Monthly Mentor

Natalie C. Jones (February)
Each month, a different member is the guest writer for the NAEA Monthly Mentor Blog. Natalie C. Jones is an artist, small business owner, and the director of education at the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture. She has 10 years of experience working as an art teacher and teaching artist throughout the east coast and the Midwest. Click "GO" to read her full bio.

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July 29, 2020

Love, Belonging & Children's Games | A Conversation with Mariana Depetris

Mariana Depetris
High School/University Art Instructor
Printmaker/Bookmaker
Latin-American Artist

Picture1

When I met Mariana 5 years ago, I was inspired by the way she used language and media to help students adopt an artist’s mindset. Having worked with students of all backgrounds and ages, Mariana brings a wealth of knowledge in bookmaking, printmaking, fashion, jewelry, painting, drawing, photography and mixed-media to all that she does. At The Mount Vernon School Mariana works primarily with students in Grades 8-12 and teaches everything from foundations courses to senior-level portfolio. A founding member of the Atlanta Printmaker’s Studio, Mariana has a deep passion and expertise in printmaking, which she weaves into foundation classes and interdisciplinary courses such as Creative Expressions, which teaches visual storytelling through various mediums. I’ve been blessed to work with Mariana as a colleague for several years, but was blown away by the things I learned during our conversation about teaching, identity, and making meaningful art.

Matt: Thank you so much for taking the time to share your stories with me. I know you’ve had so many experiences but let’s start with the memories you have of specific visual art teachers and the impression they left on you.

Mariana: I had an art teacher in preschool who was very regimented - this was in the early 70s... I [often] compared myself to another friend in the class. I was doing things expressively, while [my friend] would do things perfectly and the teacher would always praise that person. I ended up going to high school with the same friend and she ended up having a mind for business and I went into the Visual Arts.

When I was 11, we were living in Santa Fe, Argentina and my father (who is a scientist for the Argentinian National Research Council (CONICET) worked at a scientific institute that had an Art and Science foundation. For a term, he was the president of this foundation called ARCIEN. It was great because we constantly went to chamber music concerts, exhibitions...and one of the exhibitions was a printmaking exhibition and it was stunning. The prints were magical and I remember telling my mom “this is what I want to do when I grow up” - she explained how hard it was, but I said “yes, I want to - it seems magical, like alchemy”. I never looked back after that.

In high school,  - I had a teacher who helped me realize “you know what, I want to do this” - one thing that bothered me is that many kids didn’t take the art class seriously, but the teacher was really nurturing and when I left, she gifted me a really large drawing [that showed] how we were all connected.

In graduate school, Bernie Solomon was my printmaking father. He passed away shortly after I finished my masters - I just think of all the things I want to share with him still. Jessica Hines was my graduate school photography professor and we have a friendship to this day, to the point where we call each other ‘sister’ - she is family.

Picture2Reach for the Stars, wood print, photography, screen printing and encaustic on paper, 22" x 15", 2008

 Matt: Wow, that’s incredible that your Preschool Art Teacher made such an impression and you remember it to this day. Several artists I’ve talked to could point to a teacher that they felt showed favoritism at a very young age. It’s remarkable how much those verbal and non-verbal cues sink in when we are young.

I want to learn more about your teaching journey - you’ve taught in so many settings - from Summer camps to teaching high school and at the university level - what’s different? What is the same?

Mariana: When I began I was so inexperienced, I made so many mistakes. Many times when you start, you are just thrown into it. People say things like “don’t worry about it, you’ll always know more than the kids do” and I think that is so wrong!

Picture3London Bridge, Printmaking, photography and hand paper sttching, 30" x 40", 2001

I started with summer camps and community arts centers where I had really good growth for nearly 10 years (1996-2004). I got a lot of experience with teenagers and little kids. I started in New England at a camp where the parents were either on Broadway or in Hollywood. It taught me that the extremes often connect. Over the years, I have also taught kids who were affected by hurricane Katrina, and in low-income areas. Earlier, I had applied for an open call for a show proposal and was chosen to have an exhibit at Harvard’s David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies that featured my work on children’s games. During my stay there, I worked with immigrant students that were having a sense of disconnection. This happened shortly after September 11, 2001. I’ve learned that all children need love and opportunities and health and education, it doesn’t matter what background you come from, if those students are not being loved and having a sense of connection, none of that other stuff matters. At the camp in New Milford, Connecticut, I was sad to see that many of the students at bedtime were longing for their parents. Even if they had the opportunity to make all the creative stuff in the world, they just wanted quality time with their parents. At the same time, some of the students I worked with affected by Katrina had lost family members and possessions and homes. They had PTSD, but there was something still there, the ability to connect. I think that we all need love, education and health….what we’re asking for, is for everyone to begin the race of life with the same opportunities, with love.

Picture4Collage of earlier teaching experiences

Matt: Tell me more about your work in children’s games that was exhibited at Harvard…

Picture5Harvard's David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies, September 2001

 Mariana: My work in children’s games was inspired by and influenced by the way I saw their need for love. In playing traditional games, I observed that children were able to exercise power structures, to be rejected or accepted. They were able to deal with insecurities and exercise their own power if they were the winner of the game or included a friend that had been left behind. Those games looked like rehearsals for adulthood. I started researching games of different cultures, nursery rhymes and fairy tales, etc…

Picture6Hide and Seek, printmaking, photography and paper stitching, 30" x 22", 2001

Matt: You’ve talked about artists as philosophers communicating through images, tell us more about that.

Mariana: It’s not that we’re just thinking through images, it’s a teaching philosophy that we’re trying to bring into the classroom. The arts are the most unbiased version of someone. You’re not trying to present someone or something as anything else other than what you truly believe in. In that way, artists are witnesses to society and are able to denounce people/ideas by being philosophers where we take people on a journey that unveils things for them which they’re not seeing.

