Hello from Highlands, North Carolina! This summer I am a Teaching Artist Resident at The Bascom: A Center for the Visual Arts. This past week I taught my first camp (of eight) for the summer season. It was themed in Traditional Craft. You can read all about it here. I will be producing an eBook at the end of the summer that collects all of the projects into one place so that people can recreate these lessons in their own creative space: home, school, community center, wherever. My eBook will be available on my website and through Amazon. More information on this fun book soon!
First up: an interview with Pittsburgh native Alison Babusci! Alison is an amazing puppeteer and stellar art teacher who engages young students in a variety of creative offerings. She works all over her community: with schools and at museums and universities. She is the Vice President of the Puppetry Guild of Pittsburgh, and a graduate of the Bank Street School in New York City.
I met Alison through a friend on Facebook. While we have never met in person, we have lots and lots of similarities in both our community involvement, our teaching methods, and through the materials we make with . . . Soon we will be collaborating--for real--on what's promising to be a fabulous puppetry and storytelling art piece! So without further ado, I give you Alison Babusci in her own words! Enjoy!
My name is Alison Katherine Babusci and I teach in Pittsburgh, PA. I’ve been teaching for just over 26 years. I teach art, primarily. But I am also a certified Early Childhood Educator and work in that capacity as well. I am also an adjunct at Duquesne University and Chatham University where I teach Arts Integration and Materials and Methods for Elementary Art. I am also a STEAM Program Coordinator for the Allegheny County Library association. On occasion, I also teach storytelling, puppet making, and yoga. I’ve taught in private schools, public schools, charter schools, after school programs, community programs, libraries and my favorite setting - museums.
Sometimes I feel like EVERYONE else in my family was a teacher. But really it was just my mother, father, aunt and uncle. But they were big, important passionate educators: all of them. But because of this - I tried to choose a different path - I tried to not be a teacher - but it didn’t work. I got my undergraduate degree in theatre at The American University in DC, and began to lean towards costume design. But guess what I was able to get a job doing right out of school? Yep, teaching creative dramatics . . . And that’s where it all started!
I ended up moving back to my hometown of Pittsburgh. I really began my teaching career at the Carnegie Museum of Art where I worked for a woman named Wendy Osher, who remains a friend, favorite artist and mentor to this day. I learned so much about teaching from her and my experiences in the Children’s Studio @ CMA. Additionally, I learned so much from the amazing women I co-taught with, and they also remain inspirations and friends. CMA was transformative for me - I loved it - and learned much!! I was simultaneously working as a teaching artist for Gateway to the Arts performing in schools and doing residencies. I was often collaborating with classroom teachers and could see that I didn’t always understand everything they were contending with - so I decided to go back to get a teaching degree, too. But I did it in a backwards, amazing and expensive way!
I found a MS Ed program at Bank Street College of Education. We did education and leadership classes at the legendary Bank Street and studio art at Parsons! It was HEAVEN! (We had to house ourselves in NYC for three summers and that was $$$$!) I had a masters degree, but no teaching certification. So I went to Chatham University back in Pittsburgh to get remaining credits to earn an Early Childhood certification--my favorite ages--and then took the PRAXIS to add on Art K-12 certification!
I spent about 10 years teaching in public schools and now I'm circling back to teaching in out-of-school environments like museums, libraries, and community programs. That's the short version of my story . . .
I love teaching art the most because I love seeing the art that other humans create. I love early childhood learners because they are so open and free, and eager to grow, explore, and have a good time. But I also get a special kick out of teaching the pre-service teachers at Duquesne! They often come in afraid of a required “art class” shouting “I’M NOT AN ARTIST!” But when I can win them over and get them to relax and enjoy artmaking and possibly feel confident enough to put it in their teaching toolbox - I am so proud. Teaching puppetry provides a different view that I also enjoy. I love to watch the problem solving that takes place and of course the personalities that come out through the puppets!
I recently sat and seriously looked at this – and it does vary but if I do even one public event like the one pictured here and some other regular gigs it can be as many as 300 or 400!!! 2 weeks when I computed it exactly it was 243. I was shocked it is so many!!
What kind of artwork do you make?
I work with textiles--felting, sewing, and playing. I upcycle old sweaters! Wool and cashmere can both be felted and I turn them into creatures and creature comforts. But lately, I am IN LOVE with cashmere and work with that the most! I sew snuggly, colorful cashmere accessories and wear them all winter long. I also love creating with watercolors and any water-soluble crayon-type thing . . . My mom is great with watercolors and taught me when I was young. We always took classes together, too. I also make puppets. I like bunraku puppets, felt hand puppets, and shadow puppets. I sometimes make jewelry and other clothing. I make handmade cards for most every occasion. I also create shows and performances sometimes: mostly storytelling, but sometimes with puppets, too. Recently I have tried painting with guoache and bought myself a metallic set! SO SPARKLY! I always say my 15 minutes of fame happened early when I made a one woman show called Deconstructing Barbie: Hilarious Tales of Growing Up and Growing Boobs. I performed it and toured a little for many years - it was epic!!
I always share my own practice with my students. I show them my visual art and I tell them stories. I also often use my puppets while teaching. I believe that it is very important for them to see and understand all the parts of being an artist - so when I am doing a show I share with them what my booth set-up looks like, how I price things, etc. The whole deal!
Do you think making your own artwork enhances, changes, or helps your teaching?
There is no doubt that I grow as a teacher when I grow as an artist and vice-versa. But then again my philosophy is that these two things are who I am - not just what I do. So there you have it!! That said, history has shown that I am a better teacher when I have a balance of time for my own artmaking and personal explorations.
Does working with young people help to enhance the artwork you make?
