Spotlight on Alumna Christina Soriano: ‘You Meet a Special Kind of Person at TC’ ☆

Christina received her Master’s in Art and Art Education.  She received her undergraduate degree from Cornell University and worked in the apparel industry.  She is a K-5 art teacher at NEST+m: a public NYCDOE citywide gifted and talented school.  Visit christinasoriano.com to see her work.

Tell us about your undergraduate experience, please.

My undergraduate field of study was Textile and Apparel Design at Cornell University. It was a great experience.  I loved the art and design courses and the professors.  As a liberal arts school, it was required to take classes such as micro- and macro-economics, literature, and statistics.  I received an extremely well-rounded education because of these classes, and also met people from all majors and from all over the world!

Where did you work after you graduated?

I worked in the apparel industry at the full-time and freelance level for a few years.   When I was a senior at Cornell, 9/11 happened. Experiencing this at a transitional phase in my life made me assess what it was that I wanted to do for the future.  I still had enthusiastic aspirations to work in fashion, but started to have thoughts about pursuing a field where I helped people.  I had an inkling to apply to grad school for Art Education, an area of study that seemed to fulfill both passions. I applied to TC and some other programs.  Fortunately, I got a job a month after graduating at Jones Apparel Group in their Merchandising and Production department.  After that job, I explored the field, trying on different “hats” as they say. I worked at everything from six-person companies, to medium-sized, to Fortune 500 companies, but never felt like I was “home”.

I got home from work one day from a design consulting job that I really liked but felt something was off. There as an air of confusion looming over me. The job seemed right but didn’t feel right.   So I called my mother. She asked me if the industry was a place I wanted to be in twenty years from now. My answer was, “I’m not sure”.   However, I could see myself in a paint-covered smock, making stuff, getting messy with a slew of art supplies!  It got me thinking.  And because of that I started volunteering after work at non-profits that advocated for children and art education.

When you were in fashion, did you continue to practice your own art?

For a while I wasn’t.  It was a bit of a shock to go from college to an office job.  You’re not learning academics, your past as a student seems somewhat insignificant at the moment.  You are gaining life and work experience, and are essentially starting from square one:  How to be in an office, how to work with many personalities and under multiple supervisors, working with strict deadlines, even writing an appropriate work email.

I ended up in a position that wasn’t the most creative, but looking back I’m glad I experienced it because it taught me a side of the business that many people aren’t aware of. The fashion industry is numbers driven.  It is a business, and it comes down to every last cent and what sells. I would never say there is zero creativity involved, because of course there is! However, to run a successful business there needs to be a balance of creativity and sales!

As for my art: After six months at the first job, I started taking painting and mixed media courses at night at the School of Visual Arts.  I took a creative branding course at FIT since it was across the street from my job.  Definitely felt that the part of me that would constantly be making projects was starting to fade a bit. It was confusing.  It was my very first job out of school, and I knew it would be a stepping-stone.  So taking those night classes helped me keep a balance. After awhile, I started thinking, “this is what I should be doing all day!”

So you went from the fashion business right to studying at TC—what a big jump!

I knew it would be right.  I remember leaving my job early one day to make sure I was on time for an informational appointment with Renee Darvin.  She was the most unique person…words can’t even describe her.  She’s a legend.  She was the Director of Art for the New York City Department of Education for many years.  She is responsible for “selling” the program to me.  She had a no-nonsense attitude about teaching:  “If you are going into this for the summers, you should walk away now!”  She had spunk and was funny.  I thought about going to another school’s program as well, and her response was, “I don’t know everything about their program, and I’m sure they are good in their own way, but what I do know is that if you come here, you will learn from the best”.  I just love how she phrased it and immediately loved her!

One of the first classes I took was with Olga Hubard. After observing the surroundings of my very first grad school class for about fifteen minutes it was evident I made the right decision.  Around the room were people of all ages, people straight out of college, people who were career changers, people my parents’ age.  That was so intriguing, and reminded me that education binds people together.  I have lifelong friends from the program and I feel so fortunate.  You meet a special kind of person at TC.  If you are drawn to the place, you have certain standards for yourself.  I liked the philosophy and the fact that they attracted people from all over the world and every demographic.

Did your time at TC uniquely prepare you to be the type of teacher you are today?

Absolutely.  My professors and instructors each had a distinctive way of thinking.  It became very clear to me what “teaching style” was all about. Each professor/instructor had a specialization which was engaging for me as a student.  I welcomed the differences in their personalities and the way they presented information. I had professors who seemed more radical, and others who were more traditional. Their course readings definitely reflected this!  It was a good mix.  I had people from all over the world teach me the theories and mechanics of art and art education.  I learned that teaching is unique to each person.  You can have the same idea, but it can be taught and presented in 500 different ways.

