Though he does it exceptionally well, Matt Fussell did not envision himself teaching for much of his adolescence. In fact, as the son of two teachers, he actively resisted entering the education field.
It was only after Fussell got a recommendation from his instructor-turned-mentor at his art school that he decided to pursue art education, graduating with his teaching certification and entering a school he would teach at for the next 10 years.
It was at that point that Fussell was able to do something extraordinary. He and his colleagues wrote a grant that awarded their administration $1.5 million so that they could turn that school into a visual and performing arts magnet high school.
Fussell was overjoyed, especially when he got the opportunity to help write a brand new curriculum for the brand new school and later become the lead art teacher for the entire school system, overseeing 120 K-12 art instructors.
While the full conversion of school and its curriculum was underway, Fussell was laying the bricks for his own little empire, long before he even knew that it would become one.
“A little bit before then, I was making videos anyway, because that was something that I enjoyed doing. I created painting videos and drawing videos in my garage and actually called it the ‘Art Garage.’ It was a lot of fun and my students enjoyed getting those DVDs.
“Plus, it was really easy to stand up in front of the class, and when I had a more in-depth demonstration to share with the students, I could just pop in that DVD and they could watch an oil painting developed from start to finish, where you can’t do that in a normal art classroom.”
Fussell posted these same videos onto his new website, which quickly gathered a large and dedicated following. Seeing the success of his website and the impact of his lessons on the greater public, Fussell understood that his career path was going to change.
He stepped down from his Lead Art Teacher position and re-entered the classroom at his magnet school, intending to teach there for a few more years before switching his full-time occupation to making content for his website.
The decision was not an easy one, according to Fussell, but it ultimately paid off.
“I ended up just being in the classroom for one more year and then I went in and quit my job, and that was very scary. That was about seven years ago—the website’s been my full-time job since then.
“Currently, we’ve got people from all over the world that visit. The site gets over 3 million visits a year, and we’ve got a huge number of users in our database that are members or have purchased a course.”
The website turned out to be a hit not only with art students and hobbyists but also with fellow visual art instructors, who Fussell catered to immediately.
He designed a year-long program for visual arts teachers called “The Ultimate Lesson Plan,” which has everything a teacher needs to teach a course, including handouts, examples, and even assessments.
With this dedication to serving the needs of art instructors, it comes as no surprise that Fussell thought of them first when the COVID-19 pandemic broke out.
“Part of being a teacher is sharing. When the pandemic started, I immediately thought of the teachers who were all of a sudden out of the classroom. Many of them are out of their element. They’re having to learn new technologies, and a lot of them depend on what I provide to aid in their instruction.
“I thought, ‘what can I give teachers so they can continue to give content to their students so their students can continue to benefit?’ And immediately I thought of opening up several live lessons series.”
Fussell, who has a popular YouTube channel where he posts art tutorials and relevant videos, posted a video on March 16, announcing that he was making a portion of his members-only courses, which amounted to over 25 hours of art lessons, free for anyone to access.
He specifically mentioned that art teachers could utilize these lessons with their students in order to make distance learning easier.
The response was overwhelming. Many, teachers and art hobbyists alike, were quick to both take advantage of this offer and praise Matt for his generosity and quick thinking.
After all, many teachers were given little time, some as few as two days, to completely readjust their curriculums for distance learning. Matt was overjoyed by the positive reception of his decision.
“It turned out to be a great thing for everyone because people were able to benefit—there’s a lot of people that are stuck at home that aren’t teachers that have all this time on their hands now.
“Under normal circumstances, they like to kind of delay things that might make them happy or passions that they might want to pursue because they’re so wrapped up in work.
“Opening up those lessons for those folks too has helped them realize you only live one life, you only got one chance at this. We shouldn’t have to have a pandemic to make us realize that our lives can be more fulfilling if we just take the time to do the things that make us happy.”
While putting content together, Fussell did his best to think of all the obstacles teachers and students were facing.
He immediately recognized a major issue that many students and teachers would be dealing with: a lack of access to art materials, especially those materials for specialized mediums and tools that students rely on their teachers to supply them with.
