Teaching Artist Spotlight: Peggy Rambach

Recently we talked with Peggy Rambach, our newest addition to the Teaching Artist Spotlight series. Peggy facilitates pastel workshops and creative writing classes. She speaks on discovering art “late in life,” learning from her students, and what it’s like teaching in two seemingly disparate mediums.

 JAC: How have your students impacted your teaching practices and even your own art? What has been the most rewarding part of your experience working with incarcerated artists?

PR: “I can barely draw a stick figure.” This is what I hear again and again when I go into the units to recruit interested students for my pastel class. Three years ago, I would have said the same thing. So, I am impressed and inspired by my students’ willingness to take the risk and try to work in pastel in my class. I’m not sure I would have to same courage. 

 I have identified myself as a writer for the past 40 years and since I began working in pastel so recently, and so late in life – at the age of 59 – I am still unable to say aloud that I am a visual artist. I am more likely to think of myself as an imposter! But the majority of the women in the Women’s Program who choose to take my class, stick with it through the initial fear of failure and humiliation — along with the inevitable early frustration and confusion, since pastel, at the start, “looks like a big mess,” I say to them, and only later in the process, will they create recognizable images through the use of light and dark. 

 But stick with it they do. So, if my students have an impact on my art, it is to make me stick with it too when my confidence wanes, or when I, too, am frustrated with my attempts to achieve on the paper what I see in the world. 

 I also encourage my students to choose any photograph to work off of that they wish, any image that appeals to them, and they’ve chosen photos of foxes, of peacocks, of farmland and farm houses, of salt marshes, Irish cliffs, and mount Kilimanjaro with elephants grazing in the valley below. I look at their choice, make a big sigh, and say, “Okay. We’ll figure this out.” And together we work on developing the technique and choosing the layers of colors necessary to create the image– images that I have certainly never painted or drawn myself in my short tenure as a pastel artist. So, there’s no question that with my students, I’m learning all the time, both as an artist and as a teacher. 

 I know many of my students have been through unspeakable trauma and are living with uncertainty and under the stress of confinement, so I am sensitive to their moods and well-being. As a teaching-artist in Corrections or in any setting that is non-traditional, one must always be alert and flexible and innovative. For instance, I have no studio. We work on classroom walls and windows.  And after two years I finally have a full cabinet all to myself in which to store my supplies.  

 But I’m not complaining. I’m grateful that I received the supplies from the Sheriff’s Department in the first place, and that the Sheriff’s Department recognizes the value of arts in Corrections. And clearly, I like the challenge of the environment along with the kind of diplomacy it takes to work with, and not against, Security. 

 I also teach creative writing and that is a little different. Visual art can take one out of oneself, be meditative and calming. Writing too, is a deep and meditative experience, but the writer must be willing to go to more uncomfortable places as a means of revealing greater universal truths about human experience. So, the process of writing a poem or short story or essay can be emotionally challenging, but also emotionally restorative and healing in a deep and lasting way. And writing is just plain hard: making a swirl of thoughts and emotions into a recognizable and communicative form is, understandably, daunting. So those who join my class and stick with it, are often driven to get an experience down – many times as a means of putting it to rest or as a way of grieving for someone they’ve loved and lost. 

 And of course many simply love language and are willing to undertake the discipline required to endure my “chicken scratch” as one student calls it – to revise, to go deeper, to learn the techniques necessary to make an experience not just a written record but a work of art that leads to epiphany. My students, like all of us, are fragile under their public exteriors. But that is not a reason to lower my standards for excellence. The environment in which I’m teaching them, should not lead anyone to assume that they are less able to achieve the kind of excellence we require of students in traditional academic settings. And when they do achieve what I know they can, they are grateful. And when they thank me, they thank me for pushing them, for not giving up on them, for having the faith that they can and will bring something into the world that is beautiful and meaningful, and that will last. Often this achievement is their very first one like it. And for me, their triumph is undeniably gratifying. Art, and teaching two forms of it to my incarcerated students fills my life with meaning and purpose.

 JAC: The JAC, as it grows, will continue to seek out and implement a vision of how to better support teaching artists. In your view, what does a supportive network need to include?

 PR: I would like to go to regional conferences of teaching-artists in Corrections and share our experiences and practices. I’d like to know who is out there, really, to meet them in-person. I don’t have a lot of time or the patience to read a lot online. But I’d take the time to attend a gathering in my state of Massachusetts, maybe listen to a few speakers and offer to speak myself. I think we should reach out to young artists in MFA programs who might be interested in the field. When I possibly retire from my position in 5 to 7 years, it saddens me to think that no one will take my place and the program, and all of its value, will simply disappear.  

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Pastels by Peggy’s students

Peggy Rambach, M.A., M.F.A. has received grants and awards for her writing, and for her contribution to literacy and the Healing Arts. She is the author of a novel, (Steerforth Press), a collection of stories, (Ampersand Press) and the editor of two collections of memoirs (Paper Journey Press) that emerged from her community writing workshops  She is one of three artists featured in the documentary: The Healing Arts; New Pathways to Health. (From Peggy’s website, which you can view here!)

 

Read our last Teaching Artist spotlight, featuring Hakim Bellamy.

