AHA! A House for Arts

S7 E9 | CLIP

AHA 709 | Laurie M Tisch Educator Sunny Ra

Sunny Ra is the Laurie M Tisch Educator for K-12 and Community Programs at the Tang Teaching Museum in Saratoga Springs. Part of the outreach mission of the Tang, Sunny directly engages with students at area schools, exposing young minds to art of all kinds. What did Sunny learn from working with local students?

AIRED: September 14, 2021 | 0:10:26
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I'm really interested in your role,

Sunny, doing community outreach,

working with K through 12 education.

So tell us a bit about your role at the Tang.

- Yes, so in my role at the Tang,

I work with K through 12 audiences,

both inside the classroom and outside of the classroom.

Sometimes they come visit me at the Tang Museum itself,

and I also work with different community organizations

like libraries, and different social service organizations,

that support K through 12 students.

And I also work with Skidmore faculty to collaborate

and introduce disciplinary learning

for workshops at the museum as well.

So, I work with a wide variety of students.

- I wanna come back to your experiences with K through 12

in just a minute,

I know you work a lot with local schools,

which is awesome, but tell us a little bit about your work

with Skidmore students,

because I understand that they get like really involved.

- Sure, one of the important experiences I've had thus far

at Skidmore working with Skidmore students

is the collaboration I did with the dance department.

And we work with Bridges,

which is a local organization in Saratoga

that works with adults

with cognitive and developmental challenges.

And the professor Sarah DiPasquale,

she asked me to collaborate with her students

in working with Bridges and creating a dance movement

with the participants of Bridges and using an artwork,

a June Snyder painting as a catalyst for ideas

and thinking and discussion.

- And its right there in the space, correct?

- Yes. - But they're with

the painting or the work by Snyder.

- Yes. - I have that right, yeah.

- Yes, and we installed a painting in one of our spaces

and we had a really nice conversation

about what they're seeing and why,

what kind of things and ideas are popping in their head

and the Skidmore students in the class

use those ideas and the language

and the words that they used to describe the piece

and creating the movement

that they were later performed at the museum.

- Oh, that's amazing.

So, what's your approach then

when you're entering that K through 12 realm instead,

'cause now we understand what some of the students

at Skidmore are doing.

What have you encountered

when you've worked with K through 12 students?

Have they done or said anything that's surprised you,

maybe give an example of that?

- Yes, sure.

So, we work with a lot of different artworks

in our permanent collection, as well as our exhibitions.

And so, I generally bring an artwork and art piece

that students get to look at and talk about their ideas

and create an inspired art project.

So, a lot of the ideas from kids

are from throughout the capital region

are very, very different and diverse.

And some of the surprises have been like

when I worked with artwork with Hassan Hajjaj.

- The Moroccan photographer.

- Yes.

It's a very vibrant piece

and there's a lot of things happening in that piece.

And so, I've had some kids say,

"Oh, I see myself, I see my family.

I'm from Northern Africa and the colors,

the textiles, and the skin tone

of the figure reminds me of home and my family."

And then we have a rich cultural exchange of ideas.

They ask me where I'm from and where my family is from

and things like that.

And it could be a really beautiful thing.

And then also, if there's another experience I've had

in a different school, in a different location

where students say, wait, this is a artist

from Northern Africa, from Morocco,

how can this figure be from Africa?

Africa is poor.

So you get a wide range

of us sometimes challenging responses,

but it informs me of how I can better support

the schools, the students in their learning experience.

- Yeah, so you're able to challenge

some students' expectations

of what they might see,

for instance, when they look at a piece of photography

from an African photographer

and they totally defies their expectations.

- Yes. - But they also

opens up dialogue to talk about,

okay, well, what does that mean?

What is Africa?

And how is it not a country.

And things like that.

But I'm sure are really enriching,

and it's nice to sound like there's that space

for students to be able to do that without judgment,

but to also kind of critically challenge themselves too.

- Yes, so I think if we create a space of learning

and unlearning, and I think that's really important.

- So, I'm curious to kind of know

a little more about your painting

as it relates to the work you do,

because it sounds like the work you do

at the Tang is so people-focused.

And then when I look at your works as an artist,

like your paintings have no human figures in them at all,

I think there's no people

and I know that might sound simplistic,

but I'm just so curious in that contrast,

where do you find the inspiration

to create works such as these.

- So my work is derived from my experience

of growing up as a Korean-American woman in Kentucky.

My parents immigrated here in the mid-70s.

And so, it was sort of thinking

about my identity as a Korean American woman,

but also as just like an American in Kentucky.

