Meet Deborah Wasserman: Queens Mom, Artist & Founder of Art for a Start

From an audio installation featuring Barbie and Ken as a struggling artist and art dealer (“Meet the Artists: Barbie & Ken, 1996) to a series of 16 paintings of people taking photos (“(in)Sights,” 2003) to a collection of bags and luggage made of delicate paper (“Carry On and On,” 2010), the eclectic work of multimedia artist Deborah Wasserman explores her journey as an artist and as a person.

Deborah Wasserman with her mixed media paper bags from the CARRY ON AND ON series. (Photo credit: Nick Zieminski)

Deborah Wasserman with her mixed media paper bags from the “Carry On and On” series. (Photo credit: Nick Zieminski)

Born in Brazil but raised in Israel, Wasserman started as a fashion student before attending art school in Tel Aviv, Israel. She came to the U.S. to get her Masters at CalArts in California, and then moved to New York to attend the Whitney Museum program. After living in 10 different neighborhoods throughout the city, in 2009 Wasserman settled in Jackson Heights with her family—two daughters, now ages seven and nine, and husband Phil Ballman.

In addition to being a successful artist, Wasserman runs Art for a Start, an intimate series of art classes for kids in Jackson Heights and Woodside.They have become a favorite among local families, as she encourages creativity in a nurturing, casual environment where the kids feel safe to explore and express themselves. Held after school at P.S. 69 on Tuesdays and Wednesdays and on Saturdays at Mondo Studios in Woodside, students learn techniques in drawing, painting, collage, and sculpture and are introduced to artists and art movements and styles.

This summer, Wasserman is offering two short summer class programs through Art for a Start. The two-hour classes will be held at Mondo Studios in Woodside from June 30 to July 10 and August 25 to 29. Depending on their age and skills, kids can explore themes including dioramas, still-life painting, drawing, pop art, Japanese art, world art, and fabric painting, weaving, and dyeing. (Find out more about the Art for a Start Summer workshops.)

Queens Mamas caught up with Wasserman to ask her about Art for a Start and her journey as an artist.

How did you start teaching art to kids?
I started teaching art many years ago. My first teaching gig was at Henry Street Settlement on the Lower East Side, and after that I started getting more teaching opportunities and was hired by museums, galleries, and institutions to work as a teaching artist. I worked for almost all the major museums in New York City and my rigorous training there taught me to be very clear and committed to my teaching goals and how to use ‘hooks’, ideas, and links to enrich my classes.

I was always gifted, though, with a natural talent to engage audiences. When I get excited and involved with something I feel that I am channeling strong energies and I think my students feel that when I teach.

My style of teaching is called inquiry-based learning where I don’t assign cookie-cutter projects with uniform responses but rather open up the platform for discussion and hands-on experiments from the student’s end. I believe in skill building but I am an equal believer in creativity and invention, so I am always trying to combine them all.

Why did you start Art for a Start?
I started Art for a Start when I got tired of teaching all around New York and wanted to consolidate my energies as well as implement my own teaching philosophy and ideas in a program of my own. I love dealing directly with both students and their families and got to know many great people through my program.

Another reason I started running this program is to offer the kind of teaching I never had. As a child and a young artist, I came across many teachers that were stuck in their own mental constraints and were teaching rigorous techniques—or just teaching students in the old-fashioned Master way to have a group of young artists who were replicas of the teacher. My teaching style couldn’t be further than that. When I teach, I sometimes bring to the class things that I am grappling with at my studio. I watch how my students solve a particular issue or come out with a brilliant response to something I couldn’t understand. I am a student in Art for a Start as much as I am the teacher.

What do you offer through Art for a Start?
I teach about 35 to 40 students a week. It’s relatively a small art program and I think that’s part of its charm. My teaching reflects my beliefs about nurturing budding artists: I emphasize experimentation and expression while developing technical tools and visual vocabulary. Based on the reviews I get from parents and the students themselves, I think that my art program is quite unique and I have done a good job bringing my vision into fruition.

My mission was even greater than just teaching art. I can’t quite put my finger on it, it’s almost like I wanted to model to my students how to be and think like an artist. This is a teaching that they will hopefully take with them forever, wherever they go. [Interview continues after image]

(in)Sights, 2010 Acrylic and oil on panel Deborah Wasserman

(in)Sights, 2010
Acrylic and oil on wood
Deborah Wasserman

Why did you decide to become an artist?
From a very young age I knew I was going to be an artist. Often I feel that I didn’t choose to be an artist, but I was actually chosen to be one. This path offers lessons far greater than just creativity and expression. It’s really about discovering who I am and what is my purpose in life.

Throughout the years I have worked in many different artistic media, which reflects my eclectic approach to teaching and art. I have done installation work, paintings, drawings, sound work, sculpture, videos and some writing. When I think of an art project I want to execute, I always try to imagine what material or media will best serve my concept.

What inspires you as an artist?
I draw the inspiration for my art from my own life and observing the lives of others. For a long time I explored in my art the idea of life as a journey.

Currently, I am very interested in art made by women as well as feminist art. One of the most transformative events in my life was becoming a mother. It drastically changed my life and shifted my way of thinking. I feel a very strong need to express my womanhood through my art and I am searching for ways to do that.

