Making Art: Anita Sidler | Teachers College Columbia University

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Making Art: Anita Sidler

“I make art because I feel the need to do it,” says Anita Sidler, a graduate of the Art and Art Education Master of Arts program at Teachers College. Art has always been an escape for Anita. “I had kind of a rough childhood so my little escape zone was to draw a lot.” Anita’s parents divorced when she was young, and her mother moved her and her brother from her father’s native Switzerland to her mother’s home of California. Her mother became a teacher and taught Chinese language and watercolor. Anita spent all her free time in her mom’s studio assisting her with teaching younger kids and taking some of the Chinese and watercolor classes. She was always around art and art teaching.

As Anita got older, she began struggling in the California public school system, so her mom saved up money to send her to Interlochen Art Academy, an art boarding school in northern Michigan. Anita was able to thrive there, focusing on making art while also taking her math, science and other core classes. Being able to concentrate on making art in school provided the drive Anita needed to succeed. “Even though classes there were way harder than they were in the public school, I felt like I had a reason to do it, so I worked three times harder than anybody else.” She speaks of her high school fondly. “It was beautiful. Four hours of art making every day. It was out in the middle of nowhere in nature. It was a glorious place.”

Anita graduated high school and moved around a bit, trying out art college and moving to New York, looking for the best fit for her. She ended up studying art at the University of Michigan, which was a huge state school, in many ways the very opposite of a small arts school. She loved it. “I loved meeting people from all sorts of backgrounds and people studying different things. I felt like it was a more appropriate place for someone like me who has a bunch of different backgrounds too.” She loved her time there, but graduated feeling a little lost, “as most people who graduate from making art are,” she says, smiling.

Her mom suggested Anita go to graduate school for hotel management because she thought she could make money doing that. “I got there and just thought, oh my god this is so boring. I just knew it wasn’t for me. I missed making art and being around people who cared about arts and culture.” She left that program pretty quickly and moved again to New York. She started out nannying, which came pretty naturally to her because she had worked with kids most of her life. A parent she met while nannying worked at an after-school program in the West Village and encouraged Anita to come teach for the program. She thought it sounded like a good opportunity, so she started to teach.

She began with assisting one class and ended up teaching four classes a week. “It really snowballed into something awesome.” At this program, Anita was able to see what was happening at the school and what teaching in public schools might look like. “I couldn’t quite verbalize at that point what was happening, but I knew there was something there. I got really into education and then decided to focus on teaching more.” She quit nannying and became a substitute teacher in NYC public schools, working in two elementary schools, sometimes covering a specials class, working at the library, and occasionally teaching art classes. “Anything I could get my hands on, I was doing.”

She was hooked. “Who knew I would become my mother, but here I am.”

Anita knew that if she was serious about becoming an art teacher, she would need to go back to school. This fact was daunting, but she buckled down and applied to three schools. She never imagined she would get into Teachers College, but when she did she just knew she had to go here. “I visited and just walking down the halls of TC, I felt like I was in a castle. It was amazing, and I wanted to be here and learn. I knew I couldn’t pass it up. It was just too good of an opportunity.” Her first day here was just as good as she expected. She found the environment to be caring and nurturing and a really great place to grow.

Anita says she fell in love with all the professors right away. She found Dr. Mary Hafeli particularly inspiring, because of the way she listens to her students. Her entire persona made Anita want to be a teacher. Dr. Olga Hubard was another professor who Anita loved. “She gave me a really new perspective of talking about art and thinking about art.” Anita says that all her professors modeled the way a teacher should be. Everything was centered around the student and being open to their experience and really listening to what they have to say. Dr. Ami Kantawala, who taught the history of art education, was another star professor for Anita. “I had never really thought about where art education started or how they’ve changed. Our own buildings at TC have this history with art education. Ami really pushed us to write and research and not be afraid of that. Because a lot of us have art backgrounds, many of us thought ‘oh that’s not my strong suit. I can’t write!’ But she was really supportive and encouraged us to find something interesting and write about it.”

With this encouragement, Anita was motivated to submit several conference session proposals to the National Art Education Association (NAEA) annual national convention, and she did three presentations. “I would never have thought of even doing it if it wasn’t for [Dr. Kantawala] encouraging us to do it. And of course, all of the professors came. It just feels so great when they come to your lecture.”

Anita was also surprised to be able to create a lot of her own art and spend time in the studio in addition to traditional academic classes. She spread her studio coursework out over three semesters so that she could have that mental break, and escape into her own creations in the midst of studying and paper writing. She chose to take printmaking and ceramics. Anita has an extensive background in printmaking, but chose to approach the class as something fresh and new. “I was excited to be back in the studio making a lot of prints. They taught us how to do Japanese woodcuts, so we did a lot of those and it was very nature inspired. I was really trying to approach learning these techniques as if I had never learned them before, just because everybody has a different way of teaching it. So even though I already know how to carve a woodblock and I know how to print it and all that, I was really trying to see how people teach it differently so that maybe I will absorb it differently and in a way that I can use in my own teaching.”

Anita approached ceramics with the same attitude, but with more trepidation. “I’ve taken ceramics multiple times in my life and it’s always kind of been a bit of a failure for me. It just doesn’t like me back. I always think it’s gonna be a good idea, and it never is.” However, her experience at TC was totally different and she was blown away by how much she loved it. “I think because I was approaching the studio as if I don’t know anything and being like a kid in the experience, ceramics really changed for me. I became obsessed with it. I was in there all the time. I ended up doing it a second time over the summer and then I even became part of the community ceramics program that summer and fall. It became my little meditation zone of just building things with clay, nothing fancy. Eventually, I was able to make things that actually kind of looked nice.”

Upon her graduation from TC, Anita was lucky enough to be hired at one of the schools, a high school, where she did her student teaching. “My first year of student teaching, I was in Brooklyn and the cooperating teacher there, Annie Lee, went to TC four years prior. We really hit it off. She had this approach of sort of throwing me to the lions, and I had to just figure it out. At first, it was really scary but I learned so much from just doing it. If something did work she would say, ‘What happened? Let’s be reflective about this. Here are some things I think you should try.” She was just a fantastic mentor and an amazing person.” Later, in Anita’s second placement, her first mentor teacher called her up, told her she was making a career change, and she wanted to Anita to take her place as the art teacher. Anita was thrilled. “There is something about high schoolers that I really love. They’re independent enough and they are ready for this extra layer of challenge that I was really into. And I have a pretty strong drawing background, which I felt would have gone to waste if I didn’t work with high schoolers. They are always talking about how they want to achieve realism or whatever, and I’m like ‘Great! I actually know how to teach you how to do that.’”

Upon reflecting on her journey to where she is now, Anita feels grateful and compassionate towards her younger self, and to those who are also trying to figure out what they want to spend their lives doing. “Everybody kind of knows instinctively what they want to do but they’re afraid to see it. Take a break. See the world. I took four years between undergrad and grad school, and I wouldn’t have known that I want to do art education if I hadn’t done all those things. You’ll know on your own. Don’t be afraid to take your time to get there. Everybody has a different path, and I don’t regret anything I did. For me, I needed to do all that grunt work before I knew what I wanted to do. I think it’s just the passage of life.”

One thing she loves about teaching art is that she is constantly getting to be involved in the making of art. Her students draw, make prints, etc., and she loves being part of that process. “My hands are always doing something,” she says. Anita sees herself working at this school for the foreseeable future. As she is perfecting and getting into the rhythm of teaching, it is allowing her more free time to continue her own art-making as well.

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