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In the Studio with Clare Kambhu

2/28/24

Studio Visit

In the Studio with Clare Kambhu

Former CMA Resident Artist Clare Kambhu opens the door of her studio to discuss her background as an NYC public school teacher, the paintings she created in residency at CMA, and what's on her bookshelf.

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As part of CMA's Residency for Experimental Arts Education, Clare Kambhu led an after school art program at Trinity Commons and taught art to fifth graders at Children's Workshop School, a progressive public elementary school in NYC's East Village. Below, visit Clare in her Jackson Heights studio and get a glimpse at her artistic process.



CMA: Let’s start with this painting in progress, which most noticeably features your CMA ID. 


Clare: I started this painting at Trinity Commons as part of my CMA residency. I had the still life set up on the table next to me with students stationed around the classroom. It includes both my CMA ID and UFT Teachers Union ID. 


This painting is a slow buildup of myopic details rather than something that I have to keep stepping back and forth from. It made sense to do as the "resident" of the Trinity space, because I could work on it and then go and see what a student was doing, and then come back and then they could see what I was doing. I could get up and go back to it pretty easily. That's why I like small still lifes because they don’t take up too much space.



How do you know when a work is done?


I usually have a series of steps that I set out to do, and then another series of steps emerges as I'm painting. I write them down or keep them in my head. Some of them, I write them down on the painting. Sometimes it stays on the painting when it’s done, and sometimes they get covered up. This painting, RULER, has a lot of steps written on it in the whiteboard area. When I run out of steps, then a painting is done.


"Add something"

What is RULER?


RULER is a tool that some schools use. It stands for recognizing, understanding, labeling, expressing, and regulating. The school I most recently taught at used RULER to help students develop metacognition around their emotions and regulate emotions. I don't have a particular stance on it one way or the other. It's just an intimidating, scary sounding acronym. I had to find other ways to use it in practice with high school students because they get cynical about things like that, understandably. It’s a continuum of energy from low energy to high energy, and then a continuum of pleasantness from low pleasantness to high pleasantness. The idea is when you come into a room or whenever you are feeling something, you plot it on this axis. So low energy, low pleasantness would be depressed and high energy, high pleasantness would be ecstatic. Low energy, high pleasantness would be at peace.


Clare's work on display at Kasmin Gallery during SUMMER SCHOOL in 2023

So it's a secret way for kids to learn geometry?


More like it relies on those skills too. I also wonder about the codification of emotions in this way, because it takes students away from using language to describe their emotions. It does, however, create a shorthand for delving into your interior life. The idea of using RULER in a school space is that you're not caught off guard by your feelings, and then you don't have an outburst. There's a regulatory purpose that is sometimes negative, but then there's also a really helpful part of it. 


Do you feel that RULER relates to how you see education as taking place in an institutionalized, regulated space?


Yeah. I’m not against it – these sorts of procedures are designed to help people get along with each other on a basic level. But some of it takes away some of the exuberance you experience from being a person. At the same time, when you put 30 people together in a room, you have to regulate yourself in order to not impose on other people. I'm not opposed to people being self-aware and acting out with awareness of what others are doing, and you learn that sort of thing in school. It's not a one-sided thing where one side is dehumanizing us or the other. The ideal situation is in the middle.


What strikes me the most about these paintings are the color and patterns of the whiteboard. Do you feel that this aspect of the painting shows your abstract side?


Yes. That area and a lot of the reflections are semi-invented. I'm looking at a chair in real life, but it might not be that same color in the painting. I'm just inventing it. Sometimes I leave a line of the underpainting visible. Here’s a bit of the whiteboard peeking through.



The reflections are also a place where I can play within something that's really structured. My older, smaller paintings were made from observation in a school setting. There’s more subdued meditation when you paint from observation. The larger paintings start from observation of a still life setup. I finish the larger paintings in my head, so to speak, so there’s more invention. 



Are these the largest paintings you've ever done?


They are the largest paintings on a single canvas or panel I've ever done. I have some stuff from grad school that's bigger, but it's composed of tiles so it takes up more space. 


Tell us about your abstract works. 


I started creating them in quarantine. I enjoy doing them in notebooks. Similar to the brushstrokes on my larger paintings, the excess brushstrokes become a texture or base for the rest of the work. The bleed-through in a notebook from one page to the next becomes part of it. They usually take me anywhere from a few hours to a few days to complete. They are more a way to play and learn about my tendencies. 



You taught abstraction to fifth graders at Children’s Workshop School as part of your CMA residency, which culminated in a field trip to Pace Gallery to see Maysha Mohamedi’s Gamebreaker exhibition. What surprised you about the students’ reactions to abstract paintings?


I wasn't sure how fifth graders would respond to abstractions. I didn't know if they would just want to draw cats, because I probably would have. Actually, I would have wanted to draw aliens if I was 10. Some students did want to draw specific things, but for the most part they made really amazing art. 