 

 

 

“We, the Unbound”

by Peggy Rambach

Address for the HOC Mural Project Unveiling Celebration with MIT at the Suffolk County House of Correction

Feb. 15, 2019

We, The Unbound
We, The Unbound A collaboration between artists at MIT and The Suffolk County House of Correction. Directed by Sara Brown. Acrylic on canvas, 40in x 60in panels.

Lately, we’ve all been hearing a lot about walls – whether we like it or not.

And as a result, we can’t help thinking about what a wall represents: division, protection, confinement – all of which are a necessary part of a facility like this.

But a wall can also be a canvas that inspires imagination and creativity.

Mural design work

And big walls, like this one, communicate a message with a particular kind of power.

The message of the women in the Women’s Program here, who designed this work of art in just four, one and a half hour classes, was conveyed in this way:

One might interpret the eyes as the eyes of the soul, and our sorrows illustrated by tears. And so often – if we’re patient enough – we find our sadness leads to new growth represented in the form of the tree. Jellyfish are unconfined by walls and water. Walls become the universe, a ceiling the sky, and flowers break through anything that might stop them from blooming. All of this saying, that no matter what, we have to capacity to break through what may confine us. And that’s why everyone wanted a doorway that leads to the light of possibility and hope.

Practice eye

And so, art transformed a blank wall into the image, I would say, of human resilience, showed how we can dissolve, scale and transform any wall that may threaten to permanently confine us. Walls like: disappointment, failure, addiction, poverty, fear, heartbreak, prejudice, and any number of traumas we encounter as we live our lives.

If we are human, it’s pretty hard to avoid one or all of these things — no matter our life circumstances.

That is why a large part of the HOC Mural Project’s vision was to form an unlikely union between two groups of people in two very different life circumstances.  

Instruction with Sara Brown

One group would be considered to be privileged, celebrated for their skills and the social and technological contributions they will make to our country and even the world. The other, once back in society, will have a great deal to face and overcome, including stigma and a sense of alienation, in order to establish a life that is secure and settled, productive, and healthy.

And yet, put these two groups together in this room to learn together how to make what you see before you, and what lies between them is no division, only respect, camaraderie, and friendship.

Group photo MIT and HOC

My role in this project was small. I thought of having the women here paint a mural long ago, and I made the first overture to MIT. Other than that, I pretty much just stood around; and while standing around, I couldn’t help but observe. And this is what I saw:

I saw an immediate bond develop between Mijin and Sokhee, created not only by a common purpose but by a common language.

I saw and heard everyone express admiration and respect for Johanna’s portrait of mother and child, and I saw Johanna glow with new-found confidence in herself as an artist.

Painting the mural

I saw admiration and respect for Yahaira’s leadership, and the patience and perseverance that she and Jennifer brought to the two full weeks they worked together to perfectly execute the leaves on the tree.

I saw the moment that Allison, urged on by everyone’s encouragement, broke through her hesitation to put paint to canvas. I saw Lesley and Farrah, Norma and Graciane let go of self-doubt to engage whole-heartedly in every aspect of the experience. Along with the creative work, they often took on the less romantic yet equally important task of prep work and clean up.

Painting the mural

I saw the group’s dependence on Taylor and Johanna’s ability to make the sky, and dependence on how all the MIT students effortlessly measured and strung the grids that showed everyone where to place each image.

 I watched how everyone arrived each day to immediately plunge in and work without a break (unless there was pizza and doughnuts) until it was time to go.

And I saw everyone, without exception, contribute his or her individual strengths to a single purpose and goal — in no way motivated by ego or the need for individual recognition.

Practice leaves

And I have to mention Yinka. Yinka’s candle, the image she suggested be in the design and the image that perfectly depicted Yinka’s spirit, one that brought her to come and work cheerfully on this mural just a few hours before she knew she would be deported to Nigeria and separated, perhaps permanently, from her husband and two young sons. Yinka’s optimism and courage and faith was an example to us all, and I believe we will always think of that candle as the symbol of the light Yinka brought to our lives.

Design work

So again, there was no wall at all between the individuals who made this work of art. And because they experienced that unity in a tactile and visceral way, they will disperse what they learned here throughout their lives, and I hope influence those who might see only division where there is unity and only difference where there is always commonality.

This may just have been this project’s greatest achievement of all.

I am proud to have been part of this institution, the Suffolk County House of Correction, and to have witnessed two very different institutions cooperate and collaborate to make all of this happen, spurred by a common belief in the value of art to heal, unify, and inspire.

Group photo
MIT Mural, Installed Feb. 1 2019

Funding for this project was provided by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Office of the Vice Chancellor and The Council for the Arts at MIT.

About the guest contributor:

Peggy Rambach M.A., M.F.A., is the author of several books and is recognized primarily as a writer, though she has become intensely devoted to pastel.  She has studied with local pastel artists and is otherwise, self-taught. She has taught as a non-benefit employee at Suffolk County House of Correction since 2008.
Along with her work in Corrections, Ms. Rambach has taught in healthcare, in social service centers, and in the Medical Humanities. She has received grants and fellowships from the Schwartz Center, the Massachusetts Cultural Council, The Massachusetts Literacy Foundation, and the Yaddo and MacDowell artist colonies. Ms. Rambach is also a featured artist in the documentary film: The Healing Arts, New Pathways to Health.