How did you get started as an artist and teacher?
I had a lot of different incarnations. I first went to the School of Visual Arts (SVA) … but I had no idea how you made money as an artist. That’s one thing my parents didn’t know about. The only thing I really knew was teaching, but I didn’t want to do that at the time. I had a friend that was an illustrator—that was when people would actually paint book covers—so I said, “Oh, he does that and gets jobs so I’ll try that.” But I was never a super realistic painter. I was more expressive, and when I got to the illustration major there were deadlines and doing things a certain way, and it wasn’t a good fit. You know, I was 19 years old, and I dropped out.
After that, I did random jobs, but I felt like I was missing out. I had to do my art on the side. I had a friend who was a scenic painter. She painted sets for movies and theater, and I thought, “Wow, people do that, that looks really cool.” I did an internship in the summer, and I loved it! Then I was freelancing—I would do regional theater and local stuff. I didn’t get paid much because I wasn’t in the Union, but it introduced me to faux finishing, different textures and surfaces. I was painting sets and props, and I really enjoyed it. I thought, I can actually do art. It’s physical and hands on, and I’m not sitting at a desk. I knew that just painting wasn’t going to make me a living.
I ended up going back to school for restoration—FIT had a really good program—and I focused on decorative objects and furniture. I graduated, and then I started working in the field. I did sets, faux finishing, wall surfaces and that’s what I did for many years.
Eventually, I got to a point where I was climbing up ladders with big buckets every day, and I wanted to have a child so I figured it was time to go back to school. The firm I was working for as a decorative finisher—I was managing their studio—was downsizing. In real estate there were a lot of problems because of the crash in the market at the time, and they weren’t building so I could see it coming to an end soon. I was going to be the first to go because my assistant was a lot cheaper, and she already knew everything. I had already designed all the finishes. When that job came to an end, I started doing the teaching-artist thing more.
I also began the master’s program in Art Education at CCNY, and it made me much more marketable as an artist and a professional. Now I had all the learning objectives, the scaffolding and the structure. I worked at El Museo del Barrio as a teaching artist. I did the project with the seniors in my neighborhood. I worked in a cancer ward at a hospital, doing art projects with patients while they were getting their treatment. It was a way of keeping their minds off of it. I did a lot of different things.
When I graduated from CCNY, I got a job at a not-for-profit that had a decorative finishing studio where they produced work for the interior design field. They also had a school—this was the not-for-profit side—using state funds for people who were on disability to learn skills, particularly for people with HIV and AIDS. Some of them would get hired to work at the studio, and others they would place in the field, but it was also therapeutic. As you know, creating things is a very healing process. It’s called Alpha Workshops. It’s a wonderful organization. Their motto is “Creating Beauty. Changing Lives.” I taught their Intro to Decorative Arts program. It was a full-time teaching job.
You already had a lot of experience so why did you go back to graduate school for art education?
It was really great to break down the process. What is creativity? How does it work? Art is so mysterious to everyone else, and that’s what makes it hard for us as educators because we always have to justify and explain the grade and participation. What is participation? There are people who ask, “What if you’re not a good artist”? Well, there are elements and principles of design. Is it laid out in an interesting way? Does it move your eye? Is there an emphasis on what you want them to see? These are tangible things that can be measured that have nothing to do with whether you like it or not. A lot of people resist this. Artists don’t like to explain themselves sometimes … they want to just do their magic. I get that, but I’m kind of a weird artist. I like to think about it and explain it. What are these processes? How are they unique to artists? How can we teach those? I actually believe we can teach it. These processes are very applicable to other things. I don’t think it should have to justify itself. I think art is what it is, and it has value. But I think we also have to understand that people don’t see that, so if we can get them to see where it can help other things that they do value, that might be a first step. Some people think we’ll get stuck there, but if it’s getting people to embrace it in some way and see that it’s not something beyond them, that’s good. How do you communicate that so that it’s not a marginalized thing? I think that’s the big problem in schools.
