Sunday, September 25, 2016

I Interview Teaching Artists #5: Sergio Klafke

Sergio Klafke, Visual Artist and Teaching Artist

All right!  I’m here with Sergio Klafke, and we’re sitting in the Black Rabbit Bar in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, the neighborhood where we both live.  Sergio, how long have you been a Teaching Artist?
Almost three decades.  It started before I came to the United States.  Not as a teacher, but as a poet, talking about poetry, as a teenager in public libraries, that was my first contact with the public, trying to have dialogues and do some readings.  Coming to the United States, to learn English, I joined as a volunteer a museum in Lincoln, Nebraska, to tour Kindergartners to see exhibitions of Alexander Calder.  So I had the training, I was learning the language, and they accepted me there, and that was the first time I worked with little kids, taking them to the museum to see the exhibition.  And I liked the experience, it was very good, because I found out that I could have dialogue with little kids even though my language was very limited.  But I got in a little trouble because I was too liberal and let the kids touch the pieces, and someone didn’t like it. 
Sergio!  (Laughter.) 
And then coming to New York, I had an exhibition at Columbia University, where I used to live, my wife was a professor there, and I met another artist that was a wife of another professor, and she liked my work, and she suggested to me to work with children in Harlem, because she was working there, and she introduced me to the Children’s Art Carnival.
I know them!  Yeah.
So I went to the Children’s Art Carnival and I immediately started working in a summer camp.  So I was in a park in the summer camp with a bunch of teenagers as helpers and tons of little kids.  So it was trial by fire, I think that’s the expression.
Uh huh.  A lot of Teaching Artists have that story.
So I started like that, working in the summer camp in a park in Harlem.  And then they gave me a residency, teaching print-making on Saturdays.  And then had other residencies in painting, in drawing, and I kept working there until another friend called me and suggested that I work for the city.  For the New York City Housing Authority, in Community Centers.  So I brought NYCHA the samples of the work I’d been doing in Harlem, and they hired me, and I ended up working for almost twenty years in NYCHA Community Centers.  That was my school, or my laboratory.  Because working in Community Centers, in after-school programs, with all sorts of materials, art supplies, and total freedom to explore, you do what you want.  No lesson plans.  At all.  (Laughter.)  Just experimentation.  And I loved it!  I was just doing my work as a painter, and going in the afternoon to paint with the kids, the same thing, without any difference, without any approach as a teacher, no formality, just going there to work, to work together.  To experiment, to investigate together.
Like a sharing thing, creating mementos of the activity.  I was one of the kids, too.  And then the Children’s Art Carnival sent me to a school, in Harlem…no, in the Bronx.  So I started work there, and I liked also the experience of having some structure in the teaching.  Because when you’re working with teachers, it’s all about the timing, all about the schedule, all about the curriculum.  But as I got some results inside the school, too,  without limiting my freedom of expression or the students’ freedom of expression.
How did that transition go?
It was not even a transition because I kept doing both.  So it was two approaches.  One, very chaotic.  And the other, very structured.
So I started there, and after that, the years go by, and I work for the Brooklyn Museum, in a program they have there on Saturdays, teaching children, seven to twelve years old.  I worked for another school that had a summer camp, the Berkeley Carroll school, they have a wonderful program.
Yeah, yeah!  I know someone who teaches dance there.
So I worked there for five years, just summer camp, the whole month of July. Which was also a big learning time for me because I was working with gifted and talented children, and they had a different approach to the art-making, and that experience was very good, too.  And after that, I started working for Marquis Studios, in 2005.
Right before me!
A little before you.  And it’s been three decades!  And then I stopped the program at the NYCHA Community Centers, finished three years ago, four years ago.  I ended up leaving Children’s Art Carnival and Berkeley Carroll.  I was getting tired of working too much.  Didn’t want to work in the summertime, and then the Housing Authority terminated their programs, with Bloomberg, they transformed everything, a new administration there.  But I just kept working with kids through Marquis Studios until now.
So now you only work for Marquis Studios?
Only for Marquis.  Yes.
Wow.  I have to say that you are the only Teaching Artist so far that I have talked to that only works for one organization.
Oh yeah?
The only one.  Everybody else that I’ve interviewed has worked for at least three.
Oh, I am happier this way!
Just working for one.  I love working there!
So tell me about your current teaching projects. 
I’m so busy!
I know!  I know this!