Thinking ahead, the live lessons Fussell chose to make available use very basic materials like charcoal, oil pastels, and even things that everyone has around their house, such as pencils, pens, and so on.
This was so that viewers did not need the inventory and materials found within an art studio in order to succeed.
Since he has been a teacher for over 10 years, Fussell understands that there is a general lack of accessibility to both art supplies and art opportunities for many students across America and the world.
“Obviously there are students that you have in a classroom that fall into all different types of economic categories. If they’re on the lower end of the economic scale, that’s not their fault. They deserve to have the same access to the same materials as a student that might be a little bit better off financially.
“So I think that the playing field, as far as art materials go, is definitely leveled when you’re dealing with a student in a physical classroom.”
Fussell also recognizes, however, that there is an increasing lack of accessibility not only to art materials but also in art courses.
As academic budgets become increasingly strained and schools shift their course offerings to prioritize classes that require standardized testing, creative programs such as visual arts, music, and theatre are often the first to be cut.
These changes often occur at the elementary level, depriving hundreds of thousands of young students the opportunity to not only develop a passion for the arts, but also to refine their art skills in an academic setting.
The unfortunate result is that many grow up to see art as a hobby, and not a reasonable means of income. Fussell, of course, takes issue with this.
“If you ask a child what their favorite activity in school is when they’re in first and second grade, a lot of them are going to tell you that it’s drawing or coloring or some form of being creative. As we get older and as we develop, we start to become a little bit more self-conscious.
“We also have adults and people in authority tell us that anything that’s a creative form of expression is not going to lead to financial success, which totally is not true these days!
“If you look at the people who are most successful in the world right now, they are the creative people. They are the innovators. Look at all the apps that we use, all of the websites we visit; all of those things are designed by artists.
“This is a wonderful time to be an artist right now. The people who are cutting the art programs, the people who are making these decisions, just don’t understand how important being creative and being innovative is.”
Despite his valid critique of these curriculum mishaps and the general lack of adequate recognition for the value of art, Fussell is hopeful for the future.
Although the long-term impact of the pandemic on the American public is still hard to predict, many are speculating that life could be changed for years to come.
Some of the biggest concerns right now are school reopening plans for the upcoming academic year, and whether the move to remote teaching will become a more permanent one; at least while the threat of spreading and contracting COVID-19 still looms large.
Fussell believes it is possible that, as more creative programs begin being cut, they should start turning more towards virtual instruction, such as the type that he does himself; to give students access to high-quality art courses.
While these courses cannot replace the experience of in-class instruction, they offer school systems that are considering cutting creative programs and taking away their opportunity to use an economically-friendly alternative that ensures their students’ creative capacities are still nurtured.
Fussell also thinks that the stay-at-home period may have a long-term impact on Americans in that they’ll be more conscious of doing things that make them happy and actively improve their lives in the future.
“I think the pandemic is going to change all different aspects of the way that we live going forward. It’s my hope that there’s a greater appreciation for art, but I think the big thing here is not necessarily that.
“I think that people have been forced to slow down, and they’ve been forced to step out of their normal day-to-day routine. In my opinion, this is gonna sound harsh, but I think a lot of people kind of go through their life like zombies.
“They’re going to work each day and they’re coming home and going to sleep and getting up and going into work the next day. They basically live for the weekends. I think that we need, as a society, as the world, to invest ourselves in the things that we’re passionate about, the things that make us happy.
“These are the things that we should live for, not for the job that we hate. That’s my hope, that more people come to that realization. And I think that because of the pandemic, more people are realizing that.”
Meet Thais Drassinower: A Latinx Woman Film Creator in Hollywood Pushing for Diversity
This past year, the prestigious British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) selected Thais Drassinower into the Newcomers program. Thais is based in L.A. as a female filmmaker. The year 2020 had the biggest turnout of women in the program and Thais was one of those representing female filmmakers!
This program offers career support and helps to new filmmakers in the industry. Apart from being welcomed into the program, Thais has a lot of history with filmmaking and in the film industry. We interviewed her to learn more about her history with film and any new projects she might be working on.