Matt: That’s beautiful, a completely different way to look at how the arts influence society. You also have an incredible and unique Visiting Artists Program at Mount Vernon. What process do you go through to identify artists and then schedule their time with different teachers during their visit?

Mariana: We are trying to unite art and life. So when we bring artists in, we really want to make those connections between what is being taught in all classrooms and use the arts to cross over into science and math, etc. This is the way we work in life. Approaching life from only discipline is useless, short-sighted, and it doesn’t lead anywhere. What we’re trying to do at our school is look at a problem from many different angles and go from there. When students interact with artists and they can see the artist’s thought process, they discover other methods and answers to explore their own questions.

Jerushia Graham is a good example: we brought her in to connect with a class that had been to Harlem and studied the Harlem Renaissance with Ms. Meg Brooks, which prepared them to be receptive to her history and her work.

Matt: Yes! I was a part of the trip, students not only read texts from authors like Ralph Ellison & Langston Hughes, but they were able to go to Harlem NYC, walk the same streets, visit the Apollo Theatre, listen to recordings of sermons by Bishop Desmond Tutu & Dr Martin Luther King Jr in Riverside Church where they were originally delivered. They ate a Sylvias Restaurant, attended a jazz performance with local musicians at a brownstone and learned about music at The National Jazz Museum. By the time they left, they really felt like a part of the neighborhood and the history. That teed them up really well for Jerushia to come in and create art with them.

Mariana: Yes. There is work that leads up to the artist visiting and then continues afterward and extends into other projects. Concepts morph, but knowledge and learning are still there, the spirit of that artist is still there. 

Matt: It sounds like you’re choosing artists based on their unique history/perspective/work so that they could show students a new way of thinking and help students solve problems that are emerging. This work seems to be unique to the student and the artist - you’re not just choosing artists because of their background, artistic medium, or racial identity, you’re matching artists based on what’s going on in the school and the art studio, which makes the work they do on campus feel so much more authentic and less “pre-packaged”. That’s so refreshing!

You’ve shared many stories about your journey as an artist  - emigrating from Argentina, traveling/working around the world. How did that come to be?

Mariana: I did not come here initially to stay or establish myself in the US. I came here with a scholarship from The Georgia Rotary Student Program for graduate school. I thought after two years I would go back. But, after that experience I got a scholarship in Belgium at the Frans Masereel Center in Kasterlee and later at the Valparaíso Foundation in Almería, Spain. When I returned to the States, I worked with two other professors at Georgia Southern (I was an alumna then) - we organized an international exchange exhibition between American and Argentinian printmakers. The exhibition was called Multiple Hemispheres with the idea of bringing together people with different backgrounds and views and showcase the world. With aides in Argentina and here, we toured the exhibition in 12 venues total (Argentina & the US). I learned a lot of logistics: transporting artwork internationally, insurance for artwork. It’s about connecting people and creating this larger family where you find your ‘kin’...nothing makes me prouder than when a student surpasses me. I gush like a parent.

Picture7Multiple Hemispheres’ moments, artwork by Julia Varela and Sandra Balegno, two of the participating artists

Matt: We are all navigating a crazy world and trying to figure out how express the things we’re feeling/experiencing. As an artist, what’s coming next? what is exciting for you right now?

Mariana: I’m trying to gather myself back. I’m strong, but I’m not built for continuous stress. Have you noticed that whenever you read fairy tales that there is a quest that lasts 7 years far away from home and eventually the characters return changed forever? It feels like I’ve been through that and now I’m returning home. Printmaking will always be my love but I’m rediscovering jewelry. Fashion has always been a passion too but I’m scared of it. I’m hoping to re-embrace “making art”. When I talk about “making art” I’m talking about being a philosopher with my thoughts and ideas. We regurgitate ideas all day long and we can become good at it, but creating a body of work that is meaningful takes so much of you. You have to be in tune with your most authentic self in order to do that kind of “making art” -- when you’re surviving, you don’t have the strength to allocate to making art. The times I tried, it made me very emotional, but I’m finally returning to that place where I feel safe making art.

Picture8Pull Through, wood print, photography, screen printing and encaustic on paper, 15" x 22", 2008

Matt: In some of our conversations I have heard you express this duality when it comes to identity - you have a sense of privilege as a white woman, but a sense of marginalization as Argentinian emigrant. Do you have any advice for teachers that want to be sensitive about race/gender, etc in the art studio?

Mariana: I think that, when it comes to art making, most students are very shy, especially students of color. Working with a diverse group of students requires a great deal of tact. I feel that it’s important to reach out to the personal stories of students without making assumptions. I know that I’ve made mistakes, but I’ve always tried to make a student feel safe expressing their ideas. We tend to consume more film and art from the west. I try my best to expose students to non-western works and points of view. I’ve always tried to watch cinema from different countries -- learning and reading are some of the things that will save us.

Also, just because you’re in a position of being a teacher/leader/facilitator, you don’t hold the truth. You’re having an exchange with the student and the student has as much to offer as you. The minute you think you hold the truth you think there is an absolute value and there is no absolute value because everyone will filter it through their own experience.

Speaking with Mariana reminded me that…

  • Each of us has so much lived experience to bring to the table.

  • There is no absolute value when it comes to art because our lived experience is the filter through which we experience art.

  • As an artist, creating a body of art that is meaningful takes so much of you. You have to be in tune with your most authentic self in order to do that kind of “making art”.

  • Children, no matter their race or socio-economic background need love, opportunities, health, education in order to thrive.

 

Be well + stay creative,

- MN 

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