Nina Marie Barbuto uses art to build confidence…and community

Abby Mendelson writes about Nina Marie Barbuto and the learning parties at Assemble, where people come to have fun and learn-by-doing, in the Pittsburgh City Paper.

Abby Mendelson writes about Nina Marie Barbuto and the learning parties at Assemble, where people come to have fun and learn-by-doing, in this City Paper article.

Things are a bit frantic at Assemble this Wednesday afternoon. It’s about 4 p.m., and with the neighborhood kids due to arrive in 30 minutes, six twentysomethings bustle about the reclaimed Garfield storefront, setting up art stations, putting carpet squares on the floor, filling bowls with snacks. One fellow is sent lickety-split to the nearby Family Dollar for Post-Its, which will shortly be scattered about the room, as people register their thoughts, reactions, observations.

Supervising, directing, suggesting, Nina Marie Barbuto hands a container of juice boxes to a young woman. “I like to make things happen,” Barbuto says. “I see myself as a catalyst.” A sly smile. “An instigator.”

She’s an instigator, all right. With a résumé that stretches around the block — it includes experience in everything from architecture to technology, handmade crafts to art installations — she’s the resident genie for this community-oriented arts program. Today’s Learning Party, subtitled “Building Confidence Through Making,” is for visual arts: drawing in its various forms.

“It’s experiential learning,” Barbuto says. “People finding the tools to help themselves.”

Garfield, a monumentally diverse neighborhood, seems perfectly suited for such goings-on. Assemble is wedged next to the Thomas Merton Center; it looks across Penn Avenue towards a new-age facade for Little Angels Child Care, an old-style barber shop, the Place of Refuge Ministries and Bartlett Products, distributor of drilling and fastening devices.

Helping Barbuto help Garfield is what she calls “a salad of people who do drawing.” They are professional artists, CMU students, Carnegie Museum of Art instructors, Science Center folks. All wear first-name name tags. No one, including Barbuto, draws a salary.

Bustling about the room, she appears deeply stressed about the apparent anarchy. “Hey, Nina,” a tall, slender fellow offers en passant, “we have it all under control.”

An artist comes in with a lovely framed watercolor, but Barbuto puts her off with a gesture. The painting is nice, but now it’s time to put the animal crackers into bowls.

And apparently not even a sudden, off-season hail shower can deter the truly determined from coming. The door bursts open, and a few dozen 12-and-unders swirl into the room.

Over here, Sam has finished taping a 6-by-10-foot piece of brown paper to the wall, raw material for an emerging mural. Within nanoseconds, two exuberant 10-year-old boys begin to draw, sky, sun, clouds.

Over there, Paula leads Drawing with Words. “This is words and writing and drawing all together,” Paula explains, then shows how words can make the shapes of things — people, for example. “It’s drawing with language.” Nodding, pre-teen Tyneisha dutifully draws her name, using multicolored letters decorated with filigrees.

On her knees on a carpet square, meanwhile, Juliet twists small wire sculptures, putting them in a small, covered space. She then has the students shine a flashlight on them. Shadows swirl across the back wall into fantastic shapes — to the kids’ delight. Taking turns, they manipulate the wires, then watch the shadows create an infinite variety of designs on the white wall. Encouraged to describe what they see, they begin to tell stories.

Next to Juliet, a young boy coaxes designs out of a touch-screen, then watches as the images are projected onto the wall. “Yeah,” he grins, making the lines shower down like slalom skiers.

On Sam’s big, brown mural, UPMC has magically appeared to dominate the landscape. Instead of windows, the children have drawn kittens. Instead of the familiar rusty COR-TEN steel, UPMC’s Downtown office tower is a more aesthetically pleasing sky blue.

Next to the building one wag has parsed “UPMC: U Paint My Cat.”

As children narrate their landscapes, Sam paints in the words: “This guy got to this mountain on a secret, invisible ladder.” “This dog was trying to get down the mountain so he could go home.”

Across the room, a young boy dabs water color on a white sheet. Suzanne fills in some shapes. His colors play an exquisite counterpoint to her lines. It’s hard to tell who’s having more fun.

Are they learning anything?

“I would hope so,” Barbuto says, ticking points off on her fingers: “Science. Technology. Art. Engineering. Math. It’s a learning party. Parties aren’t supposed to be structured.”

She looks around at the chaos. “It’s an explosion. And I think people are pretty engaged.”

Post-Its on the door, in fact, serve as a kind of exit poll.

“I learned that I can draw!”

“Loved the different activities.”

“You learn every moment of your life,” Barbuto says. “This is a place where you add to your experiences.”

Read the full article at City Paper Last Word

Published June 20, 2012