1. Your hometown is Lima, Peru, what was it like coming to America and starting up in the film industry? What inspired you to pursue filmmaking as a career, and please tell me a bit about that journey.
I’ve been a storyteller for as long as I can remember. I started writing stories as soon as I learned how to put two words together.
My grandma still keeps those early ones in her bedroom chest. I’ve also always loved film and would spend my free time as a teenager watching foreign film cycles at the local cultural center.
But as a young woman from a traditional family growing up in Lima – Peru, I never thought being a filmmaker was an option for me.
My diverse interests in story, psychology, and anthropology led me to advertising as a first step and it was then, working as a copywriter in Chicago, that I realized the power that audiovisual communication has on society and understood that there are archetypes in the collective consciousness that stories can portray in infinite ways.
That’s when I decided to become a filmmaker and assume the responsibility of sharing narratives that can shift our world into a more comprehensive, empathetic, and healthy place.
I started taking night classes at a local school after work and then decided to make the jump and apply for an MFA in Film which got me to NYC where I got my degree at Columbia University. That’s how it all started.
2. Before transitioning to the film industry, you were a copywriter. Can you tell me what it was like making that transition to filmmaking? Did you encounter any major differences or have any difficulty with the transition to films?
I was a copywriter for an advertising agency in Chicago which meant that, together with my partner, I came up with an idea for a commercial, wrote the script for it and then supervised the whole production and post-production process to make sure the idea was coming to life in the way we envisioned it.
The whole supervision part of the process was similar to being a film producer on a project. Being on set and watching the director work with the actors made me fall in love with the directing process. I think it has been a very organic transition and my years as a copywriter helped me build very important skills that I now use as a writer/director.
3. The entertainment industry can be cutthroat at times. Have you endured any hardships along the way? What did you do to overcome them?
I’m still at the beginning of my career and it is definitely a challenging field. As a Latinx woman trying to break in, you have to work extremely hard and convince people that you deserve a seat at the table.
It’s an exciting time for minorities in Hollywood, the conversation is open and more studios are looking to champion diverse and underrepresented voices, but there is still a long way to go to achieve proper representation and I’m proud to be a part of this new generation pushing for change.
4. You’ve directed three projects, “The Catch,” “Baby,” and “Memories of the Sea.” All of which are special in their own ways. Please tell me a bit about how you drew inspiration for these projects and how they are connected to you?
Memories of The Sea was my first film which explores the sense of loss for a child. My dear friend and fellow filmmaker Sudarshan Suresh had written a beautiful script which we then worked on together to adapt for me to direct it.
I decided to set it in Brazil because that’s where I spent my first years of childhood and where I experienced a sense of loss myself.
I wanted to revisit the space and dive deep into the experience of seeing the world through a child’s eyes. This is a film about finding your own answers when adults don’t explain things to you. I think we often forget how intuitive and perceptive children are and this film attempts to remind us.
Baby, my second film, explores what it means to grow up by messing up. It’s a film about a young woman who goes home for a weekend and has an unnerving encounter with her estranged father at a nightclub which reminds her that there are unhealed wounds.
Through a series of disturbing events that night, she will be forced to understand that the only person who can take care of her now is herself. I drew inspiration for this film from the memories of being that age and feeling lost at many points. Feeling like a grown up, but also like a child.
Feeling like I had all the answers, but then suddenly like I knew nothing. It’s a fascinating period in a person’s life and with this story and through this character I explore subjects such as sexuality and consent.
Finally, The Catch, my latest film, tells the story of two trapeze artists whose trust is threatened right before the biggest performance of their careers. The script was written by another Peruvian making waves in the US, my dear friend Camila Zavala who also produced the film.
What attracted me to direct this movie was the opportunity to explore the concept of trust between a couple with such high stakes and the idea of dancing between public and private spaces in the magical world of a circus.
The film invites us to reflect on the power of a bond and what it takes to break it.
5. Many young people are looking into the arts as careers, but of course, they may face obstacles along the way. What would you say to someone who would want to pursue a career such as filmmaking? What advice would you offer?
