“Don’t worry, I didn’t know what I was doing either when I started,” Mark di Suvero said on a recent June morning, as he worked a hunk of rust-colored clay between his hands. The sculptor, whose towering steel monuments spot museums and plazas around the globe, sat at a kid-sized cafeteria table, his legs dangling off the edge. He was surrounded by a tightly coiled pack of elementary school students who watched, transfixed, as he swiftly molded the lump into a birdlike mask with a sprightly beak.
After quick directions from di Suvero himself, each student eagerly picked up his or her own ball of clay, and fantastical creatures began to take shape. They chatted eagerly with the renowned sculptor, all the while industriously rolling, twisting, smoothing, and scoring their creations.
To sculpt with the likes of Mark di Suvero is not an opportunity most children receive. But for students at the Neighborhood School P.S. 363 in Manhattan, working alongside an eminent artist is familiar practice. Since 1993, Neighborhood has collaborated with Studio in a School, a non-profit that provides education in fine arts for predominantly Title I schools. Students get their weekly dose of the arts thanks to Miss Valerie (Valerie Hammond), an artist who has taught at Neighborhood for 20 years. Here and at Studio’s other 150 partner schools across New York City, a community of creativity has prospered in spite of the rapid depletion of fine arts from state curricula.
“Dynamite!” di Suvero exclaimed, as he walked slowly around the table, admiring and encouraging each student’s progress. In fact, all of the students’ artworks that morning were remarkably well executed—a testament to the quality of work the artist/instructors at Studio in a School foster. “It is just such a pleasure to help something grow,” di Suvero later explained, likening what the program does with “the joy of the farmer.”
Di Suvero even had a few fans in the classroom: one boy brought in a rock from a trip to Storm King, the Hudson Valley sculpture park that houses multiple sculptures by the artist. As the boy held up his sculpture in front of the class, he confidently explained why he incorporated the souvenir rock—a young crit session, perhaps with slightly less subliminal animosity. At age eight, these kids are already learning how to put words to their creativity, something that plagues many of us still.
The event was part of Studio’s annual “Open Studio,” a week-long art education awareness drive that kicked off on June 3. For the second year in a row, Studio has brought high-profile artists into two of their partnership schools, allowing some of their students the once-in-a-lifetime experience of creating alongside a distinguished artist. A few days after Mark di Suvero taught his sculpture class in lower Manhattan, Julie Mehretu led a watercolor lesson at Brooklyn’s P.S. 139 in Ditmas Park. Last year, the same program brought Jeff Koons, Fred Wilson, Claudia DeMonte, and Ursula von Rydingsvard into classrooms around the city.
The activities of “Open Studio” were not isolated events, but an extension of Studio’s core, year-round mission: bringing contemporary artists into the classroom not just as visitors, but as teachers. To hold a teaching post in a Studio classroom you must be a working artist, an approach that makes Studio different from many other art education programs. Valerie Hammond, the Neighborhood School’s art instructor, is an accomplished printmaker and sculptor, with a show of prints currently at Savannah College of Art and Design (a collaborative project with Kiki Smith). Studio employs over 80 artist/instructors in their various programs across the five boroughs, an impressive leap from its original number of three artists in 1977.
For Hammond, the cross-pollination between her work at the Neighborhood School and her studio practice has only increased throughout the years. She has even worked on large-scale prints in the classroom, her art room providing more wall space than her studio. “As I teach, we are surrounded by each other’s work, which not only makes for lively conversations, but allows the children to experience how an artist really works,” Hammond explained.
“Open Studio” concluded with the opening of Portraits: My City, Myself, Studio in a School’s year-end show at the Hunter College East Harlem Gallery. The exhibition featured student work from artists of pre-K age to college-bound high schoolers. The work, framed and matted in conventional white rectangles, radiates joy. You might expect this kind of vivacity from children’s art, but what you don’t expect is the caliber of talent, the range of materials and practices, and the emotional depth. Roughly-hewn self portraits in black charcoal hang alongside cityscapes meticulously built from cut paper and paint.
This all points to something we already know, a fact that countless studies have proven to be true: the presence of art in a child’s education is vital.
Studio in a School was founded by Agnes Gund in response to the city’s first great education deficit in 1976. Now over 35 years later, the budget for arts programming has been repeatedly cut to the quick. Such neglect has allowed for a larger, systemic shift to settle into place. Art education in many states (i.e. California) has been defunct for decades. The National Endowment for the Arts has been all but liquidated; liberal arts departments in state colleges around the country have quietly collapsed. Disdain for publicly-financed art education is now so casual as to become a joke—we all remember Romney gleefully promising Big Bird the axe.
How we structure our children’s education is a direct reflection of our values as an American culture. What Studio in a School has achieved, despite the current climate, is astounding. To think, if programs such as Studio were in every school, in every district, in every state.
Soon we’ll need new architects to design our billion dollar surveillance facilities out West. Who will teach them how to draw?