Teaching Artist of the Month: June 2017

Karen Fitzgerald

Photo Credit: Katherine Bourbeau

What is your primary artistic medium?

I’m a painter. I work primarily in oil paint, using gilded grounds. I also produce watercolors, and to a lesser extent, prints such as monotypes, solar etchings and photogravure.

How did you get started as a teaching artist?

After finishing my MFA, I’d hoped to begin teaching at the college level. At that time, the market was glutted with people like me. I wanted to teach so I began working with a local arts center in partnership with the NYC Department of Education. Within a year the education director asked me to work in a pilot program for NYSCA, instructing classroom educators on how to integrate arts content and processes into their academic teaching.

How does teaching inform your own artistic process?

From my own (admittedly twisted!) viewpoint, I have always been very committed to “figuring things out”.  This spans the very concrete, physical stuff to the higher, metaphorical/philosophical stuff.  I think that I teach with this idea as an under-current. Sooner or later I will find myself saying to a participant, “you’ll have to figure that out”.  Or, “it’s your job to figure that out”.  

I’ve crafted an interesting process to make paper LOOK and feel RAW, when, in actuality, it has been sealed so completely that oil-based paint can gild across it.  How did I “learn” that? I figured it out! It was trial and error, but I got there fairly quickly because I had something I wanted to say, something I wanted to achieve with that paper.  

The concrete processes I work with in my studio are things I’ve taken the time to develop. No one taught them to me.  I figured them out. I wish my older adult participants to go through the same process because it is compelling.  It takes total focus and brainpower to figure something out. Once you have achieved that, it is rewarding because you can then “do” something with what you figured out. “Figuring it out” can be as subtle as letting something go, or as rigorous as paying attention to brush-stroke choices. It’s a skill that will take each of us to our last breath, because underneath everything, I believe, we even figure that out.

Why do you think working with older adults is important?

There’s a lot going on in the older adult brain.  Many have a passion for the arts, something they had to set aside during their full-time work lives. Rigorous arts education is essential for their continued development.  Some of the conversations I have with older adults are the richest experiences – where we both realize something new, and are willing to acknowledge that.

What led you to working in Creative Aging?

A number of years ago I did a lot of professional development when I began to notice funding becoming prevalent for Creative Aging. I’ve always worked with a wide range of audiences and participants, it was a natural segue for me to work with adults again. Besides, I’m getting older, too.

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

How smart and motivated they are!  I’m amazed at how willing they are to take risks, to go along with my sometimes wild and zany exercises.  I love that they get my jokes and laugh at them!  But mostly, I’m not surprised by my work with older adults. What shocks me is the wide NEED that is there for this kind of programming.  Until now, older adults entered this phase of their lives as a certain slide into invisibility.  Our youth-focused culture doesn’t really SEE older adults.  They become an untapped resource that our culture is blinded to.

What skills are most important when working with older adults?

Patience and a sense of humor; a willingness to go slower and keep a light attitude about most things.  I consider myself a flexible person, but I try to be very flexible when working with older adults.  Sometimes I have to be firm because people will come to my workshops with preconceived ideas of how I should be teaching something.  But I try to respond with a joke, or simply say, that’s not how I teach this process.

What advice would you give someone that wants to do this work?

I would definitely look for an opportunity to witness the work in action.  Teaching older adults is a different kind of teaching – it is accountable in a way that is quite different than working in a school.  You have to be able to meet the person where they are, and support their development.  You have to figure out how to engage them by providing challenging content to learn that is real and that (really) engages them.

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

The biggest challenge for me is how we populate my workshops.  There is always a sign-up (registration) process. Many workshops will have up to 30 people on the waiting list, with 20-25 participants for the class.  There is always an attrition rate with these programs and after the first session, some people decide not to come back.  I always admit wait-listed people if they show up to the 2nd workshop.  We work it out with the senior program manager.  Sometimes she will try to book a second set of workshops for those people who weren’t able to be part of the first workshops.  I often wonder about those people who don’t come back.  Maybe I scare them away, but I do think about them.

Tell us a short story from one of your classes that demonstrates the benefits of creative aging for participants.

I teach a “drawing to see” class.  In one of the sessions, I commented on a still life drawing we had worked on for most of the 2-hour class.  The participant was taken aback – she told me she thought her drawing was really bad.  I pointed out the strong points of the drawing – she had not seen these at all.  During our final sharing session, I made an exhibit of the work of all the participants.  One of the sections I put up had just 3 drawings in it – these were labeled as really “good” drawings.  Her drawing was one of the three. She was surprised. The whole class had a long conversation about what makes a drawing good, and specifically what made those 3 drawings good.  I could feel that her self-respect and confidence as a drafts-person had taken off because of that one drawing.  It changed her understanding of her own capabilities, and helped her realize that her drawings are powerful examples of the conversation we have with ourselves (as well as with the world of drawings outside of ourselves) when we draw.  

What are your current and upcoming projects of both your own work and teaching assignments?

I will be teaching 8 additional workshop series in the Queens Library system through the end of November. I’m teaching 2 inter-generational, 8 week workshops in mask-making and watercolor. I will also be teaching sculpture, drawing to see, quilt making, and a 3-session art history “conversation” focused on the history of photography and how it has influenced still life and landscape painting in the 20th century.

For my own work, I will be presenting about 20 artworks as part of a large exhibit of 4 artists at the Robert Wood Johnson Medical Complex, Lakefront Gallery, in Hamilton, NJ.  The show runs from November – January, 2018.  

Opening on May 25, 2017, is an 11 artist exhibit I curated for the Westbeth Gallery.  Titled, “In This House of Sky”, the show runs through June 18, 2017.  

There will be a panel discussion on the role of the imagination in contemporary art on June 3, 6-8:30pm.  Information is here: http://westbeth.org/wordpress/in-this-house-of-sky/

I’d also like to invite people to sign up for my monthly newsletter.  They can send me an email (Karen@FitzgeraldArt.com) or visit my website to sign up.   

Instagram: @kbfitzgeraldart  or #kbfitzgeraldart
Twitter: @FitzgeraldArt

Thank you Karen for your wonderful work with Lifetime Arts.

To contact Karen, 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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