Being in lockdown is stressful for everybody, but especially so for at-risk youth, who often lack the family resources needed to support their continuing engagement with learning resources when school isn’t in session. Well before anyone besides top health experts was anticipating a global pandemic, the county-run Restorative Justice and Community Empowerment Center in Kingston was looking for worthy projects to fund that would steer teenagers from economically challenged families away from the school-to-prison pipeline, by making them aware of better, achievable alternatives for shaping the arc of their future. Among the grants the Center awarded last year was one to My Kingston Kids to organize workshops to teach kids the art of photography, free of charge.
The first series, offered last fall, was a tremendous success, culminating with public exhibitions where the young participants – novices all – were actually able to sell some of their work. A new eight-week series got underway Wednesday, April 29, taught entirely via Zoom classes. And while some of the slots are reserved for youth on probation or otherwise identified as at-risk by the Restorative Justice Center, enrollment in the course is open to anyone in the county aged 14 to 18.
The instructor is Star Nigro, an award-winning photographer and multimedia artist who is program director at My Kingston Kids. The offspring of a sculptor dad and an “artistically inclined” mom, Nigro was home-birthed in Woodstock and grew up literally upstairs from the shop Modern Mythology. “I was watching all the kids on the Village Green from my window,” she recalls. “I would get off the bus after school and go visit the storekeepers. I was really one of the ‘town kids.’”
Besides growing up surrounded by working artists in her parents’ social circles, Nigro was blessed with natural talent. She haunted the crafts room during summer camp and began taking classes with Kathy Anderson at the Woodstock School for Young Artists while still in grade school, later coming back to do apprenticeships while in high school and again after college. “It wasn’t just on paper,” she recalls of Anderson’s approach to teaching art. “We used plaster, wax – a lot of mixed media.”
Although she got her first taste of darkroom work at Onteora High School, photography wasn’t Nigro’s main thing when she put her portfolio together to apply to the Art Institute of Boston at Lesley University. She had thought to concentrate in graphic arts. But the college had more room in its photography program, and offered Nigro a four-year scholarship if she’d switch majors. She accepted, and the door that opened for her at that moment proved the beginning of a thriving career in which photography is but one element in her hybrid artistic explorations. r “They let us use cameras the first year when most colleges wouldn’t until second year,” she recalls. “The first main course dealt with creating anything in relation to light so it expanded my idea of what photography could be.”
From working with camera setups that prepared her for commercial photography work, Nigro moved on to street photography and fell in love with the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson. Before she even graduated, she had traveled to Brazil, camera in hand, to begin collecting the candid shots of people going about their lives in many lands that are among the hallmarks of her oeuvre. But she was also exposed there to indigenous crafts using natural and found materials that inspired her to begin making her own jewelry pieces that incorporate photographic images: another signature line of work. Among the early collectors of her one-of-a-kind jewelry creations were A-list gallerist Joan Sonnabend and celebrity chef Rachael Ray.
Since earning her BFA, Nigro has lived various places, including a stint on Long Island getting to know her mother’s Italian-immigrant family, and traveled to many countries doing photojournalism. She has had a long-running relationship with the Bronx Council of the Arts, for whom she has been teaching classes in Recycle Art for students aged “5 to 85” for 12 years now. But her hometown kept calling her back. “The colony of the arts was supposed to be a traveling community,” she avers. “We’re ambassadors for Woodstock Nation.”
Teaching has become a vital part of Nigro’s mission now that she’s living back in the mid-Hudson again. “People wanted me to teach right out of school. But I have no interest to teach what I do. I want people to use their own talents and gifts,” she says. The workshops she now leads for My Kingston Kids are “all about problem-solving, process and experimentation…The product is the people.”
The photography class she taught in the autumn of 2019 used Restorative Justice grant funding to acquire a supply of DSLR cameras, which the kids were not allowed to bring home with them. They took them on photography field trips on the streets of Kingston instead, learning to view the world around them with a more critical and discerning eye for composition than they might have with a cellphone camera, where the number of shots taken is unlimited. The upcoming virtual learning course will instead allow participants to use any camera they have available, including phones; but Nigro will still insist, as part of the exercise in selectivity, that they pretend that they only have 24 to 36 exposures on a roll of film. The first hour of each class will include lessons in the history of photography, as well as the aesthetics of the artform. In the second hour the students will be invited to share and discuss their work, if they feel comfortable doing so. “It’s an organic process,” says Nigro. “They support each other.”
Webcam equipment is not necessary to take the class; most cellphones have the capability to attend a Zoom session. The course is completely free and open to all Ulster County 14-to-18-year-olds, although participants are expected to make a commitment to attend all eight sessions (minus the first one, if they sign up after April 29). They take place from 3 to 5 p.m. on Wednesdays through June 17. To register for “Photography Now! The Virtual Edition,” contact Kim Mapes, youth and family engagement coordinator at the Ulster County Restorative Justice and Empowerment Center, at (845) 332-8165 or firstname.lastname@example.org. To see samples of Star Nigro’s work, visit her website at www.starnigro.com. To learn more about the youth programs offered by My Kingston Kids, including additional upcoming distance-learning opportunities, visit http://mykingstonkids.com.