Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Elizabeth Unpingco's Improbable Beautiful

Fragile, Elizabeth Unpingco

1.     How long have you been a teaching artist?
In true form, I’ve been a teaching artist all my life.  Since early childhood, creation was the opening through which art encouraged discovery. I was born into family firmly planted in hand-crafted and hand-hewn, so artistic endeavor naturally allowed me to connect.  Professionally, I started working as a “teaching artist” in 2006 after I left a deceptively sexy and well-paid job at a non-profit. There I served in an administrative capacity developing and managing a countywide program that employed other teaching artists of various disciplines. I have been working as a teaching artist for nearly 10 years now – how time flies when one is fulfilling one’s true vocation in life!

2.     What discipline(s) do you teach?
My specialty is visual integrated with literary arts (dialogue, poetry, storytelling). I often ask my young students if they have ever heard the saying “a picture is worth a thousand words”.  Most of them have NOT as this is a rather out dated utterance, however it prompts us to explore the world of words that dance with expressive symbols, metaphor, and visual techniques through open-ended processes. I am not only a visual manipulator, but a “word smith” as well. Mindfulness and metacognition are guides for our work.

3. Describe the setting(s) in which you teach.
(K-5, after school, university, community center, etc…)
Presently, I am an art museum educator serving the Santa Clara, CA preK – 9th grade community. I find working in a museum a magical setting in which to immerse kids in the world of art. It allows a freedom from convention that inspires deeper reflection and risk taking. Our classroom includes changing exhibitions that allow for exploration, dreaming, and even drawing in the galleries. There are many wonderful resources available in this kind of setting. Occasionally, the museum places me in local public school classrooms where I am honored to provide some much needed creative outlet.

4. Describe the relationship between your personal art practice and your art teaching?
When I create at home, I am dually evolving as a teaching artist. The more in touch and consistent I am with my own practice the more I have to authentically offer my students. Because I chose this profession to share my passion for living creatively, I must walk the talk. Of course there are periods of “ebb” that provide a contrast so that I deeply know and understand the difference between living the dream as opposed to going through the motions where teaching feels like just another J-O-B. I remind learners (and myself) that if we stick with it, remembering to breath, the joy of accomplishment returns and triumphs!    

5. How do you sustain your art while teaching?
Sustainability is a verb, an ongoing, dynamic process that changes, moves, and spirals in various directions.  As primarily a visual artist, I have learned to open my field of vision. I look, see, and interact with the world around me as fodder for inward alchemy, what we call “windows and mirrors” in the art education world.  Just about every thing I do in life is viewed through the lens of my relationship with ‘sense of place’ and how that place effects me.  I see and feel line, color, pattern, shape, relationship & juxtaposition, texture, rhythm & melody and on and on. I have struggled financially for most of my life, but my relationship to my art has remained primary and life-giving. Having a partner who values who I am and what I do; helping to support my growth and musings has become a necessity and a god-send. I gravitate toward and manifest diverse opportunities for creative/financial sustenance. Ideas come fast and furious so that it can sometimes become overwhelming. Sometimes these opportunities pan out and thankfully, oftentimes not. 

6. Who shaped your initial thinking about teaching art?
Being employed as an administrator for a newly developed, county-wide program where the organization placed teaching artists in classrooms initiated my desire to become part of this rich fabric. Instead of working around others’ successful residency placements, I realized I myself wanted to be “placed”– this emerging title “teaching artist” offered the best of both worlds in my mind.  The teaching artists I worked with showed me the possibilities of remaining true to oneself while simultaneously being valued (and employed) in the educational field.  I felt I had discovered my long, lost tribe.

7. What training in the arts and/or education have you had?
I earned my master’s degree in education (curriculum and instruction – integrated teaching through the arts) in 2013 from Lesley University as part of a San Francisco Bay Area cohort. It was the learning experience of a lifetime!  Prior to that, I earned a bachelor’s degree in graphic design emphasizing illustration, 1990 from San Jose State University. In between those two formal degrees, I participated in many trainings, courses, and life-changing events including employment by the City of San Jose Department of Parks, Recreation & Community Services for 16 years. I worked with a diversity of undervalued and at-risk communities; life experience no educational institution could ever provide. I am a lifelong learner reinforcing a love affair with creativity and knowledge in my students.

8. How do you develop and deepen your teaching practice?
I glean the wisdom of others:  artists, friends and relations, spiritual teachers, education innovators, and others who care deeply about our children and youth both now and in the future. I try to keep my ear to the ground to take advantage of what’s brewing in the field on local, national, and global levels. Mostly, I try to hear and discern the voice within and thus heed its wisdom about what is right and good for me as a practitioner.

9. What are the biggest challenges you face as a teaching artist?
Isolation & disconnect, financial uncertainty, diversifying lessons, marketing & selling myself, advocating for appropriate creative/arts-based curriculum within society’s education-machine, and the relentless onslaught of time.

10. What are the unexpected rewards of being a teaching artist?
Seeing how the field is growing in leaps and bounds – that recognition of the importance of what we do and opportunities to do it are gaining ground.  It is very rewarding, although not unexpected, to see the education-machine slowly acknowledge the tremendous impact an arts-based/integrated curriculum is having on closing those gaps we ourselves have created. I feel proud that I no longer must live out the story  “those who can do, those who can’t teach” I do both!

11. What advice do you have for artists interested in teaching?
Teaching is a noble profession, however; you must be aware of the critical need for patience with your students, administrators, colleagues, and most importantly yourself.  When you find yourself ‘assuming’ on any level, check yourself (you will save yourself much grief).  Learn within community, stay open, cultivate and share the quality of having fun! Grow in your capacity for independence, flexibility, and confidence in setting your own core criteria.

Please share one anecdote of a memorable Teaching Artist experience.
Working with a small group of middle school girls of varying levels of skill, socialization, and self-acceptance brings me back to my own awkward adolescence. Some sessions are arduous, but my own inner-knowing keeps me afloat along the choppy journey.  Eventually occurs the inevitable; I am privy to witness total engagement in the blissful assimilation of personal image and paint. I am blinded by the brilliance of each student in her own right. I experience fulfillment of my mission yet one more time. I recommit to continuing the work.    

On June 20, 2015, I will participate in the Triton Musuem of Art’s annual Summer Solstice Art Festival. I will be co-teaching two summer camps there as well:  Explorations in Drawing (3rd-5th grade), session 1 and World Art for (K-2nd grade) with my collaborative partner, session 6.  The Triton MOA is admission free and extremely community-oriented, exhibiting works by primarily local and state artists.  http://www.tritonmuseum.org/

I am also applying to Recology’s artist 2016 residence program. As I create many of my pieces from recyclables, discards, and nature’s droppings, I feel this opportunity to be very good fit for me - wish me luck!
cube hands