Symbolism and Reclamation at Phenomenal Woman Project

“Body” by Eliza C.


The 2019-20 AIR program theme, “Reclaiming Joy,” is about examining one’s own relationship to happiness, what constitutes it, and how it is obtained. Joy is a concept that is always being defined for us, or prescribed to us. This theme challenges societal conceptions, and asks teens to reflect on what joy means to them, and the small, mundane moments that elicit it. 

The greater theme of “Reclamation” is especially poignant right now, because we’ve lost so much due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Physical connection, and a sense of normalcy and certainty. There’s also a loss of experience happening for our teens, especially the seniors, who won’t be able to participate in traditional academic milestones like prom or graduation. 

In an activity for our Phenomenal Woman Project program (which was moved online as of March 24 in response to the pandemic), teaching artist, Sam Paolini, asked participants to stay with the concept of reclamation and reflect on it: 

“What is something that has been taken away from you? What is something you would like to reclaim, or that you’ve reclaimed already? Think in terms of the intangible (ideas or emotions), and simplify it into one word, written in big bubble letters.” 

Our teens experimented with writing their words in various textured typographies before settling on the style that felt best. Once their word was down on paper, Sam asked teens to make drawings outside and within the letters. These drawings were to act as a symbolic reflection on teens’ relationship to what they’d like to reclaim, and their plan of action for reclaiming it.

Teens were to use a monochrome palette on the outside of their bubble word. They were  instructed to fill the background with symbols/patterns representing how that word felt before it was reclaimed, or society’s perception of that word. Using the same visual language, but with a full color palette, Sam asked teens to fill their letters with representations of how you have/will reclaim the word or how they/the world would differ post-reclamation. During the symbol portion of this project, Becca, our program director, facilitated a sensory writing exercise to help us convert words to visuals. 

The finished projects serve as hopeful and delightfully graphic meditations on the process of reclamation. The drawings inside the words radiate from their letter outlines and grayscale backgrounds, and command the viewer’s attention. 

The bubble letters are the catalyst for Sam’s next assignment, which further explores symbology and reclamation. Teens will be transmuting their bubble word into an original symbol. Once their symbol is created, they will be painting it over an old piece of art from their portfolio. Or, they can cut up that older artwork and create their symbol by collaging the fragments. 

This next project is challenging and powerful. All artwork has some degree of sentimentality for its creator, and being asked to cut it up or paint over it is no easy task. Additionally, not only are our teens condensing complex meaning into a simplified form, but they are creating a work that represents reclamation of the tangible AND intangible. Teens will be completing these pieces at our next session on 4/14. We look forward to seeing their final symbols and repurposed artworks, and reflecting on the process together.


“Free” by Abby M.

“Hope” an in-process work by Mikel R.

“Chaos” by Andrew L.

“Legend” by Cali-Skyy M.

“Safe” an in-process work by Eve Q.

Sam presented the bubble letter project by showing our teens different examples of bubble letter typography.

Sam shares their “joy” example to our group and discusses the personal meaning.

Our group ends a PWP session with a group “sketch share. “

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