I think children remind me to laugh, to experiment, and to find the joy in each creation. So, yes!!
What is your favorite thing about what you do?
I feel so proud to say I am a teacher. I believe teaching is my service to the community and the world, and I am proud to support my fellow humans in this way. But I also love that teaching makes me laugh - children make me laugh. I love their honesty and their unique way of connecting ideas without the constraints of the grown-up way of ordering things. I also enjoy working as a freelance educator more than in a school right now for a number of reasons. I enjoy the great variety of projects, settings, and age groups. Typical gemini! 😉
I find this really hard to answer. I have always worked with young people, so I don’t know what to compare this to. The only thing I can say is that I have far more patience for young people than I do for grown-ups. Somehow I make that shift when I'm in a room of students. (On a lighter note, I curse like a sailor, but somehow never slip-up around students!)
Do you host any large events that feature your students' artwork so that the larger community can see what the students are doing? What about school-specific events?
In my current teaching capacity, not as regularly as I would like. But when I taught at the same K-8 school for 8 years I started an Interdisciplinary Arts Festival that became a well-loved tradition that continues to this day. In addition to a traditional art show, it featured ARTSmart - a student-artist market where kiddos made and sold their own art. The first year I told my students if they could make an inventory of 12 of something and sit and sell it, they could keep the money and only 3 students took me up on it. The last year I was there participation grew to almost 100 applicants! We had to make it it’s own separate event! I was way ahead of my time because the maker movement and this type of thing is more common now, but it wasn't back then. So proud! I also had a Student Curators Club who helped me to plan and hang the show. Then they became docents during the art show, leading informed and interactive tours! We also had student artists doing demonstrations of different techniques and leading make-and-take activities. The music teacher was my bestie and the evening also featured a ton of live musical performances throughout the evening! Best memories ever!!!
How does collaboration fit into your teaching methods? What about personal choice? And imagination?
My first teaching job at the Carnegie Museum of Art was almost all team-teaching: initially, a forced collaboration with other teachers I barely knew. However, I really enjoyed working in this way; the planning and the discussions before and after teaching were so reflective, rich, and informative. It was the most collaborative teaching setting I have ever been in and it was AWESOME. All of the performances I have created and been a part of in my career were very collaborative. I feel it brings out the best in me. I also like to have my students collaborate and make artworks that no one gets to take home but instead are shared with the larger school community. I went to a Montessori school, preschool - 4th grade, and was so used to collaborative learning and peer-to-peer teaching. And I enjoy watching my students work in this way. Even when my puppet company, Light Bright Beautiful Puppetry, had a tent at the Three Rivers Arts Festival, I recruited students to work with us to demonstrate and assist. I don’t like it when only the grown-ups have all the answers. It was so cool to watch how different my students chose to approach new kids, and how they broke down the directions. They all had different styles - just like grown-up teachers!
When my university students are struggling to understand how to design a good art lesson I often simplify it to this: if the students don’t make a choice, it’s not art. It may well be a good practice of skills or following directions, but it is not art. It seems simple, but it takes a while for some folks to understand that personal choice is an essential part of artmaking.
Imagination is EVERYTHING! I think this is why storytelling works so well in the art classroom. Story listening is like the world’s best imagination warm-up!
Do you bring in people from the community to work with your students? Why or why not?
Yes! Whenever possible! It is essential to see real humans making real art in the real world!
1. Art tape or lick n’ stick tape, as we sometimes call it. It is colorful paper tape with adhesive on the back that can be licked (eeeww), or wet with a sponge. I use it in so many ways! It is great for community art and make n' takes because you can even tear it and there's no mess!!
2. Felt - I love felt!
3. Water soluble crayons/pencils/payons, etc.
4. Black cardstock/hole punches and popsicle sticks for making SHADOW PUPPETS!
What do you think is the best part of teaching?
The drawings you are given as gifts!!
Do you have a favorite lesson plan that you could share with us?
Make shadow puppets!
Cut out any shapes . . . Out of anything! Put a stick on your pieces and go out in the sun and play . . . Use a flashlight in the dark, or the light on a cell phone! I love using recycled plastics in different colors, cutting them (carefully) and drawing on them with sharpies too. I have created shadow puppets with children as young as 3. And some grandparents, too . . . Everyone loves the magic of shadow puppets!! Using hole punches of different shapes and sizes strengthens little hands and imitates the ornate cut-outs of traditional wayang kulit. Teach and say those words: wayang kulit. Feels good, right? Can you tell shadow puppets are a little obsession of mine? (One day Ms. Lindsey Bailey and I will collaborate on a kick-butt-shadow-puppet-something! 💜)
If I asked you when you were five what you wanted to be when you grew up, what might you have said?
An artist or veterinarian or broadway star!
What is the best thing that happened to you in the past week (teaching or otherwise)?
I went to a women’s writing group. Tuesday Night Monologue Project at ARThouse - in the community of Homewood in Pittsburgh, PA, organized by the phenomenal citizen artist Vanessa German. I was scared because I consider myself a storyteller, but not really a writer. And there would be writers present! I was also feeling sick, and was going to use that as an excuse to stay home . . . But I went and I wrote and I shared my writing, and people laughed! Which I loved! I love to make people laugh. And I am going every Tuesday . . . In 2018, I am dedicated to finding new, healthier ways to process my many great waves of my emotions. And I believe writing more may be one of the remedies my soul needs.
And finally, what is your favorite song right now?
3 way tie!!
Short Court Style by Natalie Prass
Brujas by Princess Nokia
I Like That by Janelle Monáe
Please stay tuned for more artist interviews, sample lessons from my upcoming eBook, and fun times in North Carolina! XO