So, my experience of not feeling quite American,

I was actually told that I'm not American growing up.

And I was like, "What does that mean?"

And what does it mean to be American?

And it's something I continue to think about,

I think, as a country we think about.

And then also not feeling quite Korean,

like my Korean, my speaking is pretty poor.

My understanding of the culture

is somewhat just what my parents have taught me

and what our home life is like.

So it was like living in this kind of a middle ground,

this transient-space.

- It's like you're in limbo, right?

- Yeah, absolutely.

So my paintings

are about this experience of feeling

not quite in one place or another,

sort of being in a middle ground.

So I thought of the American landscape

as getting in your car on the road

as this kind of space where I'm thinking

about these different challenging identity issues.

And so, that's where the abstraction comes into play.

It's a bit about the remnants of the human experience.

And I think a lot of people can connect to that experience,

especially for families who have immigrated here

and thinking about who they are.

- So, I wanna talk actually more about Kentucky,

'cause you mentioned you're originally from there

and you've worked in an art and healing program in Kentucky.

Is that right?

- Yes, that's correct.

- What other kind of work did you do there

and how did art play a role in healing

when you were working there?

- Yeah, so I coordinated schedules

with professional artists,

local artists in the area and global

to bring arts and healing

into different healthcare settings.

So I watched musicians, visual artists,

performers, writers bring their art form

into different spaces such as VA hospitals

or social service groups,

which work with kids who have been abused and neglected

and pulled from their homes,

or women who were transitioning

through opioid addiction as well

and these residential rehabilitation programs.

And I saw how art became a catalyst

for them to sort of process their traumas

and how to kind of transform

or maybe even piece together their lives

from these traumatic events and experiences.

- This is really interesting, Sunny,

because we've been having so many discussions

in our society recently about public health,

particularly as it pertains to COVID,

we've got this Delta Variant coming through.

It's quite threatening.

But oftentimes, I think we talk about public health

in terms of you've got a disease

and you fix it with medicine.

- But what I'm kind of hearing from you

and actually what I've seen,

I've seen large organizations

coming out with studies over the past 10 years

that show that doing dance,

making paintings, writing,

or whatever that may be

is it can actually help promote public health

on a more holistic level.

Would you agree with something like that?

And maybe give an example

of how you've seen that really play out for people.

- Absolutely.

I think art, it builds community and it builds connection,

I think, especially during COVID.

That's something that I think we all kind of are thinking

about is our disconnection with one another

and sort of lack of community and bonding.

And that's been really, I think, an important thing

that's kind of made us maybe become more aware of.

And I think from my experience

of seeing art as a healing tool,

for instance, I worked with a social group

that worked with kids

who just experienced something traumatic,

and they're trying to figure out

where to place them during this turbulent time.

And this one little girl came in the middle of our workshop

while the artist is playing music on their guitar.

And so, their kind of project, I guess,

is to kind of draw, listening to the music,

what inspires, and what moves, and how they're feeling

at that present moment.

And the little girl first grabbed a black crayon

on a piece of paper.

She drew very small in the corner.

And then after a while near the end of the hour,

she started drawing with a pink and a more vibrant color

and she filled the page.

So for me, that was very poignant.

The fact that she kind of went from one little corner

to being more expansive in her expression.

And that's one example.

And another is a peer support group

for veterans dealing with mental health challenges,

the peer support group leader,

when he was told that he was going to lead

a art group was very reticent.

And he was like, very nervous and was like,

"I don't know if I like this."

And then after a few months

of having trouble connecting art to healing

and helping other veterans heal through their trauma,

he started to say, "Okay, what if we start to ceramics?

Why don't we start doing quilting?"

He was getting very excited

because he found that he was feeling an improvement

in his health and connecting with the other veterans,

even though they didn't wanna talk

about some of the things

that aren't making kind of,

was put in place for that conversation,

and it allows for that kind of moment of togetherness.

- Wow, so it sounds like the young girl

and some of these veterans,

I'm thinking of these examples, it sounds like the process

of making art and kind of pushing yourself

out of your comfort zone,

it's about kind of not conquering your fear,

but doing something along with your fear

that is courageous.

That is something that, oh, wow,

I never thought I had that in me

or I never thought I would do something like that.

And here are these people

just kind of organically coming out.

It just sounds like

that really is the definition of healing.

- Absolutely.

- Well, Sunny, it was such a pleasure

having you on A House For Art.

Thank you so much. - Thank you for having me.

Thank you for having me.

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