PITTSBURG, Kan. — Last spring, Shawna Witherspoon finally had a long overdue conversation with her children, ages 9, 10, 11, and 13.

“We talked about the meaning of social injustice and how people have been discriminated against based on the color of their skin,” said Witherspoon, whose husband is Black. “We also had to explain to our kids that all police officers are not bad and that they cannot judge the many based on the actions of a few.”

That conversation, and the art she and her children made afterward, would be the catalyst for a new exhibit that opened Monday in the Bicknell Family Center for the Arts in honor of Black History Month: “A Series of Artistic Inspiration.”

Witherspoon has been the client services coordinator at the Bicknell Center since graduating with an art degree from Pittsburg State University in 2019 and has taken an active role in partnering with the PSU Black Student Association and Student Diversity Programs.

Her goal: to foster meaningful dialogue and change. But she is realistic.

“My kids need to realize that this has been happening an exceptionally long time, and although we hope they will grow up in a world without violence and prejudice, the reality is there is still a good chance that my boys could have a negative encounter at some point in their life based on the color of their skin,” Witherspoon said.

To help them express their thoughts and feelings, she turned to what she knew: creating.

“We would sit and paint or draw and use the shapes and colors to help express how they felt and to get out the emotions they could not find words for,” she said.

As the events of last summer unfolded on the national screen, she wrote a grant to help further the conversation and the art therapy on a public scale. Awarded by the Kansas Creative Arts Industries Commission, it provided funding for her to enlarge, frame, and hang photos from Axe Library Special Collections that capture milestones in Black history at PSU, and to purchase art supplies for patrons to use for their own creative expression.

“Some conversations are hard to start, but they still need to be had,” Witherspoon said. “I saw this as a starting point.”

Aided by university curator Steve Cox and Emely Flores, assistant director of Student Diversity and advisor to PSU BSA, Witherspoon chose images that range from a march down Broadway after Martin Luther King Jr. was killed, to contestants in a Miss Bold Black pageant held in 1971.

“Anyone who comes to see it can use our space and supplies to paint or draw the feelings they need to express but cannot find the words for,” she said. “My hope is that this project will help people work through the emotions they are experiencing, regardless of whether they’re because of social injustice or the pandemic.”

Attendees will be encouraged to leave their piece for display; those works will then be matted and displayed in the gallery alongside the inspiration piece. An open gallery event is planned for March to allow the public to return to see those works.

“We are all in this together,” she added, “and I hope that this can also show that even though we feel isolated or alone, that you are not alone and that we are all doing our best to cope.”

The Bicknell Center is located at 1711 S. Homer on the campus of PSU. The exhibit and art therapy space is open free to the public through Feb. 26 during business hours or by appointment by calling 620-235-6130.