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Miriam Rankin is the first artist in the new feature, Artists Who Care.

I met Miriam  8 years ago through my online artists support group. I later visited her for several days in her Brooklyn home where she and her family graciously received me.

In our group she is a highly inspiring voice. She is pragmatic as well as creative, which is probably why she has achieved so much. When I got to know her, she was working plus going to school 7 days a week to finish up her masters 31 years (after graduating with a B.A. in 1972).

4 short years later, she received the Art Teacher of the Year award from the New York City’s art teachers union.

In conversations about art, Miriam would often express a yearning to practice her own art more. But what is our ‘own’ art? Instead of making paintings in a studio,  she has used her creativity in a highly effective manner to improve the lives of thousands of children.

Here is her story:

Miriam, please tell us something about your background I’ve designed appliqués and embroidery for a well known children’s clothing firm, designed and built costumes for a college theater group, painted murals and furniture, made beaded jewelry and funky laminated pins, been a teaching artist for seniors and young children through various art organizations, and my most creative job of all- I’ve raised three children who all are artists themselves.

Once my children were grown, I became a teacher I suppose because I was “genetically” programmed to be one.

What was the situation like when you first took the position of art cluster teacher at your school?

Ten years ago, the art cluster position was basically babysitting for students while the classroom teacher got a break.

I worked out of a closet, I didn’t have my own room or even a cart to carry supplies.  I had an impossible schedule, seeing 25 classes weekly- that’s about 600 students and I had a limited time I could spend with each class!

What were your own wishes and dreams for these kids?

Most of the students in my school are new immigrants and come from low income families where most commonly both parents work and struggle;  many are unable to speak or understand English.

We also have a large special education population, children with learning frustrations and self-image problems.

I wanted to immerse these students in art- not just visual art but all the creative arts.  I wanted them to feel the power of it and learn by being motivated by it.

….and how did you begin to realize those dreams?

Besides teaching art, I was given the title “Project Arts Coordinator”.  It was a vaguely defined position with no inherent power; the idea was that someone be “in charge” of making sure that the arts were present in each school.

I took it seriously and expanded it to include not only visual but other art forms- drama, music, creative movement and dance.

I designed my visual art program to be skill-centered.  I united the school with yearly themes (one year, it was “Harmony,” which of course relates to colors, voices, and people getting along- a wonderful connection to inspire creative art).

I help the teachers by designing professional developments sessions: how to plan trips, how to display artwork, how to extend art projects from the art room into the classroom, connecting them to other subjects in a fun, productive way.

The principal and teachers know that they can depend on me for a welcoming central hall display, booking trips, ordering buses, filling in forms, planning good events, and dozens of other chores that come up in the school year.

I photo document every part of the program, so that when visitors come or donors want to know how we’ve used their grant money, I can readily show them heartwarming pictures of students engaged in art making and the glorious results.

Over the years, I brought in thousands of dollars in grant money to provide the school with richly creative programs that brought my young friends experiences they would not have had otherwise.

Making a collage

What is the situation in the school now ?

  • My school’s art program is now central to academic learning.
  • The entire school goes on art trips and neighborhood walks to inspire art projects and creative writing.
  • Student art exhibits and parent/child art workshops involve parents after school.
  • Our students win art contests.
  • We are considered a “model school”,  now one of maybe 5 schools in the city commended for having such a distinguished art program.
  • Because of a generous and continuous grant from a very prestigious art organization that has provided the school with two teaching artists, every child in the school has weekly art lessons.  Every student, from Pre-Kindergarten to 5th Grade sculpts, paints, draws, collages, makes prints, and uses proper tools, materials and terminology.
  • The school library has a special art section that students helped me create- separate spaces for artists, careers in art, art history, reproductions, and arts and crafts.
  • Within the last three years, we’ve gotten a full time music teacher who runs two choruses and gives music instruction in violin, piano, clarinet, and flute to small groups.

Although recently drama and dance programs have been reduced because of funding issues and the poor economy, we do have some programs for selected classes.

I really don’t consider a program successful unless it reaches everyone but I’ve had to  learn to be realistic.

Academically speaking, my principal credits the immersion in the arts with greatly improving test scores in literacy.  With the full support of the principal, I have brought the school acclaim and attention.

Will these programs continue after you no longer work there?

I’d like to think that the art program would continue as an integral part of the school’s curriculum even if I weren’t there but realistically, I don’t think it would have the same impact. In order for it to work, a school needs an art advocate, someone who is dedicated and steadfastly fuels the program, doing the leg work and paper work that keeps it running.  Even our principal who has been so supportive has no idea how to run an actual art program.

Anything else you want to add? I wish my mother could have seen how well my career, started so late in life, has blossomed.  I feel successful, perhaps not in wealth or fame, but in satisfaction and the sense that I’ve done something completely and thoroughly well.

Thank you for giving me a chance to explain and share my pride in my work.

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