Initiatives synergize local art and Kingston High students

Lara Giordano and JoAnn Ruisi (photo by Phyllis McCabe)

How to exhibit work by distinguished local artists in empty storefronts on Broadway and share their talents through community workshops, all while engaging Kingston High School students in the arts?

Kingston High School art teacher and artist Lara Giordano had an answer when she got a grant in 2015 and started the Pop Up Gallery Group, or PUGG. PUGG consists of an internship program for high school students which enables them to earn school credit and get paid for helping artists and learning arts-related skills.

Giordano also launched The Department of Regional Arts Workers, or DRAW, which is a community education program that offers classes in printmaking, animation, life drawing and other skills to both students and adults. 

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Four years later, the program has been such a success that it continues to expand its programming and curatorial activities, providing the PUGG participants with more opportunities for involvement. Partly this has been possible because of a change in venue: After the group lost its storefront on Broadway, it moved to the YMCA, which has donated its spacious arts-and-crafts room. The larger space has enabled Giordano, who has since retired, to offer an after-school Youth Art Studio for middle-school students; a Saturday workshop series, called Curated Shorts, open to teens and adults; an art program for Benedictine Partial, a program that helps youth who’ve been institutionalized readjust to the outside world; and starting this summer, art intensive classes for the YMCA’s Starfish Camp, which serves low-income kids.

DRAW continues to offer classes open to all, currently consisting of a drawing class taught by Stephen Lewis and costumed life drawing. The youth classes are offered on a pay-what-you-can basis and scholarships are available for evening classes. In all the programs, participants work closely with local artists. For example, sculptor Michael Lalicki recently offered a workshop on found sculptures for the Youth Art Studio, in which the students made artworks using a variety of materials and visited Lalicki’s studio. Artists also conduct the four-hour workshops on Saturday — on March 30, Chris Petrone taught basic bookbinding — and the fee for that program helps fund the Youth Art Studio (scholarships for Curated Shorts may be available upon request).

Currently there are seven high-school students participating in PUGG, which consists of a two-tiered work-study program: students receive a half credit for 54 hours of arts-related activity, such as assisting an artist in her or his studio, helping hang an exhibition or teach an art class to middle-school students. “Kids get involved in the community and learn leadership and practical skills,” said Giordano. Those who’ve earned the half credit can then apply for a $500 scholarship, which pays for their continued service up to two years. The program also works closely with KHS alumni who have careers in the arts, hosting exhibitions of their work (formerly at the storefront on Broadway) and incorporating their suggestions for programming.

“We’re looking at expanding the program to just after high school,” said Giordano. “A lot of students need guidance, whether they take a gap year or attend community college.”  

The loss of the Broadway storefront meant that PUGG lost its gallery, a gap that’s been filled by renting space at the Kingston Artists Collective, which hosts open mics, concerts, and other cultural events at its loft space on lower Broadway, for exhibitions. The latest show curated at the collective was in March and featured the paintings of Amy Ackerman, a KHS alum. It will be followed by the work of Maxim von Eikh, opening April 6.

In addition, in January a show entitled “The PUGG Alumni Exhibition” launched the opening of the Ground Floor Gallery at City Hall. The exhibition showcases not only the considerable talent that’s come out of KHS — the nine participating artists are all KHS alumni, spanning a period of decades — but also the curatorial accomplishments of PUGG, since all of the works were previously featured in exhibitions organized by the group. It consists of Adrielle Farr’s colorful, loosely brushed painting of a robed woman walking two pinchers; Scott Ackerman’s Outsider-style acrylic paintings on wood (he’s the brother of Amy, who has contributed three delicately painted watercolors wittily portraying narratives of pain and heartbreak); Frank Pesko’s intense linocut of a landscape, suggesting ecological nightmare; two abstract, vividly colored geometric Op-Art acrylic paintings by Vincent Pidone; two large minimalist watercolors by Rebecca Hellard, which suggest much more than they portray, in a style akin to Japanese ink painting; a masterful ink drawing by Matt Pleva incorporating a Conestoga wagon, the Empire State Building and the space shuttle in his signature black-and-white graphic style; two color photographs of regional ruins by Christian Gallo; and a hand-stitched quilt by Kelli Sillik. PUGG was also involved in an installation at The Idea Garden, a new gallery and events space on Broadway in Midtown, entitled “Republished,” a month-long show of mixed-media work by five artists for Black History Month.

PUGG and DRAW have also been incorporated into the Midtown Arts District. Because MAD is a 501(c)(3) non profit organization, the merger better enables Giordano and program director JoAnn Ruisi to apply for grants, which besides covering essential costs would enable them to finally be paid (both are volunteers, despite committing many hours to the organization). Besides donations, such as “reams of tag paper from Gateway” and watercolor papers and paints from an individual, Giordano pays for many of the supplies out of her own pocket. “Imagine what we could do if we had money,” she said. “Projects happen because we think it’s important, but it’s not sustainable until we find a way to pay for them.” She noted that in addition to the programming, she and Ruisi do all the posting on social media, grant writing and community outreach.

That engagement is crucial to PUGG and DRAW, as is maintaining a high level of quality. “Balancing the quality of the art with the community involvement is sometimes hard,” Giordano said. However, raising the standards of art-making — creating and exhibiting work that is new, thought provoking and original — enhancing the community’s engagement with the arts through exhibitions and affordable classes and exposing youth of every income level to art has its paybacks: many of Giordano’s former students have found jobs in the city, including at Bailey Pottery, R&F Handmade Paints, the Foundry, which fabricates sculptures for big-name artists, and even City Hall — Kingston’s first director of art and cultural affairs, Adrielle Farr, is an alum and artist who has participated in PUGG’s shows.

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