10 Questions With Art Aware Founder Barbara Pfeiffer

Each winter season, artist, educator and Camden resident, Barbara Pfeiffer, brings dead tree branches to life by painting them with elegant, frosty colors to usher in the season. For some, it may seem frivolous to put color and life into what is dead. But for Barbara, nothing – not even the City of Camden – should be considered lifeless or hopeless.

Pfeiffer's community art has attracted many young adults who she has taught throughout the City of Camden. Each project represents a broader scope of her perspective of living in Camden, a city that she insists receives unfair criticism and publicity. She sees the city as a moving piece of art, and for the past few years, Camden has been her canvas.

Pfeiffer is the founder and former director of Art Aware, a group that serves inner city students in Camden, New Jersey. We talked with her about her art projects through the program.

What inspired you to be an artist?

I grew up in Manhattan and was surrounded by art in the city and in my family. I have engaged in many kinds of hands-on art- making but I think teaching in Tokyo, Honolulu, Cherry Hill and Camden makes me best qualified to be called "an artist" because I know how to bring out self-expression in young students. Visual and performing artists have inspired me and especially African American jazz musicians and Romare Bearden and Japanese-American potter, Toshiko Takaezu.  

Why is art education important to inner cities? including the City of Camden?

It is especially important for young children to experience putting their creative mark on a page. Camden City has art teachers in nearly every public, charter and parochial school. When Art Aware volunteers visit classes from K to 8 with reproductions of art from ancient to modern and ask students to draw variations on themes of the art shown, every child knows what to do thanks to the art teachers. Hands-on art, art history and art appreciation give inner city students a window to learning across the curriculum.  

Where did the idea of Art Aware come from?

It is a spin-off from Art Goes to School. But I probably chose the name because of my background:  three years in Japan, seven in Hawaii, ten in Cherry Hill, N.J. and twenty-five in Camden, N.J. where I've learned from many people the value of being constantly "aware" of our natural and man-made surroundings.   

What lead you to start up Art Aware?

When I lived in Cherry Hill, N.J., I volunteered in the regional organization Art Goes to School of the Delaware Valley which brings reproductions of art into suburban elementary schools. I fell in love with the program and wanted to start up my own non-profit to bring a variation of the program to Philadelphia and Camden which has no AGTS chapters. I moved to Camden in 1986 and received a 501(c)3 status for Art Aware shortly afterwards.   

What is the goal/mission of Art Aware? 

The mission of Art Aware is, and always will be, to promote the arts in elementary schools, in communities and, recently, on the Internet.

Describe some Art Aware projects that you’re most proud of and why?

For three years we produced 10,000 copies of calendars of "Camden Students at Peace Doing Art." We are proud of a twenty-five year history of constantly supporting art teachers and displaying children's artwork in places such as Camden City Hall, Cooper Hospital, Camden County libraries, banks, schools, supermarkets, etc. We also took Camden students from nine schools to New York City for a Romare Bearden retrospective at the Whitney Museum (thanks to a Faith Ringgold grant) and to Philadelphia productions of The Lion King. Art Aware has collaborated with AAUW in taking students to the Family Concert subscription series at the Philadelphia Orchestra. A Geraldine Dodge Foundation grant enabled us to take our program to the Philadelphia Museum of Art many times.  We have been in touch with 90% of the Camden elementary school art teachers and produced yearly posters of Camden Students at Peace Doing Art.

How does Art Aware introduce children to world culture through your art program?

Take four reproductions:  one of an Egyptian tomb with hieroglyphics, one of Japanese calligraphy, one of Robert Indiana's Love statue and one of Norman Rockwell's "Triple Self-Portrait."   Talk about Egyptian symbols and Japanese ideographs (that came from China). Children love to see symbols and ideographs that are easily recognizable - a fish for instance. Then talk about our 26 letters of the alphabet and how Indiana made a sculpture out of four letters to form the word "Love."  Finally, bring out the Norman Rockwell image of the artist looking at himself, drawing his image on a canvas.  A first grader, for instance, towards the end of her first year, may look at the four reproductions and choose to draw the letters of "Love," followed by a heart, followed by a picture of herself.  She has just responded to an Art Aware introduction to world culture that includes her own.    

What is the most interesting experience that you have had as an art teacher?

I am exhilarated at seeing what elementary students produce in art class - either Art Aware classes or classes given by other art teachers.
Can you describe the types of classes that your students have engaged in?

A recent year-long exhibition of approximately 1,500 pieces of artwork (assembled in sixty murals) at the Ferry Avenue Branch of the Camden County library best attests to the interaction of students and reproductions of paintings. For example:  A class of twenty-five students responds to creations by Vincent Van Gogh, Faith Ringgold and Victor Vasarely. In the large mural Art Aware put together of the students' work, we see variations of the masters' themes in geometric boxes, sunflowers and a little African American girl and her brother flying over New York City. 

How can art help to reshape the image of Camden?

Art is everywhere in Camden. The problem is that people don't want to be "AWARE" of it. There is a desire to perpetuate the image of Camden as the poorest and most dangerous place to live in the U.S. The crime here is responsible for attracting more crime from Philadelphia and the suburbs. There is the pervasive idea that promoting the worst image of Camden will bring in the most money.  As a long-time resident of Camden City and a constant visitor to all of the schools, I can speak for hundreds of dedicated citizens and teachers who live productive and "art-filled" lives. 

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