Working from home, this NYC art teacher has students rethinking what they need to create a masterpiece

With schools closed and lessons moved online, Bronx high school art Larry Minetti has transformed his dining room into an art studio. From there, he’s teaching his Fordham Leadership Academy students video lessons about topics such as self-portraits. “We went ‘live’ several evenings and had a blast working with the face, practicing together,” said Minetti, a Bronx native who has taught art for 26 years. 

His students also have been recreating iconic artworks with household objects, from piles of clothes to tubs of peanut butter. “My students learned that they can be creative from scratch and express themselves through various items that are not considered ‘normal’ for producing art,” said Minetti, who spoke recently with Chalkbeat about what it’s like to teach visual art amid the coronavirus pandemic. He also suggested an at-home art project that parents and teens can do together.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What are the challenges (and benefits) of teaching art remotely?

The main challenge for teaching art remotely is taking into consideration what is available in my students’ homes. We are not in my classroom. They can’t open up a cabinet and take out a gallon of Cadmium Red or Ultramarine Blue acrylic paints. They can’t rip off a piece of clay from a block and start designing a pinch pot. I cannot assume every student has certain materials. There must be equity, so I work with projects that can be done in basic scenarios. I have to use my imagination. The benefits: Watching my students be as creative as possible with limited use of particular tools.

Tell me about what you are teaching your students now.

For one project, we’re reproducing and recreating a famous work of art using found objects, clothes, etc., in the house. The New York City Department of Education provided several online art resources, where I first saw this assignment. I knew this would be awesome to do because we all have laundry, household items, and various objects in our homes. I turned it into a competition with prizes because I wanted even more motivation and participation going into this. 

I had to create my own example for my students to see. I could’ve gone basic or small but decided to really do it up, so I immediately chose “Starry Night” by Vincent Van Gogh, which is one of my all-time favorite pieces of art. I grabbed my laundry. I grabbed anything I could find to recreate the colors as the masterpiece has incredible yellows and blues throughout. Once I placed down the representation of the village area — with peanut butter, salad dressing, hot cocoa, milk cartons, and other items — I knew I was done. 

My students saw my example. They took it and ran with it. Several used clothing. Several took pictures. Some used technology. One student reproduced a famous still life with a floral piece that happened to be in her home. My students learned that they can be creative from scratch and express themselves through various items that are not considered “normal” for producing art. 

For her project, senior Elizabeth Lee recreated Queen cover art, starring herself. (Courtesy of Elizabeth Lee)

What inspired you to become an art teacher?

I attended high school in the Bronx in the 1980s, when graffiti was booming. I got heavily into the art scene and took classes every single semester during my high school years. I’m a graffiti writer and became obsessed with lettering styles. I was lucky enough to have dynamic teachers who really took an interest in my dedication. I went to the art studios on my lunch periods and any chance I could get. I am so blessed to be working in a field that was always my passion. I involve my students in an array of experiences: acrylic painting, hand-building with clay, custom stencil creations with the use of spray paint, sculpture, and a variety of other mediums.  

What advice would you give parents who are being asked to homeschool their children amid the coronavirus outbreak? 

My advice for parents (and myself, with my own daughters who are homeschooling through this pandemic) is to scale back. Take it down to a level that is realistic and manageable. A ton of work is coming in. Do your best and try to complete the tasks, but take it one step at a time. Take a deep breath and communicate with your teachers, and let them know if there are difficulties and if more time is needed. 

Still life art project, courtesy of Larry Minetti (Courtesy of Larry Minetti)

A lot of the at-home art projects I’m seeing now are geared toward younger children. Any ideas for art projects for older children, such as tweens and teens?

One example is a still life my older daughter did. She is a freshman in high school. The assignment: Every person in my house for her chose a random item. I chose soap, my wife chose Lysol, and my younger daughter grabbed a sponge. We put the three items together and challenged my older daughter to reproduce it. She had a blast and used basic supplies to do the project, such as colored pencils and markers. Getting everyone involved with picking an item is the fun part because each person feels that they had a part. Then we take turns and choose a different family member [to make the art]. 

Do you think this experience we’re all having will give people a better appreciation of what classroom teachers do, day in and day out?

On the second day of remote teaching, friends of mine were jokingly asking if their kids could be transferred out of their classes or what are the rules of homeschool suspensions? It was all jokes, but the reality is people generally were showing a tremendous amount of extra appreciation towards teachers. I feel parents who are not teachers gained a whole new respect for what we do on a daily basis. 

What gives you hope at this moment?

People following the rules of social distancing and pitching in to help others in need really give me hope. We will eventually get through this and the people that are on the front lines as essential workers have my utmost respect and love. Everyone working as a team and following protocol will get us through this. I am looking forward to the day I enter my art studio and see my students. I miss them so much.