Sometimes it’s bunnies, and sometimes it’s leprechauns and four leaf clovers.
As the seasons change, so does the nearly 8-foot mural outside Amalgamated Nursery School. And with each passing month Lucy Degidon breathes new art at the school — something she’s been doing for the past five years.
“The mural is like an extension of the community,” said Lisa Wenz, the nursery school’s director.
Before Degidon, the mural was simply nursery announcements and smaller projects completed by the school’s children. When summer hit, the bulletin board was blank. And it was that empty space that pushed Degidon to fill it with something more — her art.
Not that she talked to Wenz first.
It had only been the past decade Degidon discovered colors in her artwork, previously simply drawing without it. As a child, German artist Käthe Kollowitz inspired Degidon with her lithography designs — a method of printing based on oil and water.
Degidon took a page from Banksy’s book — post the art at the Amalgamated school with an air of mystery.
“My first drawing was over the summer, and I didn’t tell anybody,” Degidon said. “It was still there when I came back from vacation, and I figured I better take it down because the school was back.”
But it was too late. Building residents had not only seen it, they liked it. So did Wenz who tracked down Degidon. Together the women arranged for Degidon’s murals to be a regular event, making her the nursery school’s artist-in-residence.
It returned Degidon to education, something that was part of her past as an art teacher at various schools around the city.
“I like the art of drawing and collage, and I mostly like to do people and animals so I’m not a landscape painter,” Degidon said. Her first unofficial mural for the preschool was of a steam train with kids in it.
The school is within the Amalgamated Housing Co-operative, and was one of the first endeavors of the Amalgamated workers union soon after founding the co-op in 1922. That makes the nursery school a special part of the Orloff Avenue community, and after 27 years as director, Wenz has seen those benefits first hand.
“With the community, I get to know grandparents, parents and families,” she said. “When our children leave the school, we still get to see them and watch them grow, and we maintain a long-term relationship with families. These long-term relationships, it’s really something much more.”
The preschoolers are artists in their own right, but like many young children, they lack representational vision, Wenz said. What they draw doesn’t always come across as what they see.
However they do notice the slight nuances of the mural when Degidon adds children or animals to the piece. It never takes long for her to update the artwork, and when she creates new murals, she usually completes them at home on a long piece of paper and then brings them back to the school to be pinned onto the bulletin board.
The mural is located in the basement of the building where there is a lot of traffic, not just from the children, but also Amalgamated residents traversing from one residential building to the other.
Wenz makes an effort to celebrate the process in creating the mural rather than the mural itself. Like Degidon, the children create collages and paint. But they do it with their fingers, exploring many ways of painting without a brush.
After Degidon replaces her mural, she rolls up the old one and carefully places it in her closet or in her art studio that’s a block away from the co-op.
Although she no longer teaches children, Degidon makes time to create artists out of senior citizens at the JASA Senior Center. She is writing a non-fiction book about a wheelchair-bound woman who visits the center with her aids, who happen to be dancers. Degidon’s illustrations are done, but not the writing.
Working with seniors is rewarding to Degidon because she believes there is a creative spirit in everyone, but sometimes people are taught to outgrow that magic.
“It’s unfortunate that some people lose that,” Degidon said. “I find that a lot of seniors have artistic talent, but they’ve never had a time to express it because they got busy with life. But in my class, their art comes out. I enjoy children, but my work with seniors has been really positive.”
Degidon also lives in the Amalgamated, and as a retired art teacher, appreciates the opportunity to scratch her imaginative itch and child-like sentiment.
“I kind of think like a child,” Degidon said. “I’ve managed to keep my creative spirit.”