I am a fan of many, many artists. I tend to study and look at different types of art and different artists depending on where I’m standing in my own research. At this moment, my inspiring teachers are female artists who succeeded in carving a niche for their own feminine voice to be expressed and heard. I see my artistic path now moving in that direction.

I have been reading some wonderful books lately about women artists such as The Reckoning: Women Artists of the New Millennium and After the Revolution: Women Who Transformed Contemporary Art and looking at works by Louise Bourgeoise, Kiki Smith, Wangechi Muto, Kara Walker, Lisa Lou, Ana Mandietta, and many more.

How did you come to live in Jackson Heights?
My husband was actually the one that suggested this move and I was at first completely terrified. I was used to funky neighborhoods and having a playful and nomad-like attitude. The idea of committing to a mortgage was completely foreign to me and still is. I tried to create in, and import to, Jackson Heights everything which I thought was lovely about our life in Brooklyn: bringing Kiki the trainer from McCarren Park to Travers Park, opening artists studios for rent, and offering art classes.

I think these endeavors are nice and many people are enjoying them, but I also must say that the neighborhood is now starting to change. Real estate prices are going up rapidly so we may be repeating our history of being priced out and looking in the future for a new shell to inhabit.

What art projects are you working on now?
Over the past few years I have been going through a gradual change in my art and it has been quite challenging. It all started with a feeling of dissatisfaction with my studio work and career—even though my last solo show sold out completely—and then I kept questioning everything that I was doing. It’s almost like I needed to shed my own, old skin and start anew, on a whole new foundation and predicaments.

I basically went underground for a few years and did a lot of experiments, most of them I see as laying down the foundation for my future work but it’s not ‘it’ quite yet.

What I want to do is approach my art from a whole new place now and infuse it will all the new energies I now have in my life, which are very exciting. This is going to sound strange, but it’s almost as if I was re-birthing myself and very soon I am going to start walking on my own feet. I can’t wait to see what this is going to feel like.

What is your take on the art scene in Queens?
Coming from Williamsburg, Brooklyn, I was always under the impression that the Queens art scene is fragmented and dispersed. I did a quick Google search and read that “Long Island City has the greatest concentration of art in New York City outside of Manhattan.” So, wow, was I wrong! There are some high-quality art institutions in Queens such as: The Noguchi Museum, The Queens Museum, P.S. 1, the Sculpture Center, Dorsky Projects, and quite a lot of galleries in Long Island City. There are some sincere attempts to have an art scene in Jackson Heights through the efforts of Espresso 77, ArtCommons, The Diversity Plaza, and June in Jackson Heights.

I know of many artists who live in Jackson Heights and it makes a lot of sense as far as the housing situation here, but still, I wouldn’t call it a thriving artistic community. But I love living here nevertheless and some of the other artsy and hipster communities are loaded with wanna-be’s—at least here it’s humble, real, and sincere.

How could people support the arts in Queens?
I guess support for the arts should spring organically from the love for the arts and understanding of the importance of the arts. People should be educated about the role that art plays in our lives. I see the arts as an incredible platform for inspiring dialogue, reflecting reality, pointing to various social changes and just being inspiring, pleasurable, and serving as a beacon of inspiration in the grayness of everyday life.

People could support the arts in Queens by attending events, by ‘consuming’ art—be it music, theater or visual arts—and by informing themselves about art. It’s hard to tell people to buy art. Many of them rightfully think that paying bills and putting food on the table comes first. Look at an organization called ArtCommons, though. They offer for people to borrow a piece of art and hang it in their homes, for free. These kind of exchanges are very interesting. Pass the value of the arts to your children and model it to them. Plant the seed and it will flourish one day.

Why is art important for kids to learn?
Art is important for kids, especially in today’s society, which is so technology oriented and fast paced. We all have the most amazing technology integrated into our brains called the imagination. That brain is the one who gave birth to the computer. Let’s not forget that. Imagination is the vehicle that connects us to past and future and the universe. Without our imagination and ability to mentally create we are always stuck in our material surroundings.

How can parents encourage their kids as artists?
Well, of course my first answer would be: Send them to art classes, ballet, music, and drama. But my second answer would be surprising: Give them … free time.  With today’s style of helicopter parenting, children reflect and imbibe their parent’s strong desires to be over-scheduled and to master every possible skill. Kids may have a very long to-do list but no time to contemplate, dream, relax, and be in the flow of life. Are we parents in the flow or are we also stuck in our to-do list? Give them unstructured time and let them figure it out.

As far as parents encouraging kids to be artists, I don’t encourage anyone to be an artist, not even my children. I think it’s the hardest path and certainly not for everyone. I would highly suggest, though, that parents encourage their kids to be creative, to be problem solvers, and to love the arts. Those few ones who will choose and be chosen to be artists will pursue that as adults. If any of my students will chose that path I will be extremely delighted and excited to keep supporting them in the future.

Ellen Sturm Niz is an editor and writer parenting, living, and working in Jackson Heights, Queens. Follow her on TwitterPinterestTumblr, and Google+.