Teaching Artist of the Month: January 2016

Mary Crescenzo

What is your primary artistic medium?

My primary medium, which crosses both literary and commercial markets, is Literary Arts to include play writing, poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and essays.

How did you get started as a teaching artist?

As a multidisciplinary artist, I earned my BA in Arts Education from Lehman College and taught in the NYC Public School system for a short time before becoming a professional multidisciplinary artist. My first teaching artist experience was in creative aging.  As a High School student, I had a summer job teaching art at Astor Gardens Nursing Home, in the Bronx.It was just me and a group older adults in various stages of wellness, and diverse levels of physical needs.We painted, we sang; I took my instincts to work each day and ran with them.

What led you to Creative Aging?

That first experience teaching older adults inspired me to later instruct adult education courses in theater, visual, and literary arts at various colleges in NY, Tulsa, and Santa Fe. It also led to my creation of an arts and Alzheimer’s program using watercolor, music and movement, called An ABC Approach to Alzheimer’s Awareness and Care Through the Arts.

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

Whether well or frail, and regardless of the socio-economic setting, older adult learners have an intense appetite to express themselves through learning, refining or revisiting a skill, and a desire to share that experience in a social setting with others.

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

Curiosity to create with the fear of getting started. Interest to learn but concerned about getting it right. Wanting to express themselves but worried about being judged and being compared to others.After trust is established, joy and confidence emerges among participants and teaching artist.Some differences: Youth come with an almost open slate to life and art; older adults come with vast life experiences but preconceived notions about art and their abilities.Youth often need guidance to find the focus that comes with stillness; older adults often need guidance to find the focus that comes with not sitting still.

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

There are two: Firstly, some students say, “I can’t do this.I don’t want to do this.”I approach this by saying, OK, write about that, that you can’t or won’t and describe why.Secondly, there are those who come to class and tell me they don’t want anyone to change their work.I tell them as a group about constructive criticism, how it works, why it works, how to and not to do it, and how to listen and react to the group’s comments.I say that if you want your work to be the best it can be you must open yourself and your work up to others.

What is the most satisfying aspect of this work?

To watch older adults find pleasure, confidence, community, and the ability to embrace the playful, creative aspects of who they are as they explore, learn, and grow within the skills of the specific discipline they are engaging in.

What have been memorable/funny moments?

 Watching a quite critical or reluctant person transform into one of the most open and active participants in the group.I also have to smile as I watch some of the women during the first days of class checking out the one or two men who have joined the workshop!

What skills are most important when working with older adults?

The ability not to stereotype, or judge the potential of older adults based on their age or appearance; and being sensitive to their physical needs. The wisdom to treat them with the same respect you would treat any other person and not to speak to them as if they are children.To recognize that their past may color their approach to the creative process and to encourage them to be open while drawing upon their experiences to enrich the work they do.

How does this work inform your own artistic process?

This work reminds me that our time for life and artistic expression is limited.Working with older adults pushes me to forge on with my own goals of exploration, experimentation, project completion, and all that it takes to share my work with others.But most importantly, it inspires me to rise out of my own comfort zone as I encourage others to do so when an idea occurs, a challenge arises, or a moment of doubt and discouragement seeps in to my own process.Any assignment I give to them, I do myself even if I have done the exercise many times before.Through this, I discover new ways to approach my work in tandem with my students discoveries.

What are your current or upcoming teaching or artistic projects?

Now that I have settled in at my new California home, one of my immediate goals is to establish creative aging workshops in area libraries and local community centers. With dreams of an older adult center in my neighborhood council’s sight, I am on the council’s committee dedicated to making this happen.As for my own projects, I am currently working on a new play, establishing myself locally as a vocal coach, and networking with musicians and to continue my work as a Jazz singer in the Los Angeles area.Future goal: Establishing more Lifetime Arts classes on the West Coast! I would love to help make this happen.

Thank you Mary for your wonderful work with Lifetime Arts.

To contact Mary, check out her 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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