Teaching Artist of the Month: Sept 2015

Paul Ferrara

What is your primary artistic medium?

I have an eclectic history when it comes to the visual arts. My entry into the visual arts was in graphic design, however, after my first year of college I transferred into the theatre program. While there I focused on scenic design and scene painting.  I incorporate a variety of mediums and techniques in my artistic explorations, for example; painting, collage, and printmaking.  Often times the curriculum or lesson I’m developing influences my own choice of medium.

How did you get started as a teaching artist?

While I was studying for my masters in art and design education I had a conversation with a classmate about an article we had both read in the Times regarding the baby boomers and the fact that they are the most highly educated generation in history to enter into retirement – our conversation had me thinking about what it might be like to teach art to older adults? And what were the opportunities to teach to this aging population?

I started teaching art on a volunteer basis at a senior center in my neighborhood for two months in the summer.  The class was well received and the director asked me to continue to teach at the Center and I discovered that I enjoyed teaching elders because of their stories, their wealth of personal history, and the life experiences they have to offer.

What led you to Creative Aging?

In 2008 I had attended an art exhibit at St. Peter’s church on Lexington Avenue and 54th street. The artwork on exhibit was from a series of classes taught by teaching artists from Elders Share the Arts, the theme of the exhibit and the class was titled, “A Long Way Home.”  Gene Cohen was the featured speaker at the event, I was inspired to hear him talk about his research and the field of Creative Aging.

Some of the participants from Elders Share the Arts, had the opportunity to share their experience with us on what it was like to take part in these art classes and the impact it had on their lives.  I was moved to hear how meaningful of an experience it was for them, and it inspired me to continue my pursuit to teach to elders.  At the event I met Brigid Cahalan from the New York Public Library and she encouraged me to consider teaching an art class at a branch library.  In turn she put me in contact with a branch library in Washington Heights. This was my first experience teaching in a library setting, after which I became involved with Lifetime Arts.

What has been the biggest surprise in working with older adult learners?

I have been impressed with their sense of curiosity, enthusiasm and the willingness to learn and be challenged.

What are the differences and similarities in working with the K-12 and older adult populations?

Children bring with them a sense of play and can easily dive into a project and are willing to explore the possibilities of the materials or instruments.  I remember one woman in particular who was taking my beginning printmaking class.  I tried to encourage her to explore various blades for her lino-cut print, she resisted, and questioned why she should try a different one.

Adolescents can become discouraged and frustrated easily because they believe that their drawing needs to look realistic. Some adults may not have advanced in their understanding of art, and I have witnessed this same sense of frustration of having to get it “right” for it to be good.  Often times they have a fixed idea of what art is and what qualifies something as a work of art.

And then there can be students who have joined the class and are open to examining what defines a work of art, instead of their preconceived notion of art.

What have been your biggest challenges? How do you respond?

One of the biggest challenges is that they can be very critical of their work and lack self-confidence.  Many come to the class with the belief that for a work of art to be “good” it must be an exact representation.  It is the work of the teacher to affirm their efforts and find the positive so they encourage them.  Often older adults will tell me stories of when they were younger and someone criticized their work.

Another challenge is time management, allowing for enough time for instruction and being able to spend time with each person individually.  Classes usually run once a week from an hour and a half, to two hours.

What is the most satisfying aspect of this work?

Helping older adults develop their skills, and seeing their level of confidence increase.  Being able to witness how they become comfortable expressing themselves visually, and letting go of old beliefs about creating art.  They are very appreciative of the planning and thought that I put into the class and express their gratitude.

What have been memorable/funny moments?

In my most resent class a woman named Dolores, told me she had never taken an art class before.  She had the desire to, but her mother’s harsh criticism when she was younger about her drawing ability discouraged her.  Now into her seventies she decided to take my printmaking class.  At the conclusion of the class she said to me, “I cannot tell you how much I’ve learned from your class! You inspired me and did a lot for my confidence.”

What skills are most important when working with older adults?

The skill that is first on my list is patience.

When teaching art to older adults I believe that educators need to develop and implement curriculum that moves beyond the traditions of formal and technical training.   It is equally important to emphasize art as a construction of personal and social meaning.

How does this work inform your own artistic process?

I am reminded that art making is about giving meaning to our experiences and exploring new possibilities for art making and teaching. I am challenged to keep things interesting and to be thoughtful and imaginative in my process.

What are your current or upcoming teaching or artistic projects?

Being trained in the field of art education my art lives in the process of devising and developing the curriculum and through my lesson plans.  I’m in the process of creating a curriculum where I want to take the participants on various field trips to historic or notable sites in Harlem. It might be the interior architecture of building we’ll examine, the artwork inside, or a memorable moment that occurred in a specific place. I am hoping that they will be the inspired by this in the subsequent weeks while making.

The second site that I will be teaching at in the fall will be a continuation of my teaching at a retirement community on the Upper West Side.

Thank you Paul for your wonderful work with Lifetime Arts.

To contact Paul, check out his Teaching Artist Profile on Lifetime Arts’ Roster.

Search the Roster to find qualified Teaching Artists in your area.

Check back each month where we will feature a new Teaching Artist who has excelled in their work with the Creative Aging process.

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