I also think you have to be a self-motivated person. It’s going to be presented to you, but you’re not just going to graduate and be handed a job. You’ve got to hustle. You’ve got to use the connections. There was a hiring freeze for art teachers for a really long time. So that’s what I did. I was a student teacher at my last school, and they reached out to me. Then, with this school, I kind of stalked the principal. Nowadays, in any field, you have to create your own opportunities. I say this to my students all the time. They’re waiting for something to happen. No, you have to say, “Can I do this?” “Can I do it for free?” Unfortunately that’s just the way it is. You have to be kind of pushy. You have to use what you learn and get exposed to.
Tell me about your current school and how you began working there.
I got news about my current job (Mather Building Arts & Craftsmanship High School) … and I ended up contacting the principal of this school. We met and had a lot of informal meetings. Then we planned a 3-hour Saturday decorative finishing workshop, and it was really fun. There were 8 to 10 kids who came, and they really enjoyed it. The principal and people from the National Park Service came as well because this school is a partner with the NPS. That’s how it originated. A lot of their workforce was retiring, and they were asking, who are the young people who are going to learn preservation skills for our parks? So they created this school. Hopefully it’s a model for future schools. After that, I definitely wanted to work there.
They have a great philosophy. They believe in creating great citizens. It sounds very idealistic, but I do see it working for them even though it’s new and they’re figuring it out. It’s part of their grading system. What I found problematic in my last school, as far as grading, was the whole nebulous aspect of participation. What is that? When you have 30 kids, it’s really hard to quantify. Parents at that school in particular were so active, and they don’t even understand art half the time. Here, for each assignment you have an academic and a “Core Value” grade. There are only 5 core values. For example, “I am responsible.” The Core Value grade is worth 30%. If they hand in their assignment late, their Core Value grade is going to be lower because they weren’t responsible, but their academic grade is based on their work. The grade will get lowered but at least it’s a quantifiable thing that anyone can look up and see. It’s hard to get it set up—this is my first year here, but it actually works. And you can use this language: “Are you being collaborative right now?” I know it sounds corny but everyone is behind it. All these are considered work-ready skills. Since we are a CTE school, even if they don’t go into historic preservation, they have to take regents and have advanced classes like any other school. We tell them these are things that we would want out of an employee. I want to hire people that are positive risk-takers, conscientious and collaborative. So if students say, “I’m not doing that!” well then you’re not being collaborative. You don’t have to be the bad guy. This is the culture of the school, and it helps them take ownership.
What’s your strength as a teacher?
I keep it real. This is what I’ve done my whole life. I’m actually really into it. I’m not just trying to make it interesting ‘cause it’s my job. I think that comes through. The problem is that if they’re not really interested, then it doesn’t matter. But for the most part I find that this is very new to them. At the middle school I was in, they had art. They were lucky. They didn’t appreciate it. I would say to them, “There are some schools that don’t even have paint—they have to rip magazines up.” They were children of professionals, and they have all these resources so they didn’t get it. It’s kind of sad really. Whereas these kids … when I do assessments in the beginning and ask them, “What’s your experience with art?” A lot of them never even had an art class not even in elementary school. This is supposed to be a decorative finishing class, but I’ve had to go back and teach the elements of design. They get it, but they don’t know how to talk about it.
What are you working on right now as an artist?
Well, I had a baby last year and just started this job… I’m going to be doing a very large mural project in the spring for the DOT, the Department of Transportation. It’s in Queens, and it’s two large walls that I had sent in a design for. These ladies that I do community projects with asked me if I would design a mural and work with community volunteers. I said yes if they would do all the paperwork—‘cause I have no time! The idea was to recruit some of my students that are interested because that could be an actual resume thing for them. Hopefully, it can still happen. That’s my biggest project coming up. And I actually sold a painting last week through a gallery that I’ve been working with for many years.
Can you describe something you love about making art?
I have a series that I really like and continue to work on. My work is really textural. I have this one series called Urban Impressionism. I live in Astoria now, and there are a lot of crusty industrial things. I love processes. As a decorative finisher, I like to show things aging, and it’s something I look for. There is beauty in our environment, and that’s not looked at as something beautiful. So the series is snapshots, abstracts, extractions from our urban environment made into low relief paintings. [Carla’s artwork is currently being shown at Midoma Gallery and Salon through March 18: Link ]
Interview and photos by Chris Parkman: firstname.lastname@example.org
Sponsored by the CCNY Department of Art Education]