Spotlight: Creativity to Spare

Volunteer Cindy Ruskin, who has led the art program at the Robert Siegal Center for 14 years, talks about the rewards and challenges.
Spotlight: Creativity to Spare
Cindy Ruskin helps students choose collage materials to decorate furniture that earned thousands at the annual gala.

Cindy Ruskin started teaching art at the AGYP in 1998, shortly after she and her husband moved to Avenue B from San Francisco; their close friend Kemp Mandeville (a long-time AGYP board member and Treasurer), who was familiar with Cindy's imaginative painting and mixed media work, recruited her as a teacher. As a full-time artist, Cindy works primarily as an oil painter, but also works with animation, book arts, illustration, set design, and collage. She had solo exhibitions at various galleries, including the Matthew Marks Gallery in Chelsea, and was in group shows at Lincoln Center, and the California Museum in Santa Rosa, CA.

What types of projects do the Glover kids work on?

It's a long list! The kids learned simple bookmaking techniques, wire and clay sculpture, cartooning, origami, mosaics, lanyard making, map making, mask making, paper weaving -- do you want me to go on? -- portrait painting, story-boarding, painting on silk, and many other techniques. They've done drawing with wire, with torn paper, drawing upside down, and doodling on scratch board. They also use traditional materials such as markers, charcoal, colored pencils, watercolors, acrylic paint and spray paint on canvas. I guess you could say we've been busy.

What's the importance of the AGYP art program? How do the kids benefit from it?

Art is a great way to reach kids, to motivate them, to teach them to be productive and take pride in their work, and to feel successful. They learn skills that will help them become productive and successful adults. They learn to follow instructions step by step, to be patient, to experiment, and to be willing to fail. They also learn practical skills: design, photography, cartooning, film-making, and lettering. The Art Program is a fun, happy, non-judgmental time when we inspire the kids to stretch their imaginations, to dream, and to develop their own personal vision.

One of the goals of the art program is to teach the kids to listen and to focus. The program challenges them to work slowly, carefully and thoughtfully, following through all the way to the completion of a project. Often, the kids want to quit the minute they feel they've made a mistake. There is no such thing as failure in art, and I encourage them to see "messing up" as an opportunity that will push them to be even more creative. By finishing a project and framing it, they get a feeling of accomplishment, and they learn to take pride in their work. My goal is to give them proof that they can succeed and let them get a sense of what success feels like. I try to be a positive role model who believes in them and refuses to give up on them – and I expect them to refuse to give up on themselves.

What would you like to see going forward in terms of the Art Program?

Now that we have a new Mac computer, I'd like to get editing software and animation software and teach some concrete skills that could lead to careers. I like bringing in different artists and new talent, and I have loved mentoring the "assistant art teachers" during the years. At the moment, I'm talking to animators and filmmakers to teach workshops at the Robert Siegal Center. I'd like to do more field trips – like making drawings with wire and then going to the Calder exhibit at the Whitney Museum, or making art related to ancient Egypt and then going to the Egyptian exhibit at the Met or the Brooklyn Museum. That's one of the great things about working at Glover; there's always something new to try that will give the kids some fun and help open their minds to new things.

Was there a particularly meaningful moment during one of your art classes?

Every class begins with the kids saying "no." That's their first reaction to everything. When I'm able to gently convince them to get into the project, that's very exciting. When they're quiet and concentrating and they've let go of all the bigger issues in their lives, not thinking about their court case or what's going on at home, when they reach that meditative state just focused on their art, that's a wonderful moment for me. When I was doing reverse painting on glass, I made the mistake of telling them, "This is going to be really cool." So, of course, they all told me it wouldn't be. It was a difficult concept for them to understand because you have to paint backwards. I had to explain it to them one by one. When they all had their heads down and were working so hard, without a peep out of them, and they did that for three weeks, that was meaningful. I felt incredibly proud of them.

Fourteen years is a long time to be teaching a weekly art class. What keeps you going?

The need is so enormous. The kids need the continuity of the same person - that's very important. I find them extremely challenging; it forces me to be creative about finding projects that will appeal to them. All the time, I'm thinking about how to reach them. I grew up with so much creativity and privilege, and I'd like to pass that along to kids who don't have access to what my parents gave me. When the kids do well, it's very thrilling, and I want to see that again.

See what the kids have created in the 2011 Glover Gallery and the 2012 Glover Gallery, or check out an online gallery of Cindy's paintings and mixed-media works.

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