I say GO FOR IT. This is a challenging career, but all good things in life require you to work hard for them. The enjoyment comes from the hours you put in day to day. I find that the most important things are consistency and your community.
Do the work, go out and shoot, sit down and write, even if you don’t end up showing that “thing” to anyone, practice makes a master. And surround yourself with a group of peers who will champion you and who you will champion. Help each other out.
Film is a collective art and you can’t do it alone, having a group of colleagues that you trust is crucial for your career. Find them. Either at school, at writing groups, at online forums. Find them and nurture those relationships. They are the most wonderful gift that a film career can give you.
I started writing a blog for young female filmmakers who are working or hope to work on their first feature film. There you can find advice on how to embark in the journey both from my personal experience, and also from interviews that I make to first time female directors.
Check it out and hope you find it helpful, I’m always available through there for any questions you might have.
Best of luck to you all!
6. What are your plans for the future in filmmaking? Do you have genres or films you are particularly interested in?
I’m currently working on my first feature film which I hope we can start pre-production for once we achieve a new normal after COVID-19. I am interested in telling stories through a female perspective in the genres of psychological thriller, psychological horror, and drama.
As I mentioned before, it is also very important for me to portray diversity on the screen through my narratives and I look forward to keep sharing stories that build empathy and hopefully invite the audience to reflect and discuss.
From growing up in Peru and moving to L.A, to transitioning from copywriting to filmmaking. Thais has achieved many great things that other young filmmakers aspire to achieve.
We hope that by reading this article, many young filmmakers or others wanting to join the industry can get some inspiration from Thais and perhaps one day join the Newcomers program like her.
Thank you Thais for your time and we wish you luck with your first feature film and your BAFTA Newcomers program!
Alicia White Leading Project Petals to Repair Communities
Nonprofit organizations are driven by a social cause. They help families in need, repair communities, teach children new things, and give hope to those who need it most.
Alicia White, the founder and president of Project Petals, had all of this in mind when starting her nonprofit. She is an advocate for all those living in low-income and under-resourced communities. Not only is she an entrepreneur, but she has also worked with the United Nations and done grant work with domestic justice civil rights issues within her community.
BLENDtw had the opportunity to interview White regarding her history with Project Petals and moving forward with her program.
1.) You started Project Petals with the vision to help low-income and under-resourced communities. Can you tell us a bit about what the process of starting up a new business was like? What were your struggles along the way?
The process of starting my organization has been rewarding, and I learned so much through the process. My organization started out as a volunteer-led project in Queens, New York. It was important for me to form an organization to improve the environment, support communities and future leaders.
It was challenging starting my first environmental project, and I wanted to make it less difficult for anyone coming after me. Also, to help youth learn the leadership skills needed to make an impact in their communities.
Starting a new organization for me had its challenge, but I learned so much along the way. I had to essentially learn what it was to set up an organization in what felt like overnight. Through extensive research, I had to file paperwork, create a website, the logo, the structure of the organization, and just typical start-up activities fell on my shoulders.
Like most black women founders, my biggest struggle was finding and securing funding. For example, in 2019, Black-led organizations received less than 4% of grants and funding. That percentage dwindles when you are a woman.
2.) COVID-19 has been challenging for many small businesses and has caused people within many communities to struggle to make ends meet. How have you seen this affect them and what has Project Petals been doing in response to this?
COVID-19 has hit the communications that my organization works, extremely hard. My organization had to change from working on the ground with large amounts of volunteers to working remotely, with fewer volunteers on the ground.
Through all of this, we were still able to support our community leaders and neighborhoods with the tools and resources that they need to improve their environments. Like every other organization, we have to abide by COVID-19 safety restrictions and guidelines to keep everyone safe while still actively providing the services that are needed to make an impact.
3.) Going forward with Project Petals, what do you envision with your company? Where do you see it going in terms of growth?
I see Project Petals eventually moving to a national scale. The need for environmental support and community development is needed now more than ever. With the climate crises on the brink of causing further catastrophe, it is vital that Project Petals is able to serve as many communities and leaders as we can.
