August 28, 2019

Profiles in Education — Art Teacher Barbara DiLorenzo: “Art and Creativity are Essential”

GIVING VOICE: Barbara DiLorenzo, author, illustrator, and educator, teaches a variety of different art courses at the Arts Council of Princeton and in New York City, and has published two popular children’s books. (Photo courtesy of Barbara DiLorenzo)

By Donald Gilpin

Barbara DiLorenzo, author, illustrator, and art teacher at the Arts Council of Princeton (ACP) and New York Institute of Art and Design (NYIAD), has no doubts about the significance of her work as an artist and a teacher.

She emphasizes the power of students’ individual “voices,” and she demonstrates the technique and the persuasiveness that develops those voices.

“My teaching work reveals its importance daily,” she said. “As people age, they are afraid to call themselves ‘artists.’ Toddlers and preschoolers proudly announce that they are artists. Elementary school students feel that art is open to everyone. However, by middle school, students take note of who around them can draw realistically, and better than them. If allowed, they will talk themselves out of creative pursuits, mistakenly believing that artistic skill is bestowed magically to a chosen few.”

She went on to explain how she imparts her message and inspiration. “I have a standard soapbox speech that can’t be stopped once I get going,” she said. “I don’t let anyone escape my class without hearing that the more one practices, the better one gets. In the end, the goal isn’t who can draw the best. Instead, it’s who has practiced with that medium enough to allow one’s unique voice to come through. Voice is the goal. There is room at the table for everyone’s voice. Many times clumsy use of a medium clouds one’s voice. But once an artist has command of the tools and knows what to say — wow.”

Author and illustrator of two children’s books, Renato and the Lion (Penguin Random House, 2017) and Quincy: The Chameleon Who Couldn’t Blend In (Little Bee Books, 2018), DiLorenzo discussed the effects of her work. “The bookwork that I do doesn’t impact everyone,” she said. “However, for the misfit artist who connects with Quincy, or the Italian immigrant who connects with Renato, their feedback makes me feel justified in writing books.”

She commented on her current project, which is in a vein more serious than usual for her, a graphic novel about her “turbulent relationship” with her mother. “My hope isn’t resolution with her, but a way to share difficulty with other young readers who may resonate with the themes,” DiLorenzo said. “Although I don’t expect the issues to connect with everyone, I want to bring hope to those who need it.”

A Mother’s Influence

Growing up in Massachusetts, DiLorenzo described her mother as a major influence on the course of her career and her life. “The painful part of my background is that my mother championed much of my artistic learning, yet we have always had a problematic relationship,” she said. “She taught my brother and me how to paint and sculpt when we were kids, and when I was older, she brought me to continuing education classes at the local art college.”

DiLorenzo went on to study illustration at the Rhode Island School of Design and painting at the Art Students League of New York. She received the Dorothy Markinko Scholarship Award from the Rutgers University Council on Children’s Literature in 2014, but communication with her mother, an artist, has been sparse.

“It’s been over a decade since we’ve connected,” she said. “She was a very influential part of my artistic career, and I owe her a tremendous amount of gratitude for what she did give me. I’ve had many excellent teachers over the years, from high school to college to the Arts Students League of New York. However, it’s my mother’s word I sometimes hear coming from my voice when I help a student with their work. The best parts of what she taught me stay with me.” 

A typical week for Di Lorenzo would seem to leave little time for writing and illustration, and she admits that “with a teenager and a toddler at home, I have to be creative to ft in my work.” In New York City at NYIAD two full days a week, Di Lorenzo advises students and grades projects for the creative writing and graphic design courses. “This focus on Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator keeps my technological skills current, and grading creative writing assignments keeps my writing brain engaged,” she said.

At the ACP the rest of the week, DiLorenzo teaches classes in drawing, watercolors, oils, figures, plein air, illustration, and graphic design. She works with young students, tweens, teens, adults, and seniors — with autistic students from Eden Autism on Monday nights, “and a boisterous room full of HomeFront students on Thursday nights.” 

This fall she will be moderating a Teen Lounge program, a free, drop-in weekly session where teens can connect and show or continue their work. DiLorenzo works with seniors at Greenwood House in Ewing, Princeton Young Achievers at the Littlebrook School for Creative Fridays throughout the school year, and a variety of private students in the area.

“I’m always on the go,” she said, “art supplies rumbling around in my car.”

“A Second Home”

But over the past five years, since she moved out of New York City and needed a place “to connect with my fellow creatives,” DiLorenzo has found her base at the ACP. “It’s impossible for me to be objective about a place that feels like a second home,” she said. “I love ACP. Not everything is perfect. We can always improve how we reach artists in different communities and guide the newly creative. But overall, I love walking into a building that starts with the premise that art and creativity are essential. I love seeing other teachers share their love of ceramics and theater, sewing and collage, dance and animation, writing and sculpture, of bookmaking and printmaking.”

She continued, “I love that the staff and volunteers occasionally get to take a class and reveal their creativity. I love seeing children of all cultural and financial backgrounds come together to cheer on a fellow struggling artist. I love seeing students enjoy lightbulb moments, where the concept they were struggling with suddenly becomes clear. I love the magic each creative individual can produce — numerous creative universes all under one roof.”

Memorable Moments

The highlights of Di Lorenzo’s life in art and in the classroom are too numerous to mention. She described the feeling of having work accepted into difficult art shows, winning awards, and getting published. “However, what I love now is reaching a student who doesn’t believe in their work and watching them grow and change and develop into a confident artist.”

She told about a girl in the ArtsExchange program, a collaboration with HomeFront, “who brought a freshly-drawn graphic novel page to me every week. She filled up her sketchbook, and I replaced it for her. She and her twin sister continue to push themselves and create better work all the time. I love etching students a particular lesson, then turning them loose to apply the concept to their ideas. Seeing the abundance of creativity in people makes me believe we are all artists at heart — some just need more practice to hone the technical skills.”

DiLorenzo, a member of the New England Watercolor Society and the Society of Illustrators and president of the Children’s Book Illustrators Group of New York, lives in Hopewell with her husband and two children. Her plans for herself and the art program at ACP show no signs of slowing down. “My hope for ACP is that it continues to grow programs for people who feel art is out of reach for them,” she said. “The world would be a better place with more practicing artists.”