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A traditional classroom has never seemed the right fit for Nicole Dezelon. Not as a student growing up in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, or as a teacher in Pittsburgh.
“It really felt rigid as a student,” says Dezelon. “And then, as a teacher, it felt like there was a little more freedom in out-of-school learning. Freedom to create my own curriculum. Freedom to take chances.”
Dezelon has been an educator for more than two decades, spending most of her career at The Andy Warhol Museum, where she’s now director of learning and public engagement. She has spearheaded the museum’s school and teacher programs, teen outreach, and online education offerings. And the arts education programs that she oversees will be an important part of the newly announced Pop District, The Warhol’s 10-year development project designed to transform Pittsburgh’s eastern North Shore neighborhood into a cultural and economic driver for the city.
A key aspect of The Pop District involves workforce development for youth by giving them marketable skills. But The Warhol has long been delivering inclusive youth-empowerment programming, such as Youth Invasion, the annual event where teens take over the museum for a day; its annual LGBTQ+ prom; and after-school and summer arts courses that teach printmaking and digital design. Those initiatives will now be getting more attention as part of The Pop District.
In addition to the “Factory” art studio in the basement level of The Warhol, the museum now has an additional community arts education space across General Robinson Street. The street-level space has an open and loungey atmosphere, and will be more accessible to the public and provide an opportunity to try new things, Dezelon says. For example, it’s allowing The Warhol to relaunch two printmaking programs—Power Up and RUST (Radical Urban Silkscreening Team)—aimed at helping young people find their voice on issues that matter most to them.
“We hope to keep pushing the envelope on technology and where it intersects with education, in the hopes of enhancing education, not distracting from it,” Dezelon says.
Her interest in out-of-school learning environments began when she was splitting her time between The Warhol and Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild, the innovative youth arts education organization located just two miles away on Pittsburgh’s North Shore.
“We hope to keep pushing the envelope on technology and where it intersects with education, in the hopes of enhancing education, not distracting from it.” – Nicole Dezelon
At Manchester, Dezelon ran an arts collaborative program in partnership with a Pittsburgh high school, where the limits of traditional schooling were apparent. Many students were dealing with poverty, teen pregnancy, and other issues outside of class. Engaging students was difficult.
“There wasn’t an adequate support system for those students,” she notes.
After school, Dezelon would come to The Warhol and work with a smaller group of teens on a magazine, Urban Interview, where they’d learn tangible skills for how to create a publication both in print and online. The contrast between the two experiences was striking.
“That became really fascinating to me, working with 7 to 10 students over three-hour periods, three days a week,” she says. “We could get so much done, so much accomplished.”
A key part of Dezelon’s work at The Warhol has involved furthering its reach online, something she was exploring long before online teaching became ubiquitous during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In the early 2000s, she helped write curriculum for online schools. After Dezelon earned her master’s in education, she began teaching art education at Carlow University and an online art history course for St. Joseph’s College of Maine. The flexibility of online schooling appealed to her.
“It expanded my idea of the reason why students needed online learning,” Dezelon says.
At The Warhol, she co-developed a robust offering of online lessons for the museum’s website and piloted virtual tours, which were generally well received, but were more of a complement to the museum’s exhibitions rather than a priority.
Then COVID-19 happened. Cultural institutions had to make a hard pivot to online lessons and virtual tours in order to reach audiences. And teachers—many of whom had never taught an online class—needed ready-made course materials for remote learning.
Dezelon’s experience proved vital in helping The Warhol make the transition. To make the virtual tours more engaging, Dezelon and Heather White, associate director of learning & public engagement, moved through the gallery, using a mobile unit, to give viewers a more representative experience of what it would be like to visit in person. Dezelon and White also worked with other education staff to produce a series of “Making It” videos—short, guided lessons for The Warhol’s YouTube channel that took students through artistic techniques used by Warhol, such as screenprinting or marbleizing.
The production quality wasn’t perfect, White says, but they went online quickly, providing a lifeline to desperate teachers in the early days of the pandemic.
The virtual tours will continue, even while The Warhol is back to welcoming visitors on-site.
It’s a lot to juggle, White says, especially with limited staff. But Dezelon’s experience working in many different teaching environments, often with strained resources, has allowed her to find daylight where others could not.
“At the end of the day, Nicole really cares about young people,” White says. “And we’re lucky to have her always advocating for what they need.”
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