I have never been so busy.  Because last year, I didn’t work in the springtime.  I have a personal policy.  I do not ask for work anymore.  But I accept it when it is offered.
Everything?  (Laughter.)
Not everything!  But almost everything.  But I don’t look for it.  If they offer it, I accept it.  I was planning on only working three residencies this year, but they offered me five, so I’m working five.
Okay, so you have five residencies.  Where are they and who are they?
Actually, I’m very happy with what is happening.  It’s like a combination of my experiences.
You know, teaching multi-media projects.  It’s a big range of media.  I do so many things, but I’m bringing it all together.  But what happens in most residencies now, it’s about self-portraits.  That’s my specialty.  Somehow, I found out that all my work can be about self-portraiture, no matter the type of residency.
I remember you showing some of these, the self-portraits of your students.
And then I’m feeling very free to conduct everything toward the self-portraiture, because no matter what you do, that can be a self-portrait.  Even if you do like a collage, a drawing, a painting, or a mask, it can be a self-portrait.
Sergio's own most recent self-portrait.
Sure, sure.
So putting all the media, the multi-media, together, all of my residencies become one.  And it has saved me a big deal of time in lesson plans.
Yeah!  Of course!
And it’s made my experience richer for myself, because now I can put more of what I know there.  I don’t need to worry about not crossing lines here or just being in one direction.  Everything converges to the portrait.
So you are making multi-media self-portraits with what ages?
It’s fourth, sixth, and seventh grade.  I have two after-schools.  One is in sculpture, and the other one is mask-making.  Oh no…three after-schools!  The other one is something new, in drawing.  They call it “Personal Power Banners.”
“Personal Power Banners.” 
That’s the title of the residency.
It sounds like a self-portrait to me.
Immediately it was clear to me what it is!  It’s a self-portrait, too!  So, that’s fine!  Perfect for me.  The other two residencies are during school hours…one is drawing.  Also the self-portrait.  The other is the power banner.
Okay. Cool.  The teachers like “the power banners”?
Yeah.  So then I end up, the whole thing, I’m doing the same thing.  Even in the mask-making.  The only difference is you don’t have the features of the face, you have a mask instead of the face.  The portrait wearing the mask.  But there is someone behind.  It’s just the drawing that you change and the materials that you change.
So where are you?  Where are you going to these fourth through seventh graders?
Oh, far away.  I travel.  I’m a traveler.  I got used to it. Every moment I’m reading, or planning a class.  Because I take a lot of trains and buses.
Yeah!  Definitely!
On Mondays I go to Bergen Beach.  Bergen Beach?  You don’t know it?  It’s over near Brighton Beach.  It’s far away, and then after the 5 train, I have to take a bus, which is not reliable.  I leave home at twelve, to start class at 2:30.  Two and a half hours to get there.  The other one I go to Sheepshead Bay.  Another beach.  That’s very nice, too.  On Wednesday, I go to somewhere in Brooklyn, in between going towards Brighton Beach, in the middle, after the Brooklyn Museum.  I don’t know the name of the area there.
Flatbush.  After Flatbush.
What’s after Flatbush?  I’ll have to look it up…
What’s the name of the station?
Crown Heights?
No, after.  Anyway, it’s the 5 train, far away there in Brooklyn.  The other one, I go to Ozone Park.  It’s close to the Kennedy Airport.
It’s after the end of the A train, Lefferts.  I have to walk fifteen minutes.  And the other one, it’s also close to Coney Island.
So you’re very Brooklyn this winter!
Brooklyn!  All Brooklyn.  Last fall, I was also one day in the Bronx.  But anyway, always in my teaching life, I’ve been to all the boroughs, except for Staten Island.
Yeah, I don’t go to Staten Island.
That’s the only thing, it’s my policy, for personal reasons.  The only residencies that I don’t accept.
Agreed!  I’m like you that way.  It’s too far for me.  So tell me the most memorable teaching moment you’ve had recently, or not even recently.  What’s a teaching moment that stands out to you, either positive or challenging?
I have two moments that stand out in my memory now.  Encounters that show me the meaning of what I’ve been doing.  It was last month, but it’s happened before, too.  I was on a train in Harlem.  And someone called me.  “Sergio!”  And I saw this big guy, and I said, “What’s up?”  And he said, “Oh no!  You don’t remember me!”  So I start talking with him, and I realized, he studied with me, right?  And then I said, “Malik!”  “Yes!”  I can’t believe I could remember his name, because he is almost thirty years old, and he was twelve!  More than fifteen years, and I could recognize him, by instinct. There was a connection there, because he was someone who studied with me, he stayed in my memory since that time.  He was so charismatic!  And it was him.  So it made me feel so good.  And then we talked, and he talked about his life, and that he likes art because of me…
Oh my god!
