviewing people, but I actually was falling asleep one day interviewing somebody, and I thought to myself “this is not where I want to be.” Not one day did I feel that way in teaching. It’s always been a challenge.
Can you tell me about the Hexagon Project?
I taught in a very diverse school, in a neighborhood that made me very mindful of the need to see our connectedness and our commonalities and not get hung up on how different everybody is, but to bring people together in common ways. Our project is really the Interdependence Hexagon Project, but we say Hexagon Project for short. It is about connectedness and that’s what interdependence is. Sondra Meyers, one of the founders of the Interdependence Movement, invited me to be a part of her local project. I wanted it to be visual in some way, and I wanted to involve students and community. I envisioned it being a mail art kind of thing where people would make the shape of a hexagon and it all connects. Hexagons are tessellations, and they connect infinitely, so that’s why we use the shape. Instead of a rectangle or square, it’s a hexagon. The makers of the hexagon and the art can see themselves as being part of a larger whole and your artwork is connected to other peoples’.
What about seeing the diverse group of students made you want to start a movement?
One of the themes of my teaching career has been integration of subjects. I always wanted to collaborate with teachers and connect curriculum when I was a teacher. We did that; in fact, our school became a model school for the integration of the arts as equal partners in education. We use the arts to connect everything together within the curriculum. It was natural for me to do something after I retired that still continued that meaningful way of making images that connect. I don’t think that art is a discrete discipline. Art includes all life, all history and every subject matter you can think of.
In what ways is a hexagon a metaphor for interconnectedness?
As you look in places like the molecular structure like carbon, we live in an interconnected material world. You think about bees and beehives and the whole concept of that colony of workers and then other people find other kinds of ways of thinking of the hexagons as metaphors. The hexagons — being an art teacher — I could say is just a drawing project, but no, I want people to take this project as far as they want to, with a one caveat, and that is use the hexagon template and then you can do anything you want to with it. Any medium can have meaning with this project.
How do kids become connected to one another by participating in the Hexagon Project?
The teacher has got to make that happen, and the best way is to have a show of hexagons in their own school before they send them to us. You can get people thinking about a certain concept and then you put them all together on a floor and talk about them. In fact, putting the hexagons down in a configuration where you see someone else’s, you can put [hexagons] next to each other based on similar colors, concepts or other things. That’s the perfect way to have kids share what they’ve made. We will be launching a new website in October. Teachers will be able to enter digitally and put photos of the artwork up, so every participant in the world will be able to see each other’s hexagon. That will make this even more meaningful.
Is there one specific hexagon that stands out to you for its message or its artwork?
One boy was interested in a sports-related issue. He says it’s on over-powered NBA teams. Many fans and players are complaining that the Warriors and the Rockets are too over-powered with the better players. He solved it. He said they have to get together to figure it out and debate on it. His drawing has people protesting one side and the other. That is a fascinating piece of artwork with the thinking that went into it. He is a fourth-grader. That is what this project allows kids to do, to find things that have meaning to them and get it out there.
What is the biggest thing kids can take away from being part of the project?
My belief is that when a child takes an idea that connects to their heart and has meaning, and takes the time to put it into a visual image to express that idea and take a stand on it, that stays with them for their entire life. That can make a difference in the decisions they make about the issues that they have analyzed and expressed.
Have tragedies you’ve been through, including losing your son and husband, affected how you go about this project or even life?
I have to say I did lose my first husband when I was only 27. I had a great-aunt who went through the Depression. She lost everything she had saved all her life. She saw people killing themselves and not able to cope. She said to me “You know what I did? I just had to keep going. I’m just going to do whatever I can to rebuild,” and that’s what she did. She just had the strength and determination and resiliency to do it. I feel like that influenced my life a lot, so when things happen, I think about that. There’s nothing wrong with getting support, counseling and help. I’ve taken advantage of that in my life, and it’s helped me a great deal. My son (who died from the disease of addiction) and I were very close. He helped many people with his counseling. He was just a wounded healer and couldn’t help himself. Even if everyone is smiling and looks great, we all have darkness and adversities and how we deal with them really makes all the difference.
Beth will be set up with the Hexagon Project at the Lackawanna Arts Fest on Courthouse Square on Saturday, Aug. 4 and will have an opening exhibit on Sept. 7 at First Friday in The Marketplace at Steamtown. For more information on The Hexagon Project visit hexagonproject.org/
Photos by Emma Black