A murder in front of her home ‘changed everything’ for this neighborhood resident
Words seem to have value for neighborhood artist Karen Blessen, who designed 29 art pieces and a subsequent nonprofit organization around phrases. One word in particular has special value for Blessen: peace.
“Words hold a charge,” she says. “A word is worth an infinite number of pictures.”
On a morning in 2000, a stranger was shot and killed in front of her home in a robbery and attempted carjacking. The violence pierced her life. She wrote her thoughts in a journal for years and in 2003 published an article, “One Bullet,” in the Dallas Morning News about that night and its ripple effect. The man who died, David Michael McNulty, was 26, and the man accused of pulling the trigger, Diomedes Titus McNeal, was 18 at the time.
“The murder changed everything,” Blessen says. “I spent three years interviewing everyone affected by the murder. After three years of listening to people talk about the grief that they felt that never goes away and researching the culture of violence, I wanted to do something.”
For five months in 2005, Blessen immersed herself in words and meditation, creating models of 29 art pieces inspired by phrases such as “make my hands respect the things you have made” and “I see no imprint of my sins. In a moment, love has burned everything.”
As a result, she created the organization 29 Pieces, which officially became a nonprofit in 2010 and in 2011 merged with Blessen’s other organization, Today Marks the Beginning, co-founded with Barbara Miller, executive director of admissions for Baylor College of Dentistry.
Work is now underway to construct Blessen’s designs in their full sizes, which in some cases are as vast as 60 feet. 29 Pieces is also looking for a location to call home. An architectural rendering depicts a building with space for workshops, performances and, of course, the art.
“They’re intended to be breathtaking in their scale,” Blessen says of the pieces. After all, she says, the organization’s tagline is to effect “monumental change through monumental art.”
Planning began in 2007 for what is now a 29 Pieces program called MasterPEACE, which teaches students peace through art and other curricula.
“Children are born with so much love,” she says. “The pain [violence] causes, it does not heal. It’s so deep that I just want to do one little thing to work with children to show them that there are other ways to work in this world.”
MasterPEACE has now collaborated with at least 25 public and private schools and more than 3,000 children from second through 12th grade.
“I may be the face of this organization for whatever reason, but it’s been a huge group of people who’ve gotten us this far,” Blessen says pointing to the financial team, administrative team, artists, teachers and others involved.
Blessen, artists and other volunteers go into schools and hold workshops that focus on specific words, such as “thrive,” “consequences,” “empathy” and “love.” Students participate in discussions and a project that might include making art or role-playing. Blessen says this type of project-based learning involves a student’s hands, heart, mind, spirit and body.
After winning the $5,000 grand prize in last year’s Marigold Ideas for Good contest, Blessen is investing in a pilot project, which runs through mid-February, training teachers and counselors to teach the 14-lesson curriculum on their own. Educators are now leading MasterPEACE workshops in their schools.
“MasterPEACE is a program that is really about empowering kids to see themselves as a peacemaker and as a person that can make a difference in the world,” says Karen Isbell, English teacher at East Dallas’ Maya Angelou High School for pregnant and parenting teens, where the program has been used. “It gave students the feeling that they have permission to be themselves more, and that who they are is a positive thing.”
While the vision is grand — Blessen hopes entire school districts will adopt the program in Dallas, throughout Texas and around the world — its focus remains on students.
“MasterPEACE provides an avenue of discussing what life is really like and the realities of what they’re dealing with, which sometimes includes violence, uncertainty, fear, disempowerment,” Isbell says. “So much of what MasterPEACE is doing is creating a discussion of ‘What can I do?’ and ‘What do I want to do?’ ‘What do I see in the world that is creating violence?’ and ‘What can I do to be a force that counteracts that and creates something different?’”
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