And still today, he draws.  He became a plumber…
It pays the bills!
It pays the bills!  He has his family, and he still draws and likes it.  But it was a great moment.  More than anything else, that’s a recognition.  That I made a friend in life, and I recognized him.  That was the most amazing thing.
That’s really cool!
The other moment, it’s last week!  It sticks in my mind because it was really cool, the whole thing.  Normally, I talk to every little child.  I have like thirty-three of them in a class, but I try to have a personal relationship with all of them, I have some exchanging of dialogue, a commenting, feedback or something, with each of them.  And by doing the self-portraits, we are building part by part, how you build a whole body, like arms, legs, shoes and shirt.  And I’m asking everybody to keep at the same pace, the same rhythm.  Nothing that might interrupt the next class.  You can’t be behind.  You have to finish the arms today.  Everybody!  And there was this little kid, in fourth grade, he was struggling to do the arms, no?  And I showed everybody how to do both arms the same way, by folding the paper, the symmetrical way, but he just made one arm.  So I asked everyone, out loud for everyone to hear, “Let’s see what’s happening with our friend here.  He has one arm, and he has the legs, he has everything, but he is missing one arm.  What happened with you?”  And he said, “Oh, my character.  He was in a battlefield, and I decided to leave him without an arm.”
Oh my god!  (Laughter.)
And I was just like, “Really?”  And he says yes.  “It’s not because you’re having trouble with making the arm?”  “No.  He was in a battlefield, and he lost one arm.”  Somehow I like this memory.  I was just like, “That’s fine!  That’s good!”
"After the Battlefield" by one of Sergio's students.
That’s a good answer.
I will not force him to do the other arm.
This was not a self-portrait, though?
It’s a portrait, too.  Another title.  A portrait of someone he loves.  Yourself or someone you love.
Some part of you.
It’s the creation of a character.  Can be yourself, can be someone you love.  It’s a character.
As a writer, I always think that in all of the characters I create, there’s a little piece of me.  Because how else are you able to really get inside, and be empathetic, and make them real, you have to put yourself in their shoes. So tell me, you said that you had been painting this week, tell me about your own creative work right now.  What are you working on?
It’s always self-portraiture.  (Laughter.)  And my struggle…it’s about construction, the presentation of the figure.  Or just the motion through the shapes and colors, and mixing the materials.  And so I experiment.  I don’t have one way of working.  I always am experimenting, creating this, what I call the aesthetic for the portraits.  But it’s very loose, and not so representational.  I like boxing, and I’ll do thirty-four portraits of boxing, because I’m just throwing my hands, but I can control the painting.  There is a true punching there, with the painting, a controlled movement.  So I’m experimenting with this.  As I have my studio now, I can throw paint around the way I want.
Do you box?
I did once in my life.  Once in my life I did, and I like boxing.  I like watching boxing.
Cool.  And so, punching and painting, like Jackson Pollack-y?
Well, that is this thing, too.  Because now when you throw paint, you drop paint in some ways, it’s associated with Pollack.  So it’s not exactly that, it’s a mixture, there are a lot of references that I have in my work.  It can be Pollack, can be de Kooning, can be Miro.
I love Miro!
But I’m also creating my own language, my own vocabulary, getting into some expression that I can show all of my feelings, what I am feeling in that moment.  You’re not…how can I say?  In a free way, in an experimental way.  I’m trying to find out, digging into myself, without worries about the result of it.  Throwing things out, digging in there, to find out…because I have no compromise to anything.  I have no intention to sell it.  Of course, it would be great, but it’s not the point.  It’s my survival.  It’s my way of living my daily life.  I’m still like a kid.  I was coming here, and in the front of the bar, on the corner, the sign they have there, “Don’t Grow Up!”  (Chuckling.)
I keep the child in me.  When I paint, I paint like a child.  That’s why I am a Teaching Artist.  Because I learn, I share, I experiment, I dialogue with the children.  You know that old Picasso saying, that how to make the things he wants to have in life, his achievement would be to paint like a child.  And so the way I paint, it’s a childish way, trying to have fun and now to elaborate on something, to my references of the art I love, the people I love, so I have references, but…
As a jumping-off point!
