Off to the side of Eric Azcuy’s cluttered desk were two products from Nissin Foods: one Cup Noodles and one box of Chow Mein. It looked like lunch, but it was actually the day’s art lesson.
The inspiration came from an NPR story Mr. Azcuy had read earlier describing how the design of instant soup cups makes them tip over easily, spilling their hot contents on, and often burning, young eaters. So, Mr. Azcuy figured, why not see if his students could come up with a better, safer model for the cups?
“It’s something relevant,” he said calmly, his black curly hair, dark-rimmed glasses and plaid collared shirt making him appear just a bit hip. “It goes to show you how important design is.”
The lesson plan was typical for Mr. Azcuy, 35, who is in his sixth year of teaching art at the Urban Assembly School for Applied Math and Science, a grades 6-12 school of almost 600 students in the South Bronx, where 91.2 percent of the children come from families with income low enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. It gives the students a chance to be creative while also letting them know that art can have some practical applications, even for people who don’t intend on becoming the next da Vinci.
The attitude has led to projects that include painting a giant periodic table of the elements, creating a mural based on "The Great Gatsby" and the day's effort at redesigning the Cup Noodles container.
Still, Mr. Azcuy doesn’t rely exclusively on these types of assignments. He recognizes that sometimes it’s best to just let his students use art class as a time to draw.
“It can also function as an escape to a place that has nothing to do with the tests and the SAT and the college pressure and this kind of thing that’s happening in a lot of their classes,” he said. “It’s like a way for them to just zone into their art and creative world.”
Mr. Azcuy grew up in Park Slope, Brooklyn, and attended LaGuardia High School, Cooper Union and Columbia University, where he achieved a Master of Fine Arts. He was initially brought on at A.M.S. as a substitute, but he was hired full time after the school’s previous art teacher went on pregnancy leave and didn’t return. Almost immediately he began linking his students’ art projects with what they were learning in their academic classes.
One of the first things he had his sixth graders do, for example, was use four drawings to transform an object they had in front of them into an object from their imagination. The first drawing would be 100 percent object, the last would be 100 percent imagination, and the second and third would be 75 percent object, 25 percent imagination, and vice versa.
In other words, this wasn’t just a chance for students to transform a stapler into a five-headed dragon. It was also a chance for them to understand how percentages could be visually conveyed.
“The math, it was kind of just snuck in there,” Mr. Azcuy said. “They don’t really notice it. It’s snuck in under the fun of art.
Mr. Azcuy has found several benefits to teaching art class this way. It allows students to see that art is “in everything,” not just in one large, paint-splotched room at A.M.S. It gives students who aren’t as naturally gifted at drawing a chance to do well on the academic parts of the projects. And it’s a lot of fun, too.
“The more linked different subjects are, the less they are different subjects,” said Mr. Azcuy. “The more it’s just about the learning experience, and I think it’s just more comfortable for them.”
Earlier this year, Mr. Azcuy began his sketchbook class by placing the Cup o’ Noodles on a board, holding it up in front of his students, and tilting it to illustrate how quickly the cup could fall over. He then did the same with the more rectangular Chow Mein to give his students an idea of what type of redesign they might attempt.
After the demonstration, the students dove into their sketchbooks, and what Mr. Azcuy referred to as a “cool, relaxed, art-making vibe” took over the class.
“This room … it’s like a creative kind of space for them,” Mr. Azcuy said of his students. “A safe, creative space where they can feel free and comfortable to explore things.”
Most of the students in Mr. Azcuy’s sketchbook class agreed with this description. They applied it not just to the room but also to Mr. Azcuy himself.
“He lets you express your feelings,” said Joel Tolentino, an 11th grade student. “It’s a good stress reliever.”
Mr. Azcuy has no plans to stop teaching or leave A.M.S. anytime soon; he’s far too excited about the opportunity to grow the school’s art program. The one word that keeps coming up when he discusses the future is “more.”
More classes, more field trips, and more collaboration — all while the married father of one (soon to be two) tries to maintain a balance between his work life and his home life.
“I feel like it’s also important to let go in order for me to rejuvenate my creative self,” he said. “To then bring that back to the students so I’m not this kind of rundown person in the front of the room.
“It’s a balancing act,” he continued. “That’s what life is for everyone, I guess.”