Children's Workshop School

What are you working on now?


Right now I'm working on these two text paintings, and I'm about to return to the larger chair seat ones. 



My former grad school professor just retired from teaching high school, and he’s now involved with a nonprofit art center upstate. He’s curating work of mine for an exhibition at Garner Art Center in Garnerville, New York. I’m going to show the large paintings that I created during my CMA residency and some of the earlier ones I made in classrooms for context. 


Do you have a favorite memory or interaction with a student that sustains you?


When you ask that, images of students who I've worked with over the years flash in my mind. There isn’t one instance that makes me say, this is why I do this. It's a daily sense of meaning.


Have you taught other grades besides high school?


When I was in college, I worked in an after school program for middle schoolers, not even thinking I would become a teacher, just as a job. Aside from workshops here and there and my experience with CMA, I have taught almost entirely in high school, everything from Intro to Art to IB Visual.


With high schoolers, do you feel that you are able to focus more on art and less on behavior management? 


I initially became a high school teacher for that reason, to be able to get more into the art stuff. Now that I myself am older, I don't know if that's actually true. There's really interesting things to think about with younger kids too, but you have to frame it in a totally different way.


Fifth graders from Children's Workshop School create abstract paintings during one of Clare's lessons

Do you think you'll end up back in the classroom?


Now that I'm working in an administrator role at NYU, I miss being in the classroom a lot. However, I wake up without the sense of like, oh my God, I have to speak all day in front of 150 people! My dream job would be to teach on a college professor's schedule, but with kids. I also really like working with student teachers. I would love to do that.


What is something about teaching that most people don’t realize?


The people I've learned the most from are seasoned teachers who have been there for 20 years. Teaching is something that you get better at over time, like any craft. You have to do it for a long time to get better at it. Just like with painting. 



Your paintings show an emotional void – the school chair that holds boisterous students all day, suddenly empty by nightfall. Why choose to represent objects versus people?


The reason I don't have any people in the paintings is because they're not about any one person's experience. I don't divulge stories about individual students because those aren't my stories to tell. That's their life. 


When you work with 100 to 200 people every year and get to know them and care about them as individuals, and then never see them again, you tend to take a more systematic view of things as a self-protective measure. Public school is a huge system, but it's a system designed for people. That's the reason it exists. As a societal democracy building project – though societal democracy building is not for individual people – I still think it's worth doing. 


Clare's work on display at Kasmin Gallery during SUMMER SCHOOL in 2023

You have two Master's degrees, an MA in Art Education from NYU and an MFA in Painting from Yale. Did you enjoy your higher education experience?

 

The Art Education program felt like an extension of college. I really enjoyed it, but it was mostly a means to an end of getting a job. I was actually considering going into interaction design at the time, but I ended up choosing arts education because I didn't want to work for clients that I didn't care about. The program itself was heavy on theory and not too much on the practical side. It worked out because theory is ultimately more grounding in the classroom anyway, because you’re learning in practice over time. 


In order to take a leave of absence from teaching and do something for myself, I needed to be in an academic program, so that’s why I did the MFA program at Yale. I went into it thinking that I wanted to develop as an artist, take time to focus on myself, and grow as a person. Once I got to Yale, everyone's like, "I want to be a fancy artist." I didn’t think of myself as an artist at the time. I always say that I don’t have the personality for it! 


How did you develop as an artist during your CMA residency?


The thing I had to work on most was structuring my day-to-day since I wasn’t teaching full-time. This was my first full-time “artist” job. It was a wonderful challenge that I don’t know that I fully met. My biggest challenge was setting goals for the larger works. I ended up making a lot more abstractions than larger paintings, even though once I start one of these larger paintings, I really, really get into it and end up painting all day. 


Clare in her studio at Children's Museum of the Arts

Are there other artists that focus on education in their work? 


They’re rare. There are some artists who make work about institutions in general that also make work about schools. Hugh Hayden comes to mind. He did a project called Brier Patch in Madison Square Park with school chairs.


I really enjoy Sable Elyse Smith’s work about prisons


There was a show at Smack Mellon when I was in grad school about segregation and education called Race and Revolution: Still Separate – Still Unequal. I hope the artists in that show are still making work about education. 


Clare’s Reading List


The Teacher Wars: A History of America’s Most Embattled Profession

Dana Goldstein


A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door: The Dismantling of Public Education and the Future of School

Jack Schneider and Jennifer Berkshire


Tinkering Towards Utopia: A Century of Public School Reform

David B. Tyack and Larry Cuban


Boys and Girls: Superheroes in the Doll Corner

Vivian Gussin Paley


Teaching to Transgress

bell hooks


Are Prisons Obsolete? 

Angela Davis


The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy

David Graeber


Tennis Anatomy

E. Paul Retest and Mark Kovacs

NEXT

Noormah Jamal at Children's Workshop School

Patterns and Pop Art

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