Teacher creates art to promote social justice

mayan hands project

When you think about diversity in art, you might think about mixed media, such as a canvas of both paint and collage, painted photographs, or a marriage of paint and graphite.

For Bethlehem art teacher Diane Segal, diversity in art is about bringing social justice into the creative world. It is about teaching students in a comfortable suburban Albany County district how families in Guatemala struggle to survive. It is about having them help, through art, women and children in the Capital District who are victims of domestic violence or are struggling with poverty, mental illness or HIV/AIDS, and getting assistance at Unity House in Troy. It is about making quilts for students in Schoharie who lost their homes two years ago due to severe flooding.

Segal, a member of the Bethlehem Central Teachers Association, is at home in the high school where she teaches, surrounded by fabric, fine papers, paint, cutouts, wooden boxes and all manner of art-in-waiting in her large studio classroom.  She’s known to wear several necklaces at once, and belts and big earrings. Sometimes, throw in a vest, too. Art, for her, is never a separate subject or thing; it is everywhere. She herself is art in motion.

To get to her class, you have to walk past the school lobby where a large quilt hangs from floor to ceiling; a colorful work of art with squares, patches, beadworks, haiku, and charms. After returning from one of three trips she has taken to Guatemala, Segal had students in the afterschool Art Club make the diversity quilt.The centerpiece of the quilt, or medallion, is a large fabric turtle, symbolic of mother earth in the Native American tradition. Students honored their heritage by bringing in fabric from countries such as China, Iran, Germany and Japan, homes to their ancestors or where they have family members still living. It’s all part of the quilt.

In Segal’s fashion and fiber arts class, students stitched the quilt together. For one summer, it hung in the town library, along with photos from her trip. Her work was shared with community after one of her trips to Guatemala, where she worked with Mayan Indians in their homes and villages as part of a sabbatical.

Segal teaches students how Guatemalan women are given a fair chance of supporting themselves and their families through organizations such as Mayan Hands and Fair Trade commerce.  Mayan women weave, make baskets and shape felt animals in centuries-old traditional ways. Mayan Hands ( is an organization that partners with these talented women to help them journey out of extreme poverty and empower themselves by crafting and selling their art.  Segal invites local Mayan Hands representative Brenda Rosembaum to the school several times a year to sell Fair Trade products — a percentage of the sales are given to the teacher’s union to be used toward their scholarship fund.

Bethlehem colleague Melanie Painter, who supervises K-12 programs where special needs students are taught, stopped in the hall to look at the quilt — again.

Segal, she said, thinks about “artwork as a voice for other people. It can change the world.”

Painter said art can help people see how their actions affect others, and makes people self-reflective.

When flooding at the start of the school year two years ago washed away much of the village of Schoharie in a nearby county, Segal talked to her students in fiber and fashion class about making quilts.

“Most of them had never sewn, so I taught them simple sewing to make a patchwork quilt,” she said.  Fabric was donated for the project and parents sent in batting and thread to contribute.

The students, she said, used cooperative learning by working in teams to make the quilts, measuring and cutting the fabric, sewing patches. They used color theory, and pieced and tied the quilts.

“It was a very meaningful experience,” said Segal. “They were building relationships among themselves and giving these quilts as gifts to children their own age.”

The quilts were given to students whose names were provided by the Schoharie schools guidance counselors. Along with the six quilts delivered, students wrote their Schoharie peers a letter, providing their name and e-mail if they wanted to correspond.

This school year, Segal invited Diane Cameron, a representative of Unity House, to speak to students about the programs for women and children. Afterward, the students decided to decorate composition notebook covers with collage, fabric, inspirational quotes and ribbon so that the women at Unity House could be given gifts of handmade, personal journals to help as a therapeutic tool for their recovery.  The books of beauty will ideally inspire the women to learn to express themselves as they seek to change.

“Hopefully, this is a beginning of their giving a part of themselves to community and reaching out to people in need,” Segal said.

Her own beginnings came after a fire at Temple Israel, where she worships, destroyed a stained glass window. She designed a new piece, called the Tree of Life, which was crafted by a stained glass artist. The process helped her grieve the death of her father.

“This was the beginning of my intense volunteer work,” she said.

After receiving positive feedback on the work, temple officials asked Segal to design the other windows, which she did — all in a pattern of Judaic symbolism leading to the Tree of Life: flying doves, grass and the burning bush.

Segal takes two or three professional development workshops a year in the Connecticut, New Jersey or New York City area “to keep myself fresh in my own artwork and to keep myself fresh as a teacher. I get excited and bring that back to students.” The BCTA, led by local union president David Rounds, provides small grants to educators continue their professional development.

She is always poised for the next project, like having students make fiber baskets by “coiling”  — yarn wrapped around a clothesline. Then there are art boxes. And personal facial profiles painted on colorful backgrounds and faces flush with words.

It’s all churning color to Segal.

Where you see a tree, she sees a window.

-- Liza Frenette

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