4.) You have a program called, “Youth Builders Program.” Can you elaborate more on what it is and what sort of programs it offers? And how this program can be of help to those participating in it?
Our Project Petals Youth Builders Program helps young people gain the leadership skills they need to improve their communities and futures. Our program connects youth in grades 4-12 to engineering, architecture, urban planning, environmental science, tech, and design professionals who can offer mentorship, experience, internships, and inspiration through monthly workshops.
We work to catalyze the next generation of environmentalists, community leaders, and professionals in these fields. Our program inspires them to develop a passion for these fields, thus working to create a more sustainable, diverse, and equitable world. One hundred percent of all of the youth show great leadership potential. We believe by fostering this leadership and giving them access to a network of professionals; we will start to build more resilient communities.
5.) Before Project Petals, what sort of jobs were you doing? What led you to want to become an entrepreneur and what advice do you have for anyone also planning to pursue entrepreneurship?
Growing up, I always had ideas that I wanted to bring to reality, but as a young person, I didn’t know how to, and I didn’t think it was possible for me to do so. As an adult, social entrepreneurship gave me the opportunity to take my ideas and actually use them to make a positive impact in other people’s lives and the environment.
If I had to give any advice, it would be to have confidence in your ideas and in your skillset as you may face many obstacles, nay-sayers, and challenges along the way. Failure is par for the course and is a good lesson plan to succeed.
We hope that by understanding Project Petals, White, and how entrepreneurs can shape the future of the community around them, we can then better understand how to make our community and the world around us a better place. Thank you to Project Petals and White for this opportunity and we hope this program thrives in the coming years!
Using Instagram Art to Promote Anti-Racism: Meet French Graphic Artist Aurélia Durand
Instagram artist, Aurélia Durand, has been using the platform to promote her anti-racism art. She has a website on which she sells posters, stickers, and cards that she has designed herself. Her art is focused on celebrating diversity and equal representation. Durand’s dream is to help form a united community and an inclusive future for everyone. BLENDtw had the opportunity to ask Durand a series of questions about her current work on Instagram, the book she illustrated, and her goals for the future.
1. Who or what inspired you to start creating art? What keeps you motivated?
When I begin working on a new artistic creation, I listen to music to put myself in a zone where I feel good and am inspired to create a meaningful message. I find that music settles the mood and atmosphere around me. I create to stay positive, and staying positive is essential for my well being. I need to be creative; I am addicted to creativity; imagination, drawing, and seeing the idea evolve is exciting. The most fulfilling feeling is to see people interacting with my work.
2. If you could give one piece of advice to your younger self, what would it be? What advice would you give to young black women with dreams similar to your own?
Create for yourself; don’t try to make the same as everyone else. Find your voice; follow your instinct.
3. What impact do you hope your art will have on our world today?
I hope my art empowers people and makes them smile.
4. In what way does art communicate with and reach people better than other means do?
It’s upon us; it happens because of many factors. I think that visuals are more impactful than words. It is universal, we see it, and we quickly react to it.
6. You just recently illustrated a New York Times bestseller, “This Book is Anti-Racist.” What inspired this project? What do you hope readers take away from it?
I hope readers want to take action for antiracism in there every day life after they read the book.
My publisher, Quarto, contacted me at the end of 2018 to participate in the book’s conception as the leading illustrator. I have never met the author; unfortunately, due to the current global pandemic and social distancing regulations.
The book, “This Book is Anti-Racist” was released in January 2020 and became a best seller in June after the Black Lives Matter movement spread globally. We sold more than 150,000 copies! The book has been popular in schools, but people of all ages are reading the book. It includes about 20 exercises for readers to do while thinking about how they can take action to build a more inclusive society.
7. Do you have any plans or projects you are working on? How can people help support your cause?
I am working on many new projects, but I can’t talk about them as they are meant to be a surprise. In October, I will be participating in several talks with Adobe, Ladies and Wine, and the AOI association. The projects are very exciting and I have confidence that they will have great success when they are completed.
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