5 Questions: Christine Spehar teaches students about art and sustainability

Christine Spehar (right) with students | Nathan Solis

By Nathan Solis

Christine Spehar is surrounded by a Lincoln Heights classroom of 7th graders and tiny circles representing Earth. The children are making posters to ask people in their community to clean up after themselves. Spehar’s non-profit organization, Ruckus Roots, wants to blend art and environmentalism in the classroom, bringing creativity to schools with struggling arts programs. Today she’s at Academia Avance housed in the Lincoln Heights Boys and Girls Club. Due to budget cuts, English teacher Jill McCafee is doubling as art instructor, along with Spehar and a few other aides. The children are beaming because Spehar drives home the concept of having a clean community and of art with a purpose. They ask her questions about water and grass, how colors should blend.

Spehar wants to make critical thinkers out of the children, to show them that the term environment is not some vague concept. “There really is a push to get arts back into schools,” said Spehar. “Often times though those schools are looking at programs like ours for that push.”

Was there an environmentally conscious culture where you grew up?
I wouldn’t say that. Glendale wasn’t particularly sustainable when I was growing up in the ’80s and ’90s. And I don’t think it was the biggest factor when I was growing up. I attribute all of that to my sister, who is a primatologist who had a field site in Borneo. I went with her once and she was a real inspiration for me. She kind of inspired my whole family at a young age. We just all got into environmentalism and trying to be better to our planet. Other than that I had a normal life.

How do art and environmentalism work together?
Art provides an emotional connection, at least for myself anyways. If we could bridge those two, more young people would get involved in environmentalism and sustainable communities.

What gets students the most motivated?
I think what gets them the most excited is working with artists that they admire. So a lot of times they see the past works that artists might have done and that gets the students really excited. I think another thing that gets them excited is that art can be collaborative and something bigger than what they’re used to. They’re proud of something they can show their fellow students and the community. A lot of times students are tentative, but over time they’re on board.

So when you say art with a purpose, do you have something specific in mind?
Mainly to have students think of their work as an artistic metaphor. How they can raise awareness in their community using recycled materials for their projects. We’ll do a cleanup of their campus or ask them to bring in materials from home, so they’re cleaning up their home. But the purpose comes from the collaborative effort of putting together a project that might say something about their community.

What has been the reaction from the schools that you’ve dealt with so far?
It’s been really positive. It’s sort of a difficult program to get schools to say ‘yes’ to. It’s so different because it involves unconventional methods in creating art. But the schools that we have worked with are really open to it. Word is spreading. There is a lot of demand because a lot of schools can’t afford art programs. We really think that art is important for a student’s future. There are all these benefits that students will receive, better test scores, better civic engagement, more likely to go to college all from arts education.

I first had this grandiose view of helping out the world. I was going to travel the country in a biodisel bus. But once I moved back to L.A., I realized that wasn’t feasible, or sustainable, and there was actually a need for art programs for schools.

Nathan Solis is a Highland Park resident who writes about and photographs the L.A. music scene. You can find more of Solis stories, reviews and photos at Smashed Chair.

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