Lea Cook, Laura Adasko Lenzner Artist-in-Residence 2019

Lea Cook, artist-in-residence, works with the 11/12s
Lea Cook, artist-in-residence, works with the 11/12s

For nearly 20 years, the Laura Adasko Lenzner Fund in Celebration of Children and Art at Bank Street has supported an annual Artist-in-Residence program at Bank Street School for Children. Laura Adasko Lenzner was a passionate artist and School for Children parent who was educated at the Art Students League in Manhattan and Mills College in Oakland, CA. Her work has been shown at the Blue Mountain Gallery in SoHo, the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, and the Elaine Benson Gallery in Bridgehampton, New York.

Since 2000, the Artist-in-Residence program has sponsored an artist who works with the 11/12s in a specific medium, such as pop-up books, Manga, and puppetry, among others. As a bonus, the artist leads School for Children faculty in a workshop, which is always a highlight of the school year for them.

Lea Cook, 4/5s Associate Teacher at Bank Street School for Children and graduate student in Bank Street’s Early Childhood General and Special Education master’s degree program, was selected to be the 2019 Laura Adasko Lenzner Artist-in-Residence.

Cook originally didn’t think she’d have the time. But one of her fellow Bank Street teachers urged her to consider.

“Maria Richa encouraged me and it worked out. Because I’m working and in graduate school, I don’t have much time to do my own artwork. But, I love teaching and supporting children. This was a way that I could bring my artwork into the school and work with children.”

Maria Richa, art teacher in the School for Children, spoke about the process of choosing the right artist for the 11/12s. “Every year we look for an artist that will help support our work and expand upon the learning that the children are doing. What we want for the 11/12s is an artist who can express the idea of narrative, telling stories, and telling stories with emotion and intent. Lea was the perfect match in that she creates visual expressions that change the way that stories are told and the way that people see images.”

Cook’s artist-in-residency started with teaching the School for Children teachers. She began a faculty meeting with a blob of clay in her hands. Within a minute, the blob had eyes, a nose, and a mouth. Teeth, eyelids, and a chin were added, along with ears. Her fingers poked, prodded, and pulled the clay as the faculty, transfixed, were itching to get their own blob people started.

“We were putty in her hands,” said one faculty member. “Some of us even produced faces that approached being human. Lea explained that making mistakes, or “messing up” is just fine.”

During the workshop, Cook explained, “The big difference between how children and adults learn is that kids just dive right in. They are mostly exploring the material before they want to make something. I have adults who come in and want to make something right away but if it’s not turning out how they thought it would, they want to stop.”

She added, “I always want to be encouraging because you can have happy mistakes all the time. There are  imperfections in the world. Those can be embraced and enjoyed. I tell people that all the time. In my own art, I don’t like to worry too much about imperfections.”

Before introducing the students to the clay, Cook explained, “Exploration is part of the beauty of working with a new material. Once you know things about the material and the properties of it, you can do anything. But you need to be able to enjoy it and experience it to get all of that.”

The 11/12s were just as enthusiastic about working with clay as the teachers were, and created magnificent and unique faces with a variety of expressions. The kids also visited Cook’s studio to see different types of clay and tools, besides hands.

“Hands are important but tools are really interesting,” Cook said. “There’s one called a rib. When humans started working with clay so long ago, they used all the parts of animals for some purpose: the fur for clothing, the meat for eating, and the rib bones for working with clay. It’s useful to see these different tools that have been used for thousands of years!”

In short, Cook’s love of working with clay is contagious—perfect for an Artist-in-Residence.

So what’s next for Lea?

“I do want to focus on my own work, too, being an artist and educator. I want to put out representations of Brown and Black children doing just ordinary things. Some of my family is West Indian and Caribbean so I want to show dialect difference in my work. I have a lot in the works!”

To see Lea’s work, check out her website, leacook.com, and her Instagram, @LDC_ART.