Yes.  As a springboard toward something.  So I’ve been doing this, and it’s a therapy, too.  I feel better when I do this.  And I feel good because I don’t have a judgment, it’s good or bad, it’s sellable or not sellable, it’s just what I do.
Oh my god!  We should all learn from you!
When I paint, I paint for myself.  I have my apartment, and I have many paintings I keep for myself.  Because I love it, and I spread it all over my place, and I live with it, my images. And I keep changing it.  So my apartment, it’s like a womb.
Sergio at home.
You have your own gallery!  You live in gallery of your own journey.  That’s fabulous.  Can you also talk a little bit about balancing teaching work and your own creative work.  Is that difficult?  Are there times when the teaching kind of takes over, when your own creative practice kind of falls away?  Or do you find a way to balance it pretty consistently?
There can be a balance.  Normally I don’t leave my own way of creating when I’m working in the schools.  Of course, I guess, there is the burden of having too much work sometimes, and the tiredness of the whole day with 150 kids.  You can’t go home and work after that.  The only problem is this fatigue.  That’s what I’m looking for, every day, working less in the teaching, and working more on my own work.  It’s just about time.  Lately, I’ve been teaching too much, and painting less, because when you go into a school sometimes your energy stays there.  It’s totally different when you’re only concentrating on your own work.  You don’t have to share your energy with hundreds of others.
So what is the overlap between your teaching work and your own creative work?  Is it on a continuum?  Or do they seem like separate worlds?  Does it wax and wane?
No, it’s not totally separate worlds.  They are totally integrated.  One feeds the other.  My work itself feeds what I do in the schools, and I’m always learning in my experience in the schools.  There are always children doing something I have never seen, there is now a dialogue with the children.  My teaching and my painting, they are the same, they are not totally different.  That’s the reason I’ve been doing this for thirty years.
It’s an extension…it’s not like a “day job.”
No, it’s not.  But when you are committed only to your own work, when you don’t have other commitments about time, I think you can go further, you can go deeper.  But as a teacher, you are split somehow, because you have these other commitments, you are in half, you are not totally one.  I think it’s impossible, teaching five days a week, and being a painter or a poet or a theater person, it’s very hard.  Now I think somehow the teaching, that will take more, that will take more of you than just working on your own art.
Because you are, as an artist, you are totally free, you are creating your world.  You are not having to relate to other people.  You don’t have commitments of timing, to go to some place to have dialogue with other people.
Unless you’re doing something like theater, where you’re collaborating with other people to make theater, you know what I’m saying?
Yes, yes.  It depends on what you do.
But the collaboration with students and schools can be very different.
It’s different because you have more boundaries that you can’t cross.  You always have to be aware of some areas or topics that you can’t explore or expose.
So, of the organizations that you’ve worked for, do they actively support and encourage the connection between your teaching practice and your creative practice?
And I’m asking this because sometimes I find it frustrating when I’m applying for a Teaching Artist job, and I’m supposed to be an accomplished artist, and I’m also supposed to be an accomplished teacher, and so sometimes I look back at the organizations that I work for, and I want more support in terms of both of those realms.  So talk a little bit about that.
In my experience, I didn’t have this kind of support from an organization for my personal artistic work.  No.  But, in another way, I did with the Housing Authority, when I worked in the Community Centers with the kids, in a sense, because they provided me with materials.  We had free materials to work with.
For you and for your students.
For my work with my students, and for myself.  I could use them for myself, too.  And this was a great support.  Those art materials are very expensive!
Yes, they are!
But the organizations that are sending us into schools…of course not!  I don’t think they care about what you are doing in your personal practice as an artist.
Are you okay with that?
That’s the nature of the work.  I don’t expect anything, any support for my creative work from an organization that’s aiming only at education. 
They’re not there to serve you as an artist.
No, not as an artist, no.  You are on your own as an artist.  There are so many grants, so many things.  And I never apply for grants, I never ask for any support.  I just…
Why not, Sergio?
I don’t expect…because of all the bureaucratic process to get the grants…it’s very difficult.  If I can find out how to get organizations to provide me with the support and grants to allow me just to be there, creating my work…I never did it.  And probably I will not.  So, I don’t think I have this expectation of getting this kind of help from organizations I work for as a Teaching Artist.
If you could change one thing about your life as a Teaching Artist, what would it be?
(Laughter.)  One thing I would change…
I give you the power to do anything you want.  What are you going to change?
