Art Educator Judith Schwartz Reflects on Her Wildly Imaginative and Dazzling Career and a Mosaic Dog Bench

Judith Schwartz, professor of art and art education, began her career at NYU Steinhardt in 1970, and for almost five decades, has offered her students hands-on experiences in media that is informed by history, aesthetics, contemporary practice, and critical theory.  Among her recent honors are an Educator of the Year award from the Renwick Museum, Smithsonian Institution, and the Higher Educator Award from the New York City Art Educator’s Association.  We spoke to her about her life as a working artist and teacher.

Tell us about your recent piece, your mosaic bench, Chimera Reminiscence.

Judith Schwartz created Chimera Reminiscence with ceramic contributions from Steinhardt alumni and faculty.

Chimera Reminiscence began as a wooden bench. It’s eyes, teeth, nose, and tongue were fabricated by Steinhardt alumni.

Chimera Reminiscence is a tribute to the students and faculty who have taught with me over the years.  More than sixty specifically created ceramic contributions arrived from all over the world, and each one — along with my own mementos — bric-a-brac in the form of awards, travel memorabilia, gifts, and ceramic logos from residencies and boards I serve — were glued onto a wooden bench over a three-month period.  I guess you could call it the ultimate in “upcycling,” as each shard was loaded with memory and experience and were then transformed into a new object. Collectively, the shards serve are a metaphor of those who have made up the mosaic of my years at NYU.

The term, “chimera” has come to describe any mythical or fictional animal composed of disparate parts, or perceived as wildly imaginative, implausible, or dazzling. So Kenjiro Kentade ( BA ’02, MA ’04) carved the teeth, and Judy Fox, a former teacher and prominent artist, contributed the tongue. Siew Chu Kerk (MA ’92) created the ears and many other parts of Chimera Reminiscence.

You’ve been at NYU for almost fifty years!   How are the students you taught in 1970 different from the students in 2017?

I don’t feel the students have changed much.  They are just as talented and passionate about being artists.  They want to learn and perfect their skills and develop meaning in their work, and most importantly, want verification and a chance to test the water for the lifestyle choices they are making to be an artist.  The only thing that has changed is fashion; what they wear to individuate themselves. I have yet to get used to hairstyles and body decorations. However, and more importantly, when I look at old photographs alongside the ones from my classes this past spring, I recall how sensitive, hard-working, curious, sympathetic, energetic, and how hard my students work to balance classes, friends, and family commitments.

Judith Schwartz, Steinhardt professor of art and art education, with her studio art students.

What are some of your career highlights?

At NYU, I enjoyed being director of undergraduate studies, a position I held for eight years. This leadership role allowed me to set in motion a new direction in the curriculum and it was also a way of getting to know students outside the classroom.

I’m also proud that I brought new materials, techniques, and skills to the art department, and  introduced classes we never had before – glassblowing,  jewelry, and art-to-wear body adornment. Most recently, I brought in sewing machines so students are now creating soft sculpture and working with fiber with the newest digital embroidery machines.  Students relish and appreciate learning  how to create their own objects …perhaps a  reaction to societal trends of a flat-screen world.

I’m also proud of my book, Confrontational Ceramics (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008), which highlights more than 260 artists who use their art to needle the establishment by confronting war and politics, the social and human condition, gender issues, environmental concerns, and popular and material culture. Clay, an abundant and historically universal material traditionally associated with ancient cultures, is viewed in the book as one of the most contemporary forms. In my book, I also identify an emergent ceramic movement.  I’m delighted that the book is popular among K-12 teachers who use it to demonstrate how artists choose to make art that visually communicates personal stories and issues they hold important.

You have taught a wide range of art classes. What have have the students you have trained in pottery — our Steinhardt alumni — gone on to do?

Steinhardt alumnus Kenjiro Kentade ( BA ’02, MA ’04) carved the teeth of Schwartz’s Chimera Reminiscence.

I have taught figurative sculpture, introduction, intermediate and advanced ceramic classes, a course called, “Technological Experiments and The Making of the Body Image,” 3D design, craft history, and mixed media.

I have trained studio artists, art therapists, art educators, and team-taught a class with the anthropology department in the College of Arts and Science (CAS). I have also taught ceramics to non-majors from Stern, Gallatin, CAS, and even the Dental School. My students have discovered fascinating career paths. For example, one is a specialist in ceramics working for Sotheby auction house; one works for an animation film company.  A recent graduate took a job at a small production pottery in New Jersey; many are career studio artists who show in galleries and exhibitions nationally and internationally. One of my graduates, Harriet Taub (BS ’76),  is now director of Materials for the Arts, a highly regarded resource for artists who are given art supplies donated by people and organizations throughout New York.

How did you balance being an artist with all the things you were working on in your career?  

Judith Schwartz, professor of art and art education, at NYU Steinhardt.

I guess I was influenced by my incredibly hard-working parents who managed to juggle numerous jobs at the same time. Although my mother was a nurse working 12-hour shifts in the hospital, she still managed to get a degree from NYU (BS ’43), and later went on to a career with the Board of Ed teaching homebound students who could not attend traditional school programs. My father was a fireman who worked 12-hour shifts.  He also graduated NYU with a major in physical education.

When my administrative duties — preparing course outlines, curating exhibitions, writing articles, or authoring books — kept me from working in clay in the studio, I studied millinery design at FIT so that I could work with materials that would not dry out if I could not get to the studio every day.

I guess we all learn to juggle and do things that are necessary to keep all aspects of life vibrant and the work we care about on the front burner.

What is your advice to young artists?

Detail, Chimera Reminiscence.

I like to tell my students to find their passion and their own personal direction — many are not suited for the loneliness of working in a studio environment.  It’s isolating and difficult without the help and support of a gallery for sales.  Some students are better at communicating through writing or teaching, rather than through visual communication, so I encourage these students to pursue their love for craft materials by teaching, writing, curating, or through museum studies.

I’m delighted that many of my students have found that their training in “learning-to-think-creatively” has carried over into all aspects of their lives –- from raising a family to running a small business.

Chimera Reminiscence is on display at NYU Steinhardt’s exhibition space at the Department of Art and Art Professions, Barney Building, 32 Stuyvesant Street, 3rd Floor.  NYU ID required.