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Meet the Artist and Curator: Sabra Friedman

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On view through April 30, 2014 at the Mulberry Street Library is the stunning collaborative effort of five teaching artists who participated in NYPL/Lifetime Arts Creative Aging classes for Older Adults. 'Artists in the Library,' curated by teaching artist Sabra Friedman, showcases the work of Mary Didoardo, Sabra Friedman, John Mendelsohn, Josh Millis, and Antonia Perez.

Each artist brings a unique and striking perspective to their works. Mary Didoardo creates abstract paintings that are heavily layered, with color and drawn lines that build up into very rich, textural surfaces. Sabra Friedman’s recent paintings are visually spare, with abstract images that float to the surface, suggesting the ephemeral nature of passing time. John Mendelsohn works with the material qualities of paint, generating vibrant visual fields that shift between presence and absence. In his work, Josh Millis reflects the alluring, yet unglamorous surfaces that surround us, with skewed perspectives that evoke everyday glimpses of textures and spaces. Antonia Perez makes sculptures, paintings, and site-specific works using repurposed materials, including plastic bags that she cuts into strips and crochets.

I spoke to curator, educator, and artist Sabra Friedman about her motivations behind organizing the 'Artists in the Library' exhibition.

Crustacean's Dream
Sabra Friedman. Crustacean's Dream, 2013. Oil on prepared paper.

Tell me a little bit about your work as a teaching artist with Studio in a School?

I have been teaching art to students in New York City public schools through Studio in a School since 2004. Previous to that I taught in a public school in Flushing through Flushing Council on Culture and the Arts. I began teaching art at Columbia Grammar and Preparatory School a private school on the Upper Westside of Manhattan. Presently I work at two schools, one in East Harlem and one in the Bronx. I have been at these two schools for about 6 years. In residencies at the schools I work with students in paint and clay. I love to give kids who have no such experiences, exposure to color mixing, using a variety of brushes, large paper to really spread out and explore the medium. I also love working in clay with kids. Clay is very responsive to the hand and children take to it immediately.

How does teaching in the library with Lifetime Arts compare/contrast with teaching art in a school environment?

Adults in the Lifetime Arts workshops require less change, structure, and stimulation then the young students I work with. One medium or prompt or some inspiring objects gathered from the natural world can engage them and allow them to take off and explore on their own for several hours. Also some adults come to the workshops with their own ideas and direction. The workshop gives them a supportive time and place to go their own way. The adults are more sophisticated of course and bring a wealth of life experience and knowledge to the artmaking. But in some ways the joy and excitement that comes out of the work with materials is similar with the younger and the older participant.

Antonia Perez, Red Dolly, 2011

What inspires your art-marking? What are the mediums you work most with?

I work with oil paint on gessoed paper for the most part. My work is very process oriented. I begin with a color and a shape or shapes and each subsequent color and mark relates to what was put down before it. I work without a plan and I do a lot of building up the paint and wiping it away as I go along. My work is quite abstract and connects to internal states on a certain level. It is my inner experiences made visual.

How did you come up with the idea to do a show with your fellow teaching artists, and how did you select these artists?

After teaching three workshops at the East 67th Street Library over a three-year period and putting up exhibitions of the work of the adult participants, I realized that something was missing from the teaching artist experience from my perspective. Working as a teaching artist, the active art making in the studio by the teacher is an essential part of the teaching of the students. The impulses that arise from the work in the studio energize and inspire the teaching. I thought that a show that presents the artist’s work was a natural outgrowth of this sort of teaching. I selected these five artists I had known for many years who were now doing this work.

Mary Didoardo, 2013
Mary Didoardo, 2013

How has your experience with Lifetime Arts influenced you as a teacher?

Teaching adults through the library program has allowed me to share my perceptions and approaches to art with a very receptive student group motivated solely by the joy of making art. Making art intuitively, without so much thinking, seems to allow adults to reconnect with the aspects of themselves which may not been expressed for many years. The exhilaration I have observed in my adult students as they tear and cut paper, mix colors, and apply paint, and the freedom that grows over the course of the residency to experiment without preconceptions or the stultifying presence of constant self-judgment is an experience I share (at times, when it goes well) as an artist in my studio.

Working with the adults made me feel valued for myself, and gave me the opportunity to connect in an intimate way (in that I was letting them into my personal world) with strangers who soon became a supportive and engaged group. Each person was there for their own development but also to help to create a safe space for one another to play, to experiment and ultimately to surprise themselves with what they could achieve in their work.

The natural objects that I brought in to my classes to inspire my students and to help to make them aware of the remarkable shapes and colors in the world around us, has in turn influenced me, and some of these same images appeared in my own work without intention.

How does showing art in a library differ from having art shows in other more traditional environments, such as galleries, museums, etc.? What challenges did you face?

Showing art in a library environment is very gratifying in that it connects the private and solitary art making in the studio and the resultant work, with the public, not necessarily the art-seeking public. The environment attracts many different kinds of people and the art may affect their experience in the library in a positive and unanticipated way. We make art to be seen and a library with streams of patrons in and out each day is an exciting venue. At the same time the installation had to work with the bookshelves, signs, desks, and library essentials and interact effectively within a space that is not empty and pure like a gallery or museum but alive and dynamic with library life.

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