What is your primary artistic medium?
I’m a mixed-media artist and work primarily with drawing, painting and collage. I also make comic zines (self-published magazines.) My work is always about storytelling, so I combine text and image and focus on narrative.
How did you get started as a teaching artist?
I started after I graduated from Pratt Institute with my degree in Art and Design Education.
What led you to creative aging?
One of my colleagues at Pratt, Paul Ferrara, introduced me to the creative aging field and helped me get my first job teaching drawing and painting, it was at the STAR Senior Center in Washington Heights. Paul also introduced me to Lifetime Arts in 2009. We co-taught Lifemaps at the Countee Cullen branch of the NY Public Library, which was one of their first Creative Aging programs. I’ve been working with Lifetime Arts and Paul ever since
What has been the biggest surprise in working with older adult learners?
I’ve been surprised by how retirement can be a whole new chapter of learning and living for older adults. My students, as a whole, are such vibrant, curious and creative people. It’s given me a very positive outlook on aging.
What are the differences and similarities in working with the K-12 and older adult populations?
The curiosity, the energy and the playfulness seem to be the same with both kids and adults. No matter what your age, you have a story to tell and a way of seeing the world that is uniquely yours. All my students are looking for outlets that help them express themselves creatively but when you put yourself out there, it’s scary. So no matter your age, we’re all afraid of being judged and looking foolish in their eyes of our peers. That’s why I always strive to create a safe and nurturing community in the classroom that encourages exploration and experimentation where we are all there to help and support each other. It’s about mutual respect and feeling safe enough to stretch ourselves and try new ideas, tools and techniques.
When it comes to differences, older adults are more independent and self-directed. They are also great at class discussions because they have a lifetime of experience and wisdom to bring to the table. Older adults also greatly appreciate their art classes. A lot of them have waited a long time to finally be able to learn more about art so they really make the most of their opportunities. They are also great at collaborating on group projects and are wonderful planners and organizers. I learn as much from my students, as the do from me.
What have been your biggest challenges? How do you respond?
My biggest challenge is always my student’s fears. It can really block people and make them less willing to try new things or participate with the group. I work on building trust with class discussions from the first day and explaining that there are no mistakes in art, just opportunities to learn. We talk about the art and what we notice or wonder about it, but we try not to make value judgments like “good” or “bad.” As soon as people start talking about their art and hearing constructive feedback, they relax and see how much they’re contributing, it’s empowering.
What is the most satisfying aspect of this work?
Meeting such amazing people and helping them see new possibilities for themselves.
What have been your most memorable moments?
I had a student who was so thrilled to be able to take the Lifetime Arts class at her library, because she couldn’t afford to pay for lessons at that point. She was kind of quiet and very insecure at the beginning. But over time it emerged that she was a natural leader in class discussions and everyone really took to her. One day we were painting flowers and I sent her home with some art supplies and one of the bouquets. She came back the next week with a stack of beautiful watercolors that she’d made. She had her hair done and makeup on. She sent me a text, telling me that she’d been very depressed and unsure about herself before taking the class, but now she hopeful and energized again. I’ll never forget that.
What skills are most important when working with older adults?
Being able to break down complex ideas into successful exercises and explorations, so that students learn through doing. To do this you need to be analytical and good at lesson planning. Providing resources like materials lists, suppliers, reading lists and handouts, so that learning can continue outside the classroom is also important. Older adults want to get as much information as possible, so you need to be organized and well informed about your medium. Be honest about yourself and willing to share your story in order to build trust and communication, and be passionate about art and teaching, because that is contagious.
How does this work inform your own artistic process?
I’ve become a much better artist through teaching my students. I’ve also learned to take more risks and try new things. You have to practice what you preach, right?
What are your current or upcoming teaching or artistic projects?
Right now, I’m working on a new comic zine and a new blog about making art from the heart. I won the First Place Art Exchange Award for best new zine last year and exhibited at the Brooklyn Zine Fest. You can learn more about my zines by going to my blog http://themagicofchildhhood.blogspot.com
Thank you Celia for your wonderful work with Lifetime Arts.
Check back each month where we will feature a new Teaching Artist who has excelled in their work with the Creative Aging process.