Probably, and that’s the next step, I would stop working too much, too big of a schedule, with the residencies, and start working more in giving workshops for the teachers in the schools, for the parents.
For adults?
For adults.  And keep some children.  Because children is what gives me a lot of joy.  But, on the other hand, one thing that I’m doing, that I’m very fortunate to be doing, is working as a volunteer, teaching in a school on the beach in Brazil, for fishermen’s children.  I had a wonderful experience there, so I want to continue to do this.  But as a volunteer.
That’s awesome!
And I don’t think about the future of being a Teaching Artist.  Because we live in a loop.  You never go…unless you want to be an administrator, a director, or something else.  Which is not my case.  I love just the action of being with the children, doing the art work, you know, in class.  But I’ve gotten to the point where I just want to work a little, just some workshops, and then I can go and be on the beach in Brazil, in a small village, teaching the children as a volunteer.
That’s awesome.  And we should say that you are Brazilian.
I am Brazilian.  And I’m planning now, I’m going to go there soon…I’ve been splitting my time now.
Right.  And being a Teaching Artist is an occupation that can allow you the freedom to do that.
That’s the great thing about this.  You can work, or you can not work.  You have the option to take your leave, your sabbaticals.  Now I want my eternal sabbaticals.  (Laughter.)
Yeah!  Retirement!  I mean, I worry about that a lot.
I never worry about it totally, because I have a village in Brazil where I will be teaching.  I will create my own school for free, for children, because I’ve gotten addicted to it.  I can’t live without children and art.  It belongs to my life now.  Forever.  And now I am prioritizing it.  So I’m going to Brazil now in April, and I stay for two months.  And there I divide my time between Sao Paulo and the beach.  I can go and I work with the children there without any commitments, for the fun of it, for the joy of it.  Teaching children for me, it’s a great joy.  Don’t make money, but you get a lot of joy, where everyday, at the end of the day, I get home happy.
Sergio, his partner teachers, and his students at an exhibition of their self-portraits.
That is beautiful.  Are there any final things that you want to say that you haven’t said?  Or do you have any plugs for work of your own or the work of others?  Events that you’d like us to keep an eye out for in the coming months?
Let me see…related to my own work, I’m planning now to have an exhibition, to start exhibiting again because I stopped like ten years ago.  I’d like to exhibit here and in Brazil, my paintings, and I’m on the verge of getting rid of some writer’s block, and I’m working on a book of poetry.
We didn’t even talk about your poetry!
That’s another topic.  That’s another story.  (Laughter.)  But I am working on my book now, so that’s what my plan is now, to have an exhibition, and then getting to this book that has been in process, that has been on the back burner for two decades.
It should be a good book!
Well…it will be my core.  What I am.  I’m just writing for myself.  Not to publish it.  To be a poet or something.  It’s just a dialogue with myself.  And as a Teaching Artist, I really like the experience of this year starting to work with the smartboards.  So when I come back in the fall, I want to explore using the smartboard in my practice, how to do it, because I found a new me there.  I’d been afraid of this technology.  But I love drawing my finger on the board, and playing with having a big audience looking at this, and giving demonstrations of shapes.  That’s the thing that will be next for me in terms of an approach to the teaching, would be using the smartboard more in class.
It’s hard because they’re not calibrated very well, I find.  Like when I try to write on them, the writing is down and to the left, and it looks really messy.   So I just kind of give up.  (Laughter.)
You’ll learn!  There is a trick there!
Is there?
I guess.  Because I’m just starting.  I’m experimenting.  But I found that it’s nice.  It becomes a little show for the kids.  The starting demonstration.  How to do a shape of an eye, shape of a mouth, shape of a hand.  And making it in several ways, different positions, and then raising it.  It’s almost magical.  And everybody enjoys, everybody learns from this, and I erase it immediately because I don’t want them to copy what I just did, but I really like it, because I’m warming up the class, I’m hitting them with a lot of information about the shapes of the subject of the moment.  That’s what I’m excited about.  I want to explore more!  And the teachers at the schools are helping me.  So far I’m not doing it by myself, the teachers and the kids, the kids teach me how to do it.  It’s wonderful!  So that’s what I’m looking forward to now.  I’ll be in Brazil for the spring, and then coming back in the fall, looking to technological devices to help me more with self-portraits.
Very, very cool.  Thank you so much, Sergio, for this interview!
Self-portraits by Sergio's students