By Cindy Atoji Keene
For many teen moms in Holyoke, the name Pablo Picasso is meaningless, and they have no clue what two colors mix to make green. Taking care of their child and putting food on the table is a daily struggle – so why would they want to learn about art? But that’s what teenage mothers do once or twice a week at The Care Center in this Western Massachusetts city, as students of an alternative education program that helps them earn their GED. When they ask art teacher Ezra Parzybok, “Why do I have to take art?” he says he responds something like this: “You’re 17 and have a nine-month old kid; you don’t have a lot of money or resources, and you work hard academically, so you need a break. You need to take red paint and splash it around on the canvas and feel good about it.”
When Parzybok started at The Care Center nine years ago, he was an idealistic sculptor who was intent on instilling the love of art and art history in these young girls, most of whom had dropped out of school and were living in poverty. One of his first projects was asking them to open an art book and copy a painting of their choice. After all, how hard could it be to emulate the black and white unstructured splashes of abstract expressionist Franz Jozef Kline, for example? What Parzybok discovered were ingrained psychological obstacles in these adolescents that he never expected: “I can’t draw, so why even try? My drawing is bad. I’m going to throw it away.” Instead, said Parzybok, he has learned to throw away his preconceived notions of art and allow these young mothers to do open-ended assignments that allow for creative problem solving and stress release. “Sometimes I feel like I’m a dad and re-parenting, bringing them to a level where they learn self-expression that will hopefully translate to their children, parenting, and their interaction with the world.”
Q: How do you think can art help these teenage mothers?
A: If you are terrified by a piece of blank paper, it is a great way to get through any anxiety that you might feel in the real world. Life is also a blank piece of paper; maybe you don’t have a job and need to fill out a job application – that fear is the same as not being sure how to draw a picture. Art is therapy but also a great way of integrating hopes and struggles into your work and helping you discover what makes you unique.
Q: What’s an example of an art project that resonated with students?
A: I’ll bring in pictures of huge Victorian mansions from around the city, with their many lines and angles, and they’ll draw them freehand, using a ruler. Houses are very forgiving; it doesn’t matter if every line is slightly off or too short or too long – it will still come out looking like a house. The girls are blown away by that.
Q: How has this job, teaching art to pregnant and parenting teens who have dropped out of high school, inspired your own creative muse?
A: If I, as an artist, make a very esoteric show of contemporary sculpture at a gallery, and a small group comes in to see it, that’s great. But if, as an artist, I can bring art to a whole population of people who have been completely unexposed to art, in terms of actual practice and understanding, then I am really keeping the story of art going.
Q: What is it about their art that is so compelling?
A: These teens are all outsider artists, completely fresh in ideas and technique, with unhindered true expression. I could never produce the kind of art they do –all my education in art actually inhibits me. It’s my job to tap into their raw talent.