Teaching Artist of the Month: August 2017

Richard Estrin

Richard Estrin teaching at the Glen Oaks Library, Collage Memory Project. Photo: Madlyn Schneider.


What is your primary artistic medium?

Although I do many other things, I am primarily a painter who works with oil and watercolor.

How did you get started as a teaching artist?

I began as a teaching artist in public elementary schools in the early 2000’s. I found that I loved teaching. Since then I have had the opportunity to a comprehensive range of ages and skill levels.

How does teaching inform your own artistic process?

Teaching informs my process in several different ways. It demands that I clarify my intentions through the articulation of them. It allows me to explore different media. It provides endless inspiration by showing me how other people understand and address visual challenges—frequently in ways that are different from how I would do them— thereby keeping me open and receptive to possibility.

What led you to working in Creative Aging?

My mother suffers from moderated dementia. She lives in an independent living facility. Spending time with her and her friends showed me what a difference constructive engagement could have on the lives of older adults. This prompted me to apply to the SPARC/SU-CASA program run by New York City, which offered me my first experience teaching older adults.

Why do you think working with older adults is important?

Older adults are a tremendously important and undervalued resource. They are living history with a great deal to communicate. Through working with them, it keeps them integrated into society in a meaningful way, a way that allows all of us to benefit from their experience. It facilitates better understanding of past events, cycles and integrates all stages of the life continuum, which we are not necessarily inclined to do.

It is also a way to contribute to their physical and mental well being. By providing cognitive and social stimulation, working with older adults can help to maintain a higher degree of life satisfaction and help to keep them healthy and independent.

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

There are many! One biggie is how direct they are in expressing likes and dislikes. They will make it clear if you are reaching them and they are not afraid to express their needs. They are so able, creative and generous, but have all of the fears and insecurities of every other age group.

What skills are most important when working with older adults?

Patience, being genuine, genuinely present and totally open.

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

Having spent many years teaching at the university level where performance and accomplishment were held up as supreme, the objectives of working with older adults are more complex and multifaceted. It is important for me to keep that in mind. Often, understanding takes place at different rates and in different ways for each student. Therefore, it is very important to meet each student at their own level. Since the curricular objectives address many different aspects of life, this is paramount.

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

First, get rid of any preconceived notions of how older adults are and what they can do. Be prepared to be continually surprised, charmed, enamored and challenged!

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

Taking risks is difficult at any age. Sometimes the most surprising things are experienced as risks.

Recently in a memory book/collage workshop I was working with an older adult who had little experience with the visual arts.  She had been putting together a collage using faces, dutifully looking through vintage magazines and cutting out images to which she responded.

Through the course of her research, she encountered a shamrock that had been cut out of green construction paper. Captivated by the lucky clover, she wanted to include it in her collage but was uncertain as to make it work with the rest of her composition.  After much uncertainty and hand wringing, she decided to draw a face on the shamrock and placed it within her composition.

The face in the shamrock, though very small, was a powerful addition. It dominated her collage. It was personal, had her imprint on it, and contrasted brilliantly with the other photographs that she had included.  Shocked by its power, she was uncomfortable and wanted to diffuse or counterbalance its visual impact but she was uncertain how that might be done.

I was called over and we talked about different ways that balance could be achieved.  Reflecting back on our earlier conversations, she initially proposed additional small shapes but quickly arrived at adding additional shamrocks. This was a clear demonstration of drawing upon what she had learned previously to solve a different but related problem. She was elated.

Though elated with her conceptual solution, she was reluctant to make the shamrocks herself. She said she did not know how. After much cajoling and flatly refusing to draw them for her, she put pencil to paper and proceeded to cut out three beautiful, individualized shamrocks.  She was radiant and intensely proud of the result.

Sometimes breakthroughs seem small. However with each risk taken, regardless of its magnitude, comes growth. By trying something new, regardless of its success, learning takes place and along with it, confidence and satisfaction.

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

I am working on a series of larger-scale watercolor paintings that address human’s stewardship (or lack thereof) of the natural environment. A component of this series is that some of the paintings will be done on paper that is made from re-pulped watercolors.

I have a number of upcoming short-term watercolor workshops, working with older adults at the following Queens Library branches: Bay Terrace, Fresh Meadows, Sunnyside and Richmond Hill.

Thank you Richard for your wonderful work with Lifetime Arts.

To contact Richard 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.