6 Questions with NMS Art Specialist Vanessa Irzyk
Why do you teach at NMS?
I teach at NMS because I have the freedom to teach and flow with what interests the students. If I were to teach in a public school, I might have to be “art on a cart” without much space or storage for materials, or I might be the first one cut if there were budget issues. Here at NMS, I am able to design a curriculum that is fun and challenging for the students. My goal is to introduce students to a wide range of media and artists. NMS values professional development, so I was able to attend an encaustic (wax painting) workshop—now I can share that medium with my 6th graders.
How do you design your curriculum?
I have a set curriculum for 1st–6th grade with some wiggle room in each grade for different projects. Last year, all of Upper Elementary needed to make papier-mâché heads for their cultural project, so we were able to create them in art. This year the students are learning about social justice with Miss Krissy, so we will make protest posters in art and learn about how art affects the world around us. As for Primary students, I have core skills I want them to learn, but I change the projects every year. Because there is a three-year cycle in each division, I can’t repeat projects for three years; though I usually don’t ever repeat them. I like to challenge myself to think of new ways to introduce basic art skills.
Why do you think teaching art is important?
Art is such an important part of our lives. Color affects our moods, how we dress, and how we set up our homes. Art is problem solving: how to keep a sculpture from leaning, how to make a color less bright, how to balance a composition, how to take a proper photograph in a world where social media and images are such a big part of who we are. Art is a part of history, and learning from the masters can inspire artists of all ages. I strive to teach my students about different artists each year, usually in connection with the cultural studies they focus on during the semester. It’s amazing to see a 3-year-old demonstrate knowledge about Kandinsky and understand what 'abstract' means. I want to expose my students to different methods of art-making early on so they can see what they like best. I always say to my students that you might not like this project, but you might love the next one—and you’ll never find out unless you try. Art is so important because there is no right or wrong. There is no definite answer. That’s the beauty of it. All you can do is try your hardest.
How do you prepare for your classes?
Because I teach about 23 classes a week, I have to be very prepared and have materials ready. In one day I could have two Primary classes, 6th grade, 5th grade, 1st grade, and art club, so all of their materials need to be ready to go. For Primary, I have 120 students who need pre-cut pieces for all of their projects. The prepared environment is one of the most important parts of teaching art. All of the relevant materials are set up at each table or on the rug for students to easily access. The students are familiar with the classroom and feel confident in the space. They are able to get scissors or a pencil when they need it. They all know how to clean up and wipe the tables down before the next class. They take ownership of knowing how the class is set up and have the freedom to get what they need for their project. In all my classes, we always start by meeting on the rug for attendance and to discuss the lesson. There is usually an outline of the project, and the necessary materials are ready and available. Older students participate in critiques where they can offer helpful suggestions or observations of their peers' work. It’s amazing how much they help and guide one another; and sometimes they even offer advice that I have given them in the past.
When did you start teaching art?
I have been teaching since I was 17. I taught at the local art center in New Bedford, MA. I would take my students to the Whaling Museum down the street, eat snack by the water fountain, and have them draw from our surroundings. Since then, I have taught students ranging from children to senior citizens in every medium you can think of. I always wanted to work at a Montessori school because I knew they valued art. I always could tell when one of my students went to a Montessori school because they could cut with scissors. All my other students around the age of 5 had a hard time figuring out where to put their fingers.
What was your path to becoming an artist?
I have been painting and creating since I was a child. I would have loved to attend a school like this! My mother let me paint everything in my bedroom. I painted a mural on one wall, and I even painted the curtains. When I accidentally got neon green paint on one of my mother's pillowcases, I color matched her mauve bedding to cover it up. I attended Massachusetts College of Art and Design and double majored in Painting and Art Education. After my final critique in college, I found a studio space to share with a couple of peers. I have been in that space since 2007. It is in an old whiskey distillery in South Boston. I go to my studio 4–6 times a week, often before or after school and sometimes both. I have been showing work throughout New England and New York since college. I have also received a grant from the Massachusetts Cultural Council and completed an artist residency in Vermont. My next upcoming show is a solo exhibit at the New Bedford Art Museum in May.
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