My good friend Miko Akasaka and I offered a workshop in June 2016 at Muddy Water Coffee and Café in Tarrytown, New York. We called it Flower Language, because we were inspired by the Victorian practice of communicating through flowers, and the idea that certain flowers carried specific messages.
In our workshop, participants learned how to craft metered poems from free writing. Using Miko’s original template, they were guided into making a three-dimensional dahlias out of paper. They learned a bit about the history of Victorian flower language, and everyone took home a relief sculpture combining two art forms.
Miko and I were grateful to our participants for sharing their energy, humor, and creativity. We were also thankful for cafe owners, Loretta and Linton, for hosting us and making us feel so welcome. We hope to offer more workshops like this again soon. Please keep checking for updates! Thank you!
Two thousand fourteen was a lovely year because of a turn of events surrounding my teaching career. Thanks to an offer from Gretchen Schermerhorn, Artistic Director of Pyramid Atlantic Art Center, I taught collaborative, interdisciplinary art workshops.
From January through March, I taught Art to Kindergarten-2nd grade students at the Pembridge Square Apartments Community Center in Wheaton, MD. Our classes focused on: collages, accordion books with pockets, pop up books, relief prints, T-shirt designs using stencils and fabric markers, and baseball cap designs using felt, fabric glue, and fabric markers. We also read stories and poems aloud to the kids, helped them write their own poetry, and guided them in a couple of performance lessons.
I taught with fellow poet, Lewis Ckool. I met Lew on the morning of our planning session. He literally rescued me. That day, freezing rain had made all the sidewalks treacherous. I walked with extreme caution, trying to balance my crutch, umbrella, and backpack, all while taking baby steps to avoid falling. Right outside the art center, I stopped. I had walked only a few blocks, but I couldn't take another step. I was exhausted, and there was simply too much ice in front of me. Then came my hero. I looked to my right, and there was a young man, dressed all in poetic black, smiling compassionately at me. He offered his arm and asked, "May I be of some assistance?"
Lew's polite demeanor and sincere compassion struck me immediately. As I got to know him and his poetry, I felt even more respect for him. He's an extremely thoughtful writer, and an excellent book maker. He also had the patience and sense of humor it takes to teach children. Working with him was truly a gift.
In April, and then again in early July, another gift arrived as I was privileged to teach two combined creative writing and book making workshops with fellow artist, Patty Lee. Patty is amazing. She makes the most beautiful books, and she is an excellent, patient, organized co-teacher. Not only are her books lovely to look at, they are well-crafted and fun to touch. Gretchen introduced me to Patty. I think she intuitively knew that the two of us would make a nice team. And we did.
As prep for our class, Personal Symbols, Patty and I talked about book design and poetry. I loved how she continuously repeated that the "form of the book needed to inform the writing." In other words, the shape, size, colors, and textures of the book needed to correspond with the three kinds of creative writing I would teach—the vignette, minute poem, and haiku. I felt grateful to work with someone so intuitive and connected to the writing.
We settled on a 5 1/2” x 5 1/2 “ square, with a modified pamphlet stitch book and a cave paper cover, because as Patty said, “cave paper feels like a precious little stone in your hands.” We would fill the book with 14 stitched pages in the front, an accordion feature in the back, and my favorite element, a "secret scribble book" as part of the spine in the middle.
We talked about how people love to make pretty books, but then they seem to feel shy, or they hesitate to write or sketch within them. Having taught writing, I know that many people feel like the drafting process is too messy, and I suppose that this carries into the idea that people don't want to "ruin" something that they have taken the time to make. Patty and I thought people might be more comfortable “hiding” or tucking away their messier thoughts, saving the other pages for more focused writing. Also, because the scribble book was thinner or more vertical (3”x5.5”), this would be the perfect shape for prewriting and listing.
Patty and I offered the class for two consecutive Tuesdays. On the first night, participants made the book with Patty instructing and guiding. On the second night, I led by first teaching prewriting exercises, then showing students examples of the three forms. Students drew from their free writing to compose their own vignettes, minute poems, and haiku. It was beautiful to watch them grow so quickly. Over just a few hours, they went from shy, slow starts to focused, more polished work that they easily shared aloud.
Patty and I felt the class was a success, and based on the students’ feedback, they thought so too.
In mid July, I co-taught an all day workshop to K-5 students from SmArt Camp, a four-week art and education program from Luther Place Church in D.C. While Gretchen taught paper making, I taught book making. We made "hot dog" books (or books from single sheets of paper), stick and rubber band books, and accordions with pockets.
This workshop was special. Not only did I get to work with Gretchen, who absolutely rules as a paper making instructor, I was reunited with a very dear community. The group from Luther had many of my former students’ children. Some of the sweet parents that I had taught through Carlos Rosario’s ESL for Families program were there, and if they couldn’t make it as chaperones, I still was able to see their little ones. It was so good to see their faces again!
The last time we saw each other was at the our friend’s funeral. America Calderon was such an influence in my life that I really haven’t found the words to fully describe how much I miss her. She was a peaceful, playful, inspiring woman. As an advocate for social change, particularly for Latin American families in need of legal counsel, English classes, and general support in adapting to the U.S., she was a force to be reckoned with, always a strong voice, always a shoulder, always a positive example. American’s life story mirrored many of my students’ lives, and she spent her life giving back. Even in death she was present at SmArt Camp, as her family and friends donated the money to make it possible. Gracias, y Vaya con Dios, mi amiga, America.
Another woman who orchestrated the success of SmArt Camp was Kristen Kane-Osorto. Kristen is incredible. While often pulled in a thousand directions, due to her active role at Luther, she exudes this calm, centered personality. Among many other things, she made sure that the kids were organized into groups, that each group of three kids had one chaperone, and that everyone knew how to get from Luther up to Pyramid via Metro. As someone who has organized field trips, I completely appreciated how much work it must have taken to get this done. Kristen is truly community-minded with so much love in her heart. It was an honor to work with her.
Finally, I had the opportunity to visit with Pastor Karen, the lovely woman who married Benjamin and me, and the spiritual leader of Luther Place. Seeing her walk up the hill, with two little ones at her sides and 30 more following behind her was so beautiful! She looked like a shepherd leading her flock. She is another quiet force, a loving, patient, and giving individual. It was so good to see her again.
In the future, I hope more members of Luther Place connect with Pyramid. The relationship seems symbiotic, as I think of both as places which foster the power and importance of art and creativity.
I owe so much to the sweet people at Pyramid Atlantic Art Center. While I was there, I found a place where I could use what I learned in both undergrad and grad school. I worked among colleagues who truly acted on their passions as artists. In the future I hope to teach more workshops and add to this part of my site. Wish me luck and check back for updates. Thank you!