Art grad ready to help others find healing through her craft

Contact: Erin Flynn

KALAMAZOO, Mich.—Like strokes on a canvas, Sharmane Flanders has painted a bright future for herself. As she prepares to graduate from Western Michigan University on Saturday, Dec. 16, with a bachelor's degree in art, she's ready to draw on her gifts to help others.


"I always loved art as a kid, and I started taking it seriously back in high school. I had the most amazing art teacher who made it really fun and enjoyable," says Flanders, who grew up in Portage, Michigan. "I wanted to be like him and make other students happy like he did."

"Willow," featuring charcoal and India ink on canvas, by Sharmane Flanders.

That inspiration initially drove her to pursue a career in art education. After earning an associate of arts degree from Kalamazoo Valley Community College, she chose to continue her education at Western to take the next step on that career path. 

"When I got in contact with my Western advisor, he helped me feel comfortable and confident with the transition," Flanders remembers. He also illuminated another career possibility she hadn't yet thought of: art therapy.

"I really love the idea of helping people feel better during their hard times," she says. Pairing her art major with a psychology minor, she's developed a solid foundation to now apply for the art therapy master's program at the Chicago Institute of Arts. "I specifically want to work in a hospital with people of all ages who have chronic illnesses. My grandfather had leukemia during the pandemic, and I feel like if he would have had an art therapist during that time, it would have been really beneficial in helping get through his treatments."

She had the opportunity to get a taste of the impact she could have as the resident artist for the Children's Defense Fund Freedom School in Kalamazoo over the summer. The nonprofit offers a six-week literacy program for K-12 students in the Kalamazoo area.

"As the resident artist, I got to move through each level's classroom to incorporate art activities that correspond with their literacy lessons. I also got to work on large projects like murals with the kids," she says. "One of the activities I did with all levels was mindfulness drawing. … This helped the kids calm down and feel more relaxed for the rest of the day."

Her supervisor was so impressed with her work that she hired Flanders to be the permanent resident artist moving forward.

"This was an amazing opportunity for me," she says. "It was my first big art job, and it happened while I was still in college!"


Outside of the classroom, Flanders has tapped into Kalamazoo's vibrant art community to develop as a professional artist. After seeing a flyer for Art Hop, a bimonthly event hosted by the Arts Council of Kalamazoo that partners with downtown businesses to feature local artists and foster community engagement, Flanders jumped at the opportunity to showcase her paintings.

"What the Eyes Can't See," featuring acrylic on canvas, by Sharmane Flanders.

"It helped a lot with my growth," she says. "Even if you don't sell anything, it's about having conversations with people and then you get to know what people like, get different opinions. And it's helped me grow and learn about my art. It also helps with exposure."

Flanders quickly established herself on the Kalamazoo art scene, earning her first solo exhibition at the Black Arts and Cultural Center. She also recently sold a painting to the Arts Council of Kalamazoo and another to Kalamazoo nonprofit Fire, and she was commissioned to paint a mural at Friendship Village, a senior care facility.

"It makes me really happy that people connect with (my art) and love it enough that they would want to display it," she says.

She credits her instructors at Western for helping her to expand her skills and find her distinct voice, which has been instrumental in her success.

"My instructors really made me think about art in a different way and pushed me to experiment with new things," Flanders says. "They allowed me to let loose and be more creative with my art."

Flanders credits the combination of WMU mentors who are at the top of their game and the local creative community for helping her to thrive both professionally and personally.

"I think that my surroundings played a huge role in my art career. I have the ability to go out and talk to so many different artists and learn from them," she says.  "If I was in a place that didn't value art as much as Kalamazoo, I wouldn't have been able to meet these amazing people and I wouldn't be able to be at the place that I am now with my art: having two solo shows, all of the connections I have made and all of the amazing opportunities I have received."

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