AVENUES FOR JUSTICE – INTERVIEW WITH CINDY RUSKIN

by Ananya Wilson-Bhattacharya

This is the second instalment of the Interviews with NYC Artists series. Part 1 is available here.

Later on that cold December day, after my meeting with Sally, I battle my way through the New York snow to meet the artist Cindy Ruskin in her apartment in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. The apartment is filled with art supplies, paintings and other works, including a renovated garbage can laden with small models and storytelling sketches. 

One of Cindy’s main projects, however, is steeped in the world of criminal justice reform: teaching weekly art classes as part of Avenues for Justice, a neighbourhood alternative to prison for young people aged 13-21. The organisation played a crucial role during the era of three-strike laws, as Cindy explains: ‘kids [mostly boys] were being arrested… for being drug-runners for their uncles, for marijuana, sometimes for serious crimes like armed robbery. Most can’t afford bail, so they’re stuck in the court system.’ The organisation’s court advocates persuade judges to give these teens a second chance by sending them there for rehabilitation, rather than to jail.    

During our interview, Cindy shows me photos of the impressive pieces produced by her pupils. ‘Mostly these kids are not artists, but I want my class to be a safe space where they can have fun and experiment. They’ve etched on glass, designed sneakers, created perfumes with aromatherapy oils, painted rappers’ portraits in the style of Gustav Klimt, made wallets, candles and jewellery. We work with clay, spray paint, wood-burning tools, Photoshop, etc. [But] over the last year or so, I have kids that want to paint, and I love that.’

I ask about the lesson structure: do the pupils work on the same pieces over several weeks, or a new project each week?

‘There are some periods of great continuity, but because the group keeps changing it’s a challenge. New people are always being admitted. It also has to do with their mood, if they’re tired… one week they’ll love a project, the next they won’t go near it. I always have back-up projects ready. Sometimes something’s meant to take an hour and a half, and they’ll be done in five minutes.

‘Everything’s flexible. Our last project was a spewing volcano one kid requested. I always have a medium, a technique, and a demonstration ready. But I must be willing to let my plans go.

‘I always have a theme but don’t always tell my students because it might turn them off.  I’ll show them artists’ works, such as graffiti artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, for inspiration. I never know if they’ll look at them or not.’ 

Cindy, an oil painter herself, previously resisted teaching painting. ‘I didn’t want to lose that dream-state of painting by breaking it down into teachable steps. I never went to art school, so my painting is intuitive – it just pours out. But whilst teaching acrylics, I’ve discovered new gels and mediums I didn’t know about. It’s been fantastic learning more about acrylics myself whilst teaching them.’

‘People tend to blame the parents for their children’s mistakes. I’ve met many of their mothers and grandmothers – amazingly strong women, but with little power over the influence of peers, poverty, gangs.’

Cindy previously taught the same class in Harlem; I ask if her pupils were inspired by Harlem’s rich artistic history. ‘The kids aren’t necessarily exposed [to that history], but they’re more open [to art]. I’ve taken kids to see shows at The Studio Museum, which shows African-American artists like Rashaad Newsome. He makes collages and videos about money and fancy cars – exactly what the kids like.’ 

This seems understandable given their situations, I say. Cindy agrees, explaining: ‘Most of them come from the projects right here on Avenue D. Many have ADHD and PTSD.  They’ve already survived so much trauma in their young lives. 

‘People tend to blame the parents for their children’s mistakes. I’ve met many of their mothers and grandmothers – amazingly strong women, but with little power over the influence of peers, poverty, gangs.’

However, this gang culture doesn’t tend to permeate the classroom, as Cindy clarifies: ‘One consistent thing is the pupils don’t fight with each other.’ 

They must feel a sense of solidarity, I say. Cindy agrees. ‘They’re all in the same situation.  They’ve committed a crime and they’re working hard to turn their lives around.’

I ask if she feels the class is healing for the pupils, allowing them to open up more about – or providing an escape from – their inevitable anxieties. Cindy explains that it plays both roles. ‘Absolutely. Sometimes I see them completely let go, focus … the room will go dead silent.’ She laughs. ‘Other times, they sing and talk about their court cases, relationships, wild conspiracy theories. There’s plenty of gossip. 

 ‘They do stay and talk after class… if you’re not going to therapy, the opportunity to quietly talk about something in your life [is valuable].’ 

This must especially be the case for boys; toxic masculinity is still rife, I reflect. Cindy agrees: she is currently planning a separate project on gender and immigration, working with immigrant mothers and teenage girls in Harlem. ‘They’re often more open to talking about and doing artwork around issues.

‘I’ve learned a lot [through working with boys]. Nowadays, I don’t freak out if a kid puts his head down – I just think, okay, you’re having a little nap,’ she jokes. 

‘In times of strife people are very creative, because they have something to say.’ 

‘I’ve been teaching here for 21 years. We have children of [previous] clients now. [I remember] during stop-and-frisk these young men of colour would be arrested for a little marijuana in their pocket.’

It’s bound up with class; more privileged kids always have a safety net, I say. She replies: ‘Yes. They’ve got places to hide.’

Avenues for Justice has recently expanded with increased funding; Cindy explains how interest in criminal justice among the general public has increased in the last five years. ‘Some really great books have been written on criminal justice,’ she reflects, before suggesting sardonically: ‘it’s become a hot topic.’ 

Aside from art, other classes include cooking, sports and dance – all of which Cindy feels nurture the teenagers’ creativity. ‘In times of strife people are very creative, because they have something to say.’ 

After the interview, Cindy shows me her alcohol inks – small bottles which she applies to paper. The ink dabs onto the paper effortlessly, but the patterns formed are so beautiful. We sit dabbing quietly for some time; it feels strangely satisfying, and I understand instantly how therapeutic this could be when struggling with grave anxieties. It brings home just how invaluable Cindy’s art is – for these teenagers, and for anyone else willing to learn. 

‘I always keep extra frames [for the kids],’ Cindy tells me. ‘If they’re proud of their work, it feels like victory.’

Find out more about Avenues for Justice on their website

Cindy and her pupils’ work with the organisation can be found on her website.

Featured photo: Ananya Wilson-Bhattacharya


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