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Stoneleigh artist transforms schools into colorful, experiencial spaces

Nancy Scheinman leads team of designers to create engaging, multisensory environments

By Loni Ingraham

6:00 AM EST, January 29, 2014

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Growing up on Long Island, N.Y., Nancy Scheinman hated being in school.  

"Most schools are so institutional and visually boring, I looked out the window all the time," she said.

So it is fitting that the Stoneleigh resident, apart from her career as an established collage artist with an international following, now heads NS Studios, a team of young artists and designers, who are transforming school settings into "unique and imaginative spaces" as Scheinman describes them.

Using art installations and murals, she designs three-dimensional, multisensory environments that set the scene for experiential learning — learning through direct experience instead of just about the experience of others.

Envision hallways transformed into streetscapes with storefronts, restaurants, signage, front stoops and faux cobblestone street surfaces, where, guided by teachers, students learn about business, serving food, counting money. A mural of an antique store helps pupils envision the past and encourage them to tell the story of their own families.

The colorful, complex installations are designed to bolster a school's programs and curriculum. The murals tell stories, portray a past to be remembered or a dream to be achieved, she said. Her installations invite interaction.

"Children need an environment that is stimulating," Scheinman said.

NS Studios' latest experiential environments project is the tuition-free Monarch Academy Public Charter School Baltimore, sponsored by The Children's Guild in Baltimore.

Since 1996, Scheinman has collaborated with the guild, which operates a number of schools and facilities in Baltimore, and Prince George's and Anne Arundel counties that serve youngsters who are learning-challenged because they are either at-risk, suffer from disabilities or are disadvantaged in some way.

Monarch Baltimore, like other guild-operated schools, follows the school jurisdiction's curriculum requirements. In addition, its mission, is to create a culture where students are guided to "think critically, problem-solve creatively, become self-disciplined" and to "understand that the goal of life is to serve a cause larger than one's self."

But the guild's guiding philosophy is "transformation education," which revolves around teachers and staff adjusting to fit the needs of the student and is characterized in part by learning through stimulating visuals.

"Art is a powerful teaching tool," said Andrew Ross, guild CEO and president and a co-founder of the transformation education theory. "The brain is like a pharmacy. Environment stimulates those chemicals."

The Brain Trail, which is on display at guild headquarters and on-order for the Monarch school, is a perfect example. The 4-foot-high nose in the hallway with its flashing neon lights and push-buttons entice students to learn about the brain as if they were playing a video game.

The cafeteria is designed to look like Waverly Market to help students explore gardening, nutrition, money and arithmetic, and history. Murals show the African Americans who became entrepreneurial arabbers selling produce from carts drawn by ponies.

"Nancy is really good at taking the ideas we are trying to convey to the children and turning them into something exciting that motivates them to learn," Ross said.

Monarch Baltimore is the second of four charter schools with experiential environments planned by the guild. The first has been operating in Glen Burnie. The others are scheduled for Laurel later this year and for Anne Arundel County next year.

Located since September on Kirk Avenue in the northeast section of the city in what had been the Coca-Cola Building, Monarch Baltimore currently serves 1,000 students grades kindergarten through sixth grade. Within two years, plans call for adding seventh and eighth grades.

Monarch was housed formerly in the guild's headquarters on McClean Boulevard in an environment nearly as enriched as in the environment  of its new quarters will be. 

Scheinman confers with school representatives on a concept from the curriculum and then creates the multi-sensory environment design to support it. Once computer images of the design are done, she and NS Studios artists transfer the images to school walls.

"We get better each time," Scheinman said. "It's a work-in-progress," Scheinman said, adding that the project could take a year or more to complete. 

With 92,000 square feet of space that has to be transformed, "it is a mammoth project," Ross said.

Fostering positive sense of community

Scheinman's list of clients began with her own high school in New York, which hired her when she was a student to paint a mural of the Signing of the Declaration of Independence for the superintendent's office in 1975. "It's still there," she said.

Other clients include Loch Raven Academy and Rodgers Forge Elementary School in Towson, the Janet and Frank Kelly Center for Autism in Brooklyn, Md., and the Alamo Navajo Reservation School in Magdalena, N.M.

Scheinman established NS Studios more than 15 years ago to mentor young artists and help them use their artistic skills to support themselves, as she has.

"I didn't have to compromise what I painted in order for me to support myself," she said.

NS Studios has been "a wonderful place to have," said Garrett Ames-Ledbetter, 24, who created the 4-foot nose. "It has brought people together to establish a small community of artists who all do work of their own on the side."

Scheinman has curated for galleries and museums, created licensed art under another name for retailers and produced architectural illustrations. 

She said she owes her architectural illustration skills to her husband of 30 years, Jim Wheeler, now president of the architectural firm Ayers Saint Gross. They have two daughters, Alena and Kerstin, 24 and 28. 

Scheinman's work with school environments has been her most personally rewarding business, she said.

She was at Monarch recently working on a mural of a pet store when she overheard a student say, "When I grow up, I want to own a store just like that."

"That's exactly what we all wanted to hear," she said. 

Monarch's lower school librarian Wendy LaTour-Morone said she enjoys the lively additions to the school.

"The murals just draw you in," she said. "I think it's important to know about history and to stimulate the imagination." 

Monarch's student body is 95-percent African American and situated in the Coldstream-Homestead-Montebello area. Once  predominantly white and affluent in the 1800s, it is now is predominantly black and fighting the decline and disinvestment that affects many urban neighborhoods.

Monarch plans call for a second phase of streetscapes that show new stores and restaurants that the neighborhood could have in the future. Community activists could bring developers and business people to the school to show them the streetscapes and invite their participation, Ross explained. The school could be the anchor for the revitalization of the entire area, he said.

"What goes up on the walls will be a road map for the redevelopment of the neighborhood — a vision for how students and teachers can apply their learning to help the community transform itself," Ross said. "This school will be far more than a place to educate students."

Scheinman concurred: "I felt that using the school environment as a tool to show what revitalization could bring would foster a sense of pride in the students and their families."

"We're very proud of the project," Ross said "It's unique. I think public schools in general should adopt the approach. It doesn't cost that much more to create a school this way," he said.

Randy Sovich, the Towson architect who transformed the Coca-Cola Building into the school, agreed. 

"A lot of schools are being built with blank walls. It's a dimension missing in education," Sovich said.

Scheinman said she esteems being a part of the movement to transform educational environments.

"Being able to use art to effect change is a powerful thing for an artist," she said. "I am very proud of what we at NS Studios do — to enhance environments to give children a positive sense of their communities and the world."