by Ergisa X '16

Teacher of the Month: Gretchen Schwarz

A page of Ms. Schwarz's artwork from her artist's book
A page of Ms. Schwarz’s artwork from her artist’s book

Where did you grow up?

My family moved around a lot, so I grew up in a couple of different places.  I was born in Pennsylvania.  I grew up in mostly small towns; Indiana, Tennessee, and Pennsylvania. But for high school my family moved to a bigger city, to Milwaukee.

Was it a big transition from living in a small town, to living in a bigger city?

It was, I actually went through a major culture shock.  City kids are a lot more savvy, and they have a sense of maturity that rural kids don’t have, so it was a big change for me.  But I ended up liking Milwaukee a lot, and I realized I like bigger cities better than small towns.

What type of student were you in high school?

I was a good student.  I was quiet, I don’t think I participated a lot during discussions.  I preferred to develop ideas in my head, and I was a little shy.

When did you begin to discover that you had a love for art?

I was pretty young, I was maybe around ten or eleven years old when I realized I liked to draw.  And it was through regular school art classes that I decided that I liked it.  When my classmates came over and admired my drawings, or when my parents noticed that I was spending so much time with it, they put me in specialized art classes outside of school. And I went to art schools for both middle and high school.

When did you realize that you were an artist?

When I was in high school I realized that this was something I really wanted to do, and I knew I wanted to move to New York to go to art school.  The art world has been centered in New York for a long time, and the more I learned about artists and studied art history the more I wanted to come to New York.  I spent my entire senior year just daydreaming about what it would be like to live in New York and to go to art school.  I moved here after high school, and I went to the School of Visual Arts.  And when I got to art school I was disappointed, because I had envisioned this community of artists who felt as strongly about art as I did. Throughout my first semester it seemed like the school was full of only privileged rich kids who didn’t see the value of hard work.  And I was very upset when my idea of the school didn’t match up to the reality, it actually was kind of a let down. But eventually I did find that group of people who loved art as much as I did.

When/how did you realize that art was important?

My parents actually raised me, my sisters, and brother to value the arts. They raised us to value intellectual curiosity in all its different ways, and it was their support of the arts that helped me to realize its importance.

Do you think that everyone is an artist?

I’m going to get in trouble for this…no.  But I think everyone has the potential desire to be an artist!  But certainly when I studied art, and I learned about this in art school too, there are so many different ways to be an artist, not just the romantic stereotype of the artist in his studio with the beret and oval shaped palette. That’s only one way to be an artist. There are video artists, and installation artists, and photographers.  The more I’ve studied it, the more I realized that there are so many different ways to be an artist and different ways to explore art.

Is there a quality that separates people who are artists and people who occasionally make art?

Yes, its about intention and devotion to what you want to do. I started out believing that I was going to be that real working artist, and I found out that life is actually really hard.  Its more than just making art, you have to promote yourself, and get your work seen in the larger art scene.  I spent several years trying to do that, trying to get grants, but it’s hard to support yourself while also making art.  I believe it all comes down to intention, a lot of my artist friends have found ways to keep making art while working jobs that satisfy them in a different way.

Do you still make art?

I do! I have to be honest, I spend a lot less time making art since I became a teacher.  But teaching gives me motivation and energy in a whole other way, that art doesn’t.  I would say that I enjoy teaching art even more than making art.

Ms. Schwarz submitted her artist's book to The Sketchbook Project last January
Ms. Schwarz submitted her artist’s book to The Sketchbook Project last January

What is your favorite art medium?

I really love oil painting, it takes a long time to dry so you can keep reworking it.  I like water color, clay, and pen and ink as well.

How do you find time to make art whilst also maintaining all of your responsibilities as a teacher?

It’s really hard but I just have to do it, it’s a necessity. I have to do it to be a better teacher too. By working with the same mediums as my students work in, I can experience the same problems with a medium as you do, and then I can better introduce new methods of problem solving.

What are the strengths and weaknesses of BSGE students as artists?