I’m lucky to look back on the experience this way, but also put in the effort to make it a positive phase of my life. Good experiences are a function of your mindset too. Everything is what you make of it.   I took advantage of every resource at TC, tried to meet as many people as possible, worked for the department and continued to volunteer for causes related to art education.  I realized that I may not go to school ever again (in the formal sense), and felt fortunate to have this opportunity.

When I student taught, I was mentored by two completely different and dynamic educators. They each worked in another field before entering art education, which is probably why we connected well. There was some sort of common ground.

During the elementary student teaching placement, my cooperating teacher truly had a gift of leading conversations with young children. She created an example that I still strive to work toward. When I student taught in the high school setting, I worked with a woman who’s a doctoral student in the TC Art Ed. program.  She is a former art director with very high standards.  She taught me how to fully challenge students.

With both cooperating teachers, I witnessed the delicate balance of pushing students to their potential and nurturing each student as an individual. I am still in touch with both of them five years later.  It’s the network of TC; you somehow gravitate towards each other!

Tell us about the school you are teaching at now, please.

I teach art at PS539M.  The school is called NEST+m: a public NYCDOE citywide gifted and talented school.  It stands for “New Explorations in Science, Technology and Math” and children from every borough have the opportunity to attend if they score a certain percentage on a test.  My school is located in the Lower East Side.  The student population exhibits economic and cultural diversity.  I started teaching there in December of 2007 and feel very grateful—it’s been a good place for me. There are three of us in the school who teach art, and my responsibility is to the Lower School, or K-5.

What is it like being an art teacher today?

Let me preface by saying that I feel more fortunate for my job than I ever have been.

We all read the news. You expect to hear about layoffs and budget cuts. As a teacher, you aren’t aware of how this will affect you in the long run. From what I read on the national level, when budgets are cut, art and music seem to be first targeted.  In the scheme of public schools (again from what is read in newspapers as a generalization) they are considered “extras”.  At my school, I’m grateful. I’d say art is a high priority for my administration and parents.

I teach a large number of children, so at times it is easy to get caught up in the daily routine. Sometimes you need to stop yourself and think, “What is it that I want these kids to come away with? How am I going to get there?” It can be challenging—Art is 50 minutes a week, once a week, and I teach nearly 700 students.  I’m able to reflect on that in a positive light, because you reach a lot of young minds!  Last year my fifth graders wrote me such wonderful letters upon their graduation.  One said, “Thank you so much for all we’ve learned.  I’ll never forget in second grade when we were making collages and how you were walking around and you stopped to compliment mine, and I’ll never forget it.” I remember things from my elementary school days, especially from the teachers who took the time to get to know me and had a passion for their subject matter.    I think that’s another huge part of the job.  I try to get to know each student’s personality.

The biggest challenge is wondering if you’re ever doing enough.

What do you feel is the place of art in a child’s education?

It is an integral part.  It encompasses all the senses. It is the definition of independent thought! Art challenges a different part of the brain, and dare I say, the soul.  There is nothing more gratifying than seeing a group of children excited to get working in the art room. I hold high standards for my students and challenge them above and beyond, as much as possible.  I receive poignant letters from students who are no older than 10 telling me that they never realized there was so much involved in art, and how they love learning about different artists and how to use paintbrushes…or how they want to be someone who “makes something” when they grow up.

My focus is to expose them to art and the art making process. To create a respect for an act that has been around as early as the history books are willing to document.  To create it, talk about it, write about it and form an opinion about it.

What is the difference between being an artist, and being an art teacher?  And how does your own art practice affect what you do with your students?

I don’t know. What I do know is that not everyone wants to teach or has the ability to or wants to. At least, to teach well! I’ve always laughed at people who coin the phrase “Those who can’t do, teach”. It is hysterical! I’ll tell you this much, not everyone can do my job! I certainly know that art and creating has always been and will always be a large part of my life.  My earliest memory of color mixing was at the age of 3… the exploration of making and creating hasn’t stopped. Teaching is something I love too. I get to do both.

The word “artist” can be defined in so many different ways.  One thing that I encountered at TC was that debate:  Are they two different things, or do they overlap?  An artist is anyone who has the desire to create.  I think you can learn to be better and to think critically, add theory and make it more cerebral.  That’s why people go to school.  I completely believe that art is an academic discipline. But after college, it becomes divergent. People who study art, design, and art history in college can go in so many different directions professionally. And after a while, as I’ve communicated, sometimes the road changes.  You can even start the debate about all the classifications of art (fine versus self-taught vs. folk, etc.), but that’s for another day! Labels are formalities.

