Teaching Artist of the Month: August 2016

Antonia Perez


What is your primary artistic medium?

I have been working with used plastic bags as my primary medium since 2008. I collect them from a range of sources and transform them by crocheting them into a variety of sculptural forms. I also collect other discarded materials such as tissue boxes, household textiles and printed paper, and I assemble them into sculptures and assemblages – as well as making drawings and collages. I am currently working in the Robert Blackburn Printmaking Workshop, as a recipient of the 2016 Studio Immersion Program Fellowship, where I am exploring a number of printmaking techniques that will extend and support my current studio practice. In tandem with my studio work, I involve myself in a social practice – which includes teaching, public engagement and discourse.

How did you get started as a teaching artist?

I began teaching very informally during a period in my twenties, when I lived in San Diego. I was working with a group of artists on a public mural and some youngsters came by and wanted to help. I needed to give them some guidance on how to hold the brush and move the paint on the wall. I found that I enjoyed sharing my knowledge and their enthusiastic responses. Soon I was invited to work with small community groups teaching painting and drawing. Later in New York I worked in many different settings, in and out of schools and hospitals, with children, adolescents and adults.

What led you to creative aging?

A number of things led me to focus on Creative Aging, but it is primarily my own practice as an artist that led me to understand that creative practice is life enhancing for every age. This was reinforced particularly by my experiences working as an artist-in-residence in the hospital setting, first with children and then later with adults who had life-threatening diseases. I was able to continually witness the power of a creative pursuit to engage an individual’s mind and emotions, and redirect their energies away from pain, worry, fear, and discontent.

As I got more involved with teaching K-12 classes in and out of school, I saw how art making: developed students’ ability to make creative choices, think critically, inspire wonder, use a multitude of materials and techniques, develop a personal visual language, make connections with all aspects of their lives, enhance written and spoken vocabulary, build self-confidence and create community.

After having a few intergenerational art teaching experiences, I began thinking about working with older adults. I became more aware of my own aging process, and I made the decision to change my concentration from working with youngers to olders. That is – not to completely exclude young people, as it is important to be engaged with people of all ages – but to focus on older adults. With older adult students, I was able to ignite the enjoyment and the interest in art, to help them develop real art making skills, develop a familiarity with art and artists and to reap the mental and emotional benefits of engagement with art.

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

The biggest surprise has been the discovery that so many older people, who never had art in their lives, just take to it so naturally and expressively. I have been really surprised by so many older students’ fearlessness and willingness to try anything. It is as though they have just been waiting for this opportunity to appear.

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

I think the similarities are greater than the differences. I design curriculum and teach with the age and experience level of the students in mind. I want students to have opportunities to develop skills in a given medium, become familiar with other artists in that medium and similar themes, and for students to be able to work on their own ideas and interests through the art making processes.

No matter what age I am teaching, I am always taking into account students interests, abilities, life experience, and language.  I have experience working with students of different ages who have disabilities, and I am therefore accustomed to making accommodations to make the learning accessible.  In working with older adults, I may encounter more students with fine or gross motor challenges, or other health issues, than in working with youngsters (but not necessarily.) The big difference has to do with attitude – meaning the fearlessness I mentioned that older adults have towards experimentation and discovery. Younger people are so often more concerned with making mistakes or with others’ opinions. Olders care much less about those things, having lived through a lifetime of learning through mistakes and surviving others’ opinions. Consequently, they just dive right in with gusto!

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

My biggest challenges have often had to do with the settings in which many Creative Aging programs are held. They are not usually set up as facilities for art making, and they often have much less than desired physical attributes. Such as: uncomfortable or inappropriate furniture for what we’re trying to do, no place for display or presentation, lack of secure materials’ storage, no easily accessed water and noise or other activities interfering with our concentration.

In these cases, I either make do with what is available or ask for assistance and accommodation, which may or may not be provided. In some settings, where there have not been a lot of art activities in the past, it can be a challenge to build support and participation in an art class. Unless the olders have been demanding an art program for some time, which has happened, it may take a while for regular senior centers or library attendees to become involved with the art activities. This means spending time talking to folks playing bingo or watching TV and trying to get them interested, or encouraging adult librarians to do more outreach.

I have found that once people participate in an active educational art class for a while, they get so engaged that they encourage others through word of mouth. This is fine in situations where art classes are ongoing or repeated, but it doesn’t work for short stand-alone programs. So ultimately, the biggest challenge is getting community centers and organizations to recognize the value of Creative Aging programs and encouraging them to seek/provide funding for substantial programming. My response to that is to be an advocate wherever I can.

What is the most satisfying aspect of this work?

It is so satisfying when older students are excited about their own and each other’s work. I feel that I have really accomplished something when students tell me that they had never imagined being able to make what they just made.  Students often tell me that the art making process makes them feel relaxed. That it is satisfying. When older students tell me that because of our class they have begun making art at home on their own, I am really thrilled.

What have been your most memorable moments?

I can’t stop thinking about something an eighty-seven year old student told me this year. He began to notice that when he is making art, he observes his mind thinking differently. During his entire working life, he had worked at a blue-collar job; then retired and participated in family and community activities. But, it wasn’t until he started making art that he noticed a difference in his mind’s behavior. He said that while he draws, his mind relaxes and begins to think of other ways and other things to draw. He said that he had never paid any attention whatsoever to art before our class. He thought it wasn’t at all something important or that he would be interested in. He said that now, whenever he sees a piece of art, he looks at it and thinks about it closely. He now feels that art is part of his life.

What skills are most important when working with older adults?

  • A sense of humor and patience is invaluable.
  • Being able to recognize and try to rid oneself of one’s own ageist attitudes is essential.
  • Be a good listener.
  • Be able to tune in to how your participants are reacting to the process and respond appropriately.

How does this work inform your own artistic process?

As an artist, communicating my enthusiasm for art making, for transforming materials and sharing my knowledge and experience is an integral part of my practice. The more I talk about art practice and get people engaged in that discourse and process, the more my own mind is working on those ideas, which infiltrates my studio work and the rest of my practice in countless ways.

What are your current or upcoming teaching or artistic projects?

I will be working directly with two senior centers in Queens in ongoing art classes starting up again this fall. With one site I have worked four years and I will be entering the third year with the other. I expect to be working with Elders Share the Arts as well.

I have a number of upcoming exhibitions in the fall, winter and spring and I will be posting details and making announcements on my website and blog in the next few weeks: antoniaaperezstudio.com/

Thank you Antonia for your wonderful work with Lifetime Arts.

To contact Antonia, 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.