Your strengths are your dedication and discipline. I always see such hard work and this spirit of determination.  As far as things you could work on, I think challenging yourself to think out of the box. And that’s also the hardest part of making art.  Students that do this are always more engaged in their work, and the final piece is usually more complex and interesting than an artwork which seemed to just occur to you.

Have you been to any interesting galleries and shows that you would like to recommend?

Last weekend I went to see the Egon Schiele exhibit of portrait paintings at the Neue Galerie, a German and Austrian museum.  Egon Schiele uses color and line very expressively in a way that distort his portraits to make the art work all the more powerful.

We have come to the classic teacher of the month question: if you were stuck on a desert island and you could only bring three things, and one BSGE teacher, what would you bring, who would you bring, and why?

I would bring a blank book and a pencil to write and draw about my experience.  And probably a knife for survival so I can defend myself or build something.  And the person that I would bring… this is a really hard one… but I would probably bring Ms. Hunter. She’s really fun and she would keep me totally entertained, and hopefully help me survive on the desert island.

Do you have any pet peeves?

I do, I have a lot of pet peeves.  And I guess I’m going to expose them all right now.  I like for things to go back to where they belong, so when students don’t push their chairs in, that drives me crazy.  Also during a discussion if there is any background noise, like pen clicking or something, it ends up being very disruptive.  Also that screeching sound chalk makes on a chalkboard bothers me.

Do you have any strange habits or quirks?

I’m sure that I do, but I’m having trouble coming up with one.  I have a friend who has a funny habit of pulling their eyebrow hairs when they’re thinking about things, it’s very funny and strange.

(A few days later she was able to remember a quirk.)

Texting!! I always end up texting people like thirteen times in a row without giving them a chance to respond; my sister pointed it out to me yesterday.

What is your favorite sound? Least favorite?

My favorite sound is children laughing. I remember traveling in Paris by myself, and walking around Paris and passing the playgrounds, hearing the children laughing.  There are great memories associated with that sound. My least favorite sound is probably that chalk sound I mentioned earlier.

What is your favorite word? Least favorite word?

I like words where the sound of the word conveys some of the meaning.  Like luscious, when you say that word you get a sense of lusciousness (laughs) I don’t know why. Paint, or icing on a cupcake, looks really luscious. I love that word. My least favorite word is puberty. The word matches the awkwardness of that stage and it’s so ugly.

If you could have dinner with one person dead or alive who would it be? Actually you can list your top five, one person seems like too much pressure.

I used to imagine a dinner party full of people, I think Louise Bourgeois who passed away a few years ago would be there. I love her work. The actor Humphrey Bogart, he would be funny to have at dinner. Charlie Chaplain too, for kind of the same reason.  The poet Anne Sexton, I like her work.  And Toulouse Lautrec.

What was the last movie you saw, and how did you feel about it?

I saw Hugo recently! It was a beautiful story, I cried at the end.  It really seemed to embody this human experience that everyone goes through at one time or another, finding where you fit and what you’re meant to do.  It was also visually stunning, so beautiful.

What was the last book you read, and how did you feel about it?

The last book I read was recommended to me by Ms. You.  It was “Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter” by Mario Vargas Llosa. It definitely kept me intrigued, it was a very dynamic complex love story.

Have you seen any funny videos lately that you would like to share?

Well it’s not funny, but I love these videos by this stunt cyclist Danny Macaskill. They play this beautiful music in the background of the video, and it’s amazing how these really crazy stunts become so graceful and beautiful when this music is playing in the background.  He’s like a superhero, it’s amazing.

Do you have any parting words for your IB students?

My advice would be to maintain that dedicated spirit and diligence that you have. Don’t get discouraged.  Art is hard, it’s just part of the process.  We learn so much more from our failures than we do from our successes.  Stick with your work and don’t give up.  Also don’t hesitate to ask for help and to use me as a resource. I’m here to help you find answers and solutions to your questions and problems.

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