Art Ed Profile: Andy Vernon-Jones

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What got you interested in art making?

I was interested in art as a way of making things, and I really liked stories, play, and action figures—all that kind of stuff. Drawing didn’t come easily to me when I was younger, so I always felt like, “Aw, I wish I could be an artist, but I can’t really be an artist ‘cause it’s too hard.” I dabbled with certain things but didn’t totally feel like, “Oh, I’m an artist”, and this is something I do. When I was in middle school and high school, I started taking photographs of friends and started making albums to keep track of stuff. So I was into photography but not really thinking about it. I didn’t have any perspective on it as an art form. When I went to college I was very confident academically, but I wanted to challenge myself so I took Drawing 1, and it was really hard. I had a really demanding teacher. She was like, “Do it, draw!” It was really fast paced and great. Mostly figure drawing. I struggled through it but definitely learned a lot. She asked me to interview for the painting class. You had to bring your portfolio of drawings to get into the painting class. So I took painting but had the least experience of anyone in the class. After that I took photography, having learned a lot about art, and went back to using a camera and still really responded to it. I ended up having photography as my concentration and major. I knew a bunch about art, but I still didn’t feel super confident in any media other than photography. I mostly kept making photographs after college, but other things would come up—making something sculptural, designing a T-shirt, making stencils—but I didn’t have a practice as a painter or anything like that.

Was there anyone who really supported or encouraged you as an artist?

I had a professor who taught printmaking, which was a yearlong course. You had to take both semesters. First we did woodcut, then colography, etching and lithography. He really liked me. I don’t know if he thought that I was that talented as printmaker, but he could tell that I was trying to learn it, interested, and engaged with other students in the class. I tried to get the photography professor to take me on, but he was hesitant. Basically he told me no, that I wasn’t experienced enough and that it was too late for me to get experienced enough for senior year, but I went back to my printmaking professor, and he went to bat for me with the photography guy. He ended up advising me more than the photography professor about my photographs. He had a group of senior printmaking students, and he would let me come and put my photos on the wall and talk about them with the printmakers. He brought us to New York—I went to college in Connecticut—to see a show and cooked dinner for us at his apartment where he also had a studio. He had this little apartment where he painted, and I didn’t know artists like that growing up. It was really cool.

Who or what gives you inspiration?

I think being with my students is inspiring. It either means I’m making things or seeing things being made every day, and that’s awesome. Even if I’m not working on a personal project that feels central to “my work,” I’m helping them and doing little demos to show, so I get paint on my hands almost every day. Also, I’m interested in people, positive change in the world, getting to see humanity get more connected, and I try to do things with my photography that brings my picture of that through art.

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How do you hope to make a difference to your students?

I want them to have the experience of working really hard on something, grappling with it, and seeing the effort pay off. And to see they can create something they may not have thought that they could when they started and through the process they see that it’s possible. I want them to have the chance to make things that are about them or about how they see the world that they can get excited about. I think that makes a difference, especially for my students who have had such a rough time in school and often that leads to a rough time at the hands of all the other structures of society.

I also just want them to know that I like them and respect them and that I think it’s great whatever they’re trying to do. I think that makes a difference to have an adult that’s psyched to see what they’re about.

My students have had such a rough time with academics so just having time to sit and work on something for an hour—it doesn’t always happen; they get frustrated with their drawings and put their pencils down sometimes. They end up thinking the hour went by too quickly ‘cause they were so engaged with a painting. I think that’s awesome because that’s hard to have happen in math class, not because math isn’t also interesting but because they’ve felt so bad about math or science or something.

Do you have any encouraging words for new teachers?

Keep track of the ideas that you have and the stuff that you like and your vision of what you think you want to do. It could be totally up to you when you get into a teaching space ‘cause you might start teaching and it can feel, at least initially, like you’re locked into some mold or that you need to have your curriculum look a certain way, but I think almost anywhere it’s your ideas that drive it. In an institution like a school it can be hard to remember all the things you got to think about.

What something about your artwork that you’re most proud of?

Well, while I was doing the program at CCNY I did a self-published photo book of stuff that I had mostly shot before the program while I was working at another school before I became an art teacher. It’s called Here in Red Hook. It’s sort of a slow study of Red Hook, Brooklyn where I used to live and work. It’s a neighborhood with a very interesting history. It includes portraits and streetscapes. I was proud to turn it into a book because it’s allowed me to share the work more widely than I ever had before and give people something they can take in over time, in a way that’s rare looking at photos on the Internet. It’s also been great now that I teach photography. Many of the people I photographed for the book are teens of color from similar backgrounds as my current students. I have this library of photobooks in my classroom, and Here in Red Hook is the one that students pick up and spend time looking at most frequently. They’ll often spend a long time looking at the pictures before realizing it’s by me.

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Tell me a little about your school.

I work at a high school called Brooklyn Frontiers High School. It’s a public high school that was set up about 5 years ago specifically to work with incoming 9th graders that are two years behind their peers. It offers a variety of extra emotional and academic supports to help them overcome the academic and emotional challenges in their lives. I teach 9th to 12th grades (mostly 16 to 20 year olds). My classes include photography, drawing, printmaking, sculpture, mixed media, and “The Artistic Process,” which is a class where students work in a range of media and definitely draws heavily on things we explored in the program at CCNY. I’ve written all the art curriculum from scratch myself.

Visit Andy’s website at: www.andyvernonjones.com
Brooklyn Frontier High School: www.brooklynfrontiers.org

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