VCS alumna and faculty member Shellyne Rodriguez was recently interviewed by MoMA’s assistant director of Teen and Community Partnerships for a post on the museum’s website about her involvement in its new Night Studio program, “a free, six-week art course for NYC residents currently in the process of passing the TASC (Test Assessing Secondary Completion, formerly the GED) and receiving their High School Equivalency Diplomas.” The interview covers Shellyne’s thoughts on teaching in the program, her curriculum, her own experiences getting a GED and going on to college, and more.
Here’s the interview’s introduction, followed by a brief excerpt.
Last summer, we collaborated with artist Shellyne Rodriguez on the creation of MoMA’s new Night Studio program — a free, six-week art course for NYC residents currently in the process of passing the TASC (Test Assessing Secondary Completion, formerly the GED) and receiving their High School Equivalency Diplomas. Two years prior to that, we collaborated with artist Mark Joshua Epstein on the creation of Open Art Space, the Museum’s first ever drop-in art program dedicated to serving LGBTQ-identified teens and their allies. And this philosophy of reaching out to new groups of previously underrepresented audiences isn’t new here; over the past 80 years, MoMA’s Department of Education has found ways of connecting our collection and resources to a variety of audiences not previously served by mainstream museum education. Our departmental history includes engagements with a variety of New Yorkers who were, at the time, considered “new” communities to create programs with, including groundbreaking initiatives dedicated to serving high school students (1937), children and families (1942), veterans (1944), adults with Alzheimer’s (2005), and many others, regardless of their prior engagement with the arts. Through these initiatives and a multitude of other community-based partnerships (serving organizations working with incarcerated youth, alternatively-sentenced adults, homelessness initiatives, HIV/AIDS health services, and more) MoMA has continued to be an important entry point for New York City audiences that have been, and who generally remain, woefully underserved by museums.
I connected with Shellyne Rodriguez over email to discuss the planning and teaching philosophies behind the creation of this summer’s Night Studio pilot, her own experiences as a young GED student, her pathway toward a degree in the arts, the importance of listening to the needs of our audiences, and where we might take these programs in the future.
* * *
Calder Zwicky: Can you talk a little bit about your own high school experiences and the circumstances that led to you getting your GED when you were a teen?
Shellyne Rodriguez: I wasn’t the least bit interested in high school. I had been dealing with a lot of trauma and instability at home and so being in a setting with my peers was the only place I was able to feel free. Focusing in the classroom was just not a priority. The only area where I cared to make an effort was in art. Ever since I was a child I had the ability to draw. But I didn’t get into the High School of Art and Design because of my poor grades, and I was angry about it. At my assigned high school, I was denied the chance to be in the art program, and was thrown into the business program, to learn “typewriting.” Needless to say, I stopped going.
In our earliest conversations about creating this program I feel like you really pushed for the need to support this audience’s creativity and artistry, because maybe no one else in their lives was doing that right now. Was there anyone supporting your creativity at this age?
My interest in art never waned. I was a graffiti artist, so I continued with that. I slowly became more interested in illustration than in doing graphic lettering. In graffiti language, we would say that I was less interested in handstyles and burners and more into characters. Its important to mention that during this time in my life, I was a member of the Universal Zulu Nation, which was partially a street gang, and partially dedicated to the preservation of hip-hop culture. There were elder women in the Nation that kept me creative and gave me outlets. I was one of the first students in the Sista II Sista radical grassroots political education program for girls.
I took the leap into college from my GED because my girlfriend at the time quite literally held my hand the whole time and walked me through the process. I never fathomed it was a possibility for me. I didn’t know how people did that. I enrolled into SVA, who at the time had a matriculated night school program for working-class students trying to earn a degree. I worked during the day doing shipping and receiving, and went to school at night.
This was interrupted for the cost of the program being too much, and the aftermath of 9/11. I finished my bachelors 10 years later.
[You can read the rest of the interview here.]