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Kaplan to Collect 2013 Alumni Award

04/02/2013

Tamara Kaplan MA/MAT 00 (center), this year’s Alumni Award winner, loves working with teenagers. | photo by Jesse Banks III

“I’ve always had art in my life,” says Tamara Kaplan MA/MAT 00, an art educator and artist who makes prints, does letterpress, sews and works with paper. “My parents were supportive of the arts and of the creative process itself. They encouraged me to live a life that includes looking at the world – having the lens a little more open.”

After earning a BFA from the New York State College of Ceramics at Alfred University, Kaplan soon turned to arts education, simultaneously pursuing double master’s degrees in teaching at RISD. “Stepping back from my creative life and adding the educational component was a huge shift,” she says.

The RISD Alumni Association has now selected Kaplan as the 2013 winner of its Art and Education Award, which will be presented at the college’s June 1 Commencement ceremony. She is being recognized for her work at New Urban Arts (NUA), a Providence nonprofit that offers a safe environment for low-income high school students to make art and develop caring relationships with adult mentors.

Kaplan joined NUA in 2000 – just two years after it was founded – and has held a variety of roles within the organization since: as Program Director, Interim Executive Director and, currently, Operations Manager. The approach to arts-based mentoring developed under her leadership has been used as a model for similar programs nationwide. And in 2009 First Lady Michelle Obama presented NUA with the Coming Up Taller Award for arts and humanities programs helping underserved children and youth.

NUA is also a great resource for RISD students, who have served as program mentors, interns and assistants. “Tamara was a hugely positive influence during my time at RISD,” says NYC-based designer Michael Freimuth 03 GD, who got involved in NUA as a student. “As I’ve begun teaching at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan, I’m regularly reminded of our work together and what she very generously taught me – both directly and by example.”

NUA’s mission is to help teenagers to develop a creative practice they can sustain throughout their lives. In the organization’s studios they work on fashion, photography, silkscreening, drawing, sculpture, painting and even creative writing. But the program's influence goes much deeper than that. At NUA student artists develop the confidence they need to take risks. And risk-taking – along with leaving your ego at the door and participating in the community – is one of the core values the program is built upon, according to Kaplan.

Students with an interest in art are recruited at local high schools and paired with volunteer mentors. “The model,” says Kaplan, “challenges the notion of traditional school-based learning with a teacher in the front talking and talking. We’re saying, ‘What do you want to learn?’ which is challenging.” The students themselves interview and select the new mentors each year, which means that it’s more important for volunteers to connect than it is for them to have impressive degrees or specific experience.

Whether or not NUA students apply to RISD or another art school, by the time they move on, art has become part of their lives, Kaplan says. NUA veteran Abel Hernandez 11 FAV did go on to RISD and has now opened Spiffy Gents, an online shop of vintage menswear. Some students are so inspired that they become mentors themselves, passing along the knowledge and the attention to kids coming up behind them.

“I’ve been here for 13 years,” says Kaplan, “so I’ve had an opportunity to see how these relationships develop over time. Students are so different as 12th graders than they were when they started as ninth graders. Their confidence has grown so much, along with their art-making skills. The social/emotional piece is so important [but so] lacking in traditional education. And watching the mentors develop over the course of a year is incredible – they also learn to take risks and let go of their original notions.”

–Simone Solondz

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tags: alumni, graduate, local/global, nonprofits, Teaching + Learning in Art + Design

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Emily Belz, MA '08, teaches English through photography in a community-based program for immigrants.