Pause, Breathe, Draw: Art and Consciousness in the Classroom

As a young girl, Elizabeth Traina had a teacher tell her that she wasn’t an artist. Now she helps empower teachers and students through the belief that we are all artists. This is Elizabeth’s story.

Ray Bradbury wrote, “Self-consciousness is the enemy of all art, be it acting, writing, painting, or living itself, which is the greatest art of all.” In my own life I have found this to be true.


My self-conscious insecurities nearly derailed my chosen career as an artist and art educator. As a young person, I had an intuitive sense that I wanted to do this work, but I lacked confidence. When an art teacher told me I wasn’t an artist, I decided not to pursue art in college. I let myself be controlled by my fears, and surrendered my creative power over my life. But if self-consciousness is art’s enemy, consciousness is its truest friend. Learning to be mindful, to trust your intuition, and to think creatively is the key to the art of living. Although I went to a college with a very small art program, it was there that I had this sudden desire to create. In a burst of creativity, I painted a mural in the back of my dorm room and got a lot of praise. Suddenly my self-confidence went from zero to 60, and I thought, “Why am I pursuing a career or an education that is outside my innate calling?” I transferred schools, committed myself to my passion, and haven’t looked back.

As a teacher, mural director, professional development facilitator, and personal coach, I’ve come to see the deep interconnections between art and consciousness, and I believe that both are vital for a happy life. As teachers—beyond whatever subjects we teach—we aim to help our students become successful and thriving individuals. For me, that means helping them embrace their creative potential and be more mindful of the negative stories they tell themselves and negative patterns of behavior they engage in. 

We can all do this for our students, but first, we must do it for ourselves.


I had this sudden desire to create. In a burst of creativity, I painted a mural in the back of my dorm room.

Early in my career I took a job as an art teacher at a charter school in Oakland. I quickly learned how underprepared I was for the challenges of teaching. In the training of educators, we often fail to talk about things like emotions, trauma, and transference. As a young and inexperienced teacher, when I felt like the room was “out of control” with pain or tension, I found myself raising my voice to regain control over my students. Although it may have yielded temporary results, it did not teach to the character of the young people I was in service to. I urgently needed to understand where my reactions were coming from. I thought back to when I was my students’ age and realized that my parents and teachers had modeled similar behavior. I committed to healing from my own experiences and learning tools for self-improvement.

Fifteen years ago, one of the most effective tools I learned was the idea, “Take nothing personally,” from Don Miguel Ruiz’s book, The Four Agreements. It enhanced my life and changed my teaching from being just about content to teaching the whole student. As a teacher working in inner-city environments, many of my students have painful home lives and have experienced trauma. They may be disruptive and disrespectful in the classroom, but when I remember what they are dealing with and don’t take their behavior personally, I am so much better at resolving conflict. To me, I feel I am working in the most esteemed sense of service when I am guiding—and freeing—students and teachers to be the people they are meant to be. It is an honor and a gift.

Students Paint Purpose Mural

Canarsie High School students painting a mural.

Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Traina.

I’ve also learned that in order to teach creativity effectively, one must build a strong foundation of love, trust, fun, and ease. One of the most effective ways I have found to build this foundation is to teach my students to breathe. Of course we unconsciously breathe all the time, but when we focus on our breath we get out of our minds and connect with our hearts. Immediately our actions and thoughts begin to reflect more compassion towards ourselves and others. The great thing about this tool is that it only takes a moment, but it can completely change the temperature of a room. Offering thirty seconds of conscious breathing before an art project, before a presentation, or before a test can yield tremendous results.

When we focus on our breath we get out of our minds and connect with our hearts.

In my experience, art is another effective way to get students to be more mindful and positive. Just the other day I was working on a mural in my school in Brooklyn and I overheard a group of students, two girls and a boy, using profane language to joke with one another. They were one-upping each other, calling each other the n-word. It was playful and flirtatious, but out of line from my vantage point. I feel that if I don’t challenge inappropriate language then it sends a subconscious message that I don’t care, that I don’t think they are worth correcting. I approached the students and said “Hey! I’m working on a mural over here and your language is killing my vibe!” I reminded them that words we use affect the kinds of lives we lead and that we have to be mindful of how we speak about ourselves and others. Then I invited them to help with the mural, to paint together and listen to music.  The combination of firm, corrective intervention and quiet project-based creative time, followed by praise, allowed my words to sink in and create a shift.

Students Paint a Mural

Students painting a mural at Canarsie High School in Brooklyn, New York.

Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Traina.

At one point the four of us backed up, looked at the mural and asked, “What is the mural telling us it needs?” We realized that it needed more yellow, more opaqueness, a little more red in one part.  The students tapped into the intuitive art making experience, which for me, is the ultimate goal. Because if you can get into that intuitive relationship with a piece of art or a piece of writing you can get into an intuitive relationship with life. If I can step back and look at a mural and let it communicate what needs to happen to bring a sense of harmony, I can step back from my life and figure out what I need.
The truth is that all of us, teachers and students, young and old, are artists.


Everywhere I go I hear the same story: “I’m not an artist; I can’t draw.” From Oakland to New Orleans to Brooklyn, I’ve heard countless people echo this negative refrain. But it is a false story, and a damaging one. The truth is that all of us, teachers and students, young and old, are artists, and we need to embrace our own creativity in order to open ourselves up to the creative possibilities in our own lives. Whether or not we paint, or draw, we all have an enormous well of creativity to tap into when it comes to life.  As teachers and as students, we must look past the negative voices—like my childhood art teacher—and find the things in our lives that make us say: We are talented, we are soulful, we are alive!


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