And to be a good art teacher—that’s another thing that I don’t think can be learned just by going to school.  It is just in you.  If you go into teaching, it is because that is what your gut is telling you to do. At least I’d hope so for most people.  I wanted to do something for others with the creative talent I have.

Since I work with young children, they inform my practice.  They are so free!  This winter I started a project of drawing artifacts from my childhood.  Why I started, I’m not sure.  It was organic.  I was visiting my parents for the weekend and went through a box of old stuff.  I found my baptism shoe, a ballet recital costume and a stuffed doll. There is something about working with children that inspires me re-live memories related to my own childhood. You begin to remember the excitement about birthday parties full of balloons, your first dance performance and your first art project! (My first Kindergarten painting is still in my parents’ dining room!) When you work with families, you hear their stories; you share in the stories and experiences. You also realize you are, one day, in a tiny way, going to be part of this child’s story. That is a fascinating thing.

Do you take the time to paint and create things?

Absolutely.  But it takes discipline. There is confusion out there that the teaching schedule is only six or seven hours a day. What a misconception! I can only form an opinion specifically for what I do. So for teaching art, there is an enormous amount of planning and materials preparation on a daily basis. To find the time to sit down and respond to an email during the week is a challenge sometimes. Teaching and preparing for teaching is part of my out-of-school life. However, for the past few years I have made sure to devote a certain amount of hours a week to my own craft.

How does making art figure into your long term goals?

I think I will always combine art with teaching to some capacity. One day I would love to run an open art studio for both children and adults. Or combine all my experiences and start some sort of small business related to children’s clothing or décor. The possibilities are endless! It is exciting to be able to create sketches and turn them into something else.

I think I am finally at that point where the two (career plus art) are finally coming together. It is nice to get freelance creative projects.  Art can take so many forms. And then there is the whole debate of artist versus designer, and what’s the difference.  In this day and age, I think everyone is just trying to survive.  If you have a creative gift, use it.  Use it something for good. Please! And enjoy the process.

What do you do to nurture creativity in your students?  I’m reminded of that Picasso quote, “It has taken me my whole lifetime to paint like a child.”

Once my students are around eight or nine years old, I notice they become more easily frustrated.  They are bit more inhibited. Developmentally it makes sense. The first thing I’ll say to re-motivate is, “This isn’t the last piece of art you will ever create!”  I implemented a portrait project last spring with my fifth graders that seemed to feel slow in pacing.  Some students were getting frustrated with the process, and it was evident we all needed to take a break from it for a week. I reserved one art session in the middle of the unit to do something else that was unrelated. There are tons of creative exercises out there. It was also a time to create a mini forum to discuss what students were struggling with.  They were worried, “I’m not getting the skin color right!”  My response was, “This isn’t the last portrait you are going to create!  If you learned how to mix tints and shades to create skin color—if you are getting that far—then that’s great! Try your best and keep on moving forward.” These moments are gifts. It shows the students care and are vested in the project. It showed me that the art room, to these students, was a space to challenge oneself. After our mini forum, there were sighs of relief and a whole lot of laughing.  So I foster the laughter and the silliness and the goofiness once in a while because all of that combined makes the art room a unique place.

Fostering creativity…I think it has to do with the community and environment that you create in your room that fosters each child as an individual.  I make an effort to make sure that each student feels secure where they are.  I remind them that we all do things differently.  It is so important to show many artists and different interpretations of an idea.  And show them how 10 different artists will draw the same vegetable, face, apple, and tree, whatever it is…differently.

Picasso’s quote hits the nail on the head:  Children will always have a sense of freeness that cannot be replicated.  They just go for it. I honor and admire that.

Anyone in a creative field is used to the critiquing process. The process of editing. In a way I think, as an adult, it sometimes hinders creativity. If someone commissions a project, it is easy to become wrapped up with the formalities of fees, disparity of your vision versus the client’s, that there must be certain standards.  But if I am drawing or doodling in a sketchbook, my work tends to feel better and more genuine.

What do you do to keep your teaching fresh?

Everything. I follow the news. Go to museums and galleries. Explore the city. Make art. Talk to artists. Talk to people who think differently. Talk to people who agree with you. Go to a lecture. Read. Ask questions. Observe and learn from other educators.  Do something out of the normal routine. I voluntarily completed an internship at a museum last summer because sometimes you have to mix things up.  Being a good teacher is understanding that you need to keep learning.  When I visit museums the act of observing docents and museum educators teaches me so many new and different techniques that are easily translated back into the classroom.  You can never stop learning.