Meet Nicole Pertelesi, Common Ground Art Teacher

Nicole Pertelesi joined our team in fall 2022 as our art teacher — and brings so much to our small school community! Learn more about her in this interview with our Educational Change Intern team, including Sarah Reynolds, Taite Popkin, Miranda Acampora, and Joel Tolman.

What do you want to be called by students?

I’m ok with Ms. Nicole! I like the informality of it, the family friendly feel of it.

What path brought you to Common Ground? 

I recently moved to Connecticut, and was working in an outdoor pre-school nature program. But I was missing being an art educator, which was the job I’d always had when I lived in New York. When I saw this job posted, I said, “An outdoor environmental art job for high school? Is that possible?” It sounded like a dream.

Before moving to Connecticut, I worked with a number of different schools in New York. The last five years, I worked for an arts not-for-profit in Queens. I was working with kids who were 3 years old, all the way up to 21. I was running art-on-a-cart programs, so I saw the whole school. Before that, I was at a children’s residential program, doing art with them. 

What is your job at Common Ground? 

I’m the art educator! I bring my love of art, my passion for art.

I hope that I am here as a support, not just in art, but also for social emotional support. I can be a good ear if a student needs someone to talk to.

I hope that I can provide a space for creativity, thinking outside of the box, really just testing our different ideas. I hope I can create that space for Common Ground students. 

Tell us about yourself as an artist!

Art for me is very therapeutic. I’m  a licensed art therapist, as well as a teacher. I create art in a response to having a hard day, or a great day. I also love to go viewing art. 

As an artist, I do a lot of mixed media and collage work. I break down books, and create a lot of art journals. Often I work in a journal, and the journal itself becomes the art piece. I have numerous journals that are always in progress. Right now, I have three journals going at once. That’s where I process my art. 

Why Common Ground? What motivates you to work here?  

I love the small community here. I see every student around, even if I don’t yet know who they are. I love the challenges. I love trying out new materials. There’s an art ROOM, which is a big deal – we can create a big mess, because there’s a space for it. 

I also love the philosophy of Common Ground, what this place stands for. I love the environmental aspect – teaching young people about environmental issues, and climate change in particular. Those are issues that affect us now, and are really going to affect the next generation. That’s a big part of what drew me here.

Common Ground is all about environmental justice. What does that mean to you? 

For me, environmental justice is about making more people aware of how they’re abusing the earth. We need to look at the materials we use, how we need to be more sustainable, practice better habits as people. I think a huge change in society would be hard, but if all people create a smaller change it might actually make a bigger difference. I even love that I can compost at Common Ground. I love that Common Ground teaches about environmental justice, because hopefully when you leave, you will keep that in your heads as you go on in your lives. 

What are your goals for working here?

I have these far-fetched goals that are more realistic for future years. I’d love to have all these courses, and do these bigger projects, and use art in ways that goes across disciplines. For instance, I’d love to have art and sustainable design working together, or music and art working together. Those are long-term goals that I see fulfilling beyond this year. 

My goal – at the core of it – is to have students experience art, and create art for themselves. 

What motivates you to work with young people? 

I think they’re funny and fun. I love young people’s energy. It’s tiring at times, but also really fun. It’s great to see your new ideas coming, how you’re thinking about changing the world.  

I love trying to help a younger generation experience new things. I like that I could be a presence that I wanted in my own life, to offer you something that perhaps they don’t already have. 

Tell us about yourself as a person!

I like to create art, as I said. I love to view art, and go to museums. 

I love to go hiking and camping. 

I also love cooking. I am a big time baker. I bake my own bread, pizza, muffins, cookies, and all kinds of stuff. With the farm share, I’ve been really excited, experimenting with veggies we haven’t cooked with before. I made a crispy cabbage tofu recipe this past week, for instance. I don’t ordinarily like cabbage, but it came out better than I expected – it was a way to cook cabbage that I actually wanted to eat!

I am loving living in the New Haven area. I love the duality of Connecticut – be in the city, and then lots of beautiful natural areas to explore. It’s all new to me. That’s been great for me. 

I grew up in Dutchess County. I grew up kind of country, but spent time in Long Island, worked in Queens, so became more of a city person. I will always be a New Yorker at heart. 

What were you like as a high school student?

I wasn’t the best high school student. I didn’t love high school that much, so I left my senior year to go to college. My high school had a bridge program, like Common Ground, where you could take credit at the community college. My senior year, I didn’t take any classes at my high school, and I took all of my classes at community college. I was very happy doing that – I really liked my college career more than my high school career.

My high school was very large; I had 500 students in my graduating class. I felt like I got a little bit lost in such a large school. I felt like I got more individualized attention in college. I got to choose the classes I wanted to take, so it was more aligned with my interests. Maybe I wasn’t being challenged enough in high school. Being with people of a higher level of social-emotional maturity was also a big thing for me. 

What are your strengths? What are your growth areas? 

I always think my greatest strength is my passion for art, and for teaching.

Growth is always personal – just trying to be a better teacher. How can I teach this in a way that’s more interesting, or reach a student who’s not showing that they’re interested? What’s a way I can tap into that person? Is it going to be creating art, or experiencing art, or listening to music? 

I think another strength for me is that I have a pretty good rapport with students. 

What art projects have students been most excited about?

My multi-media class has been really fun. It’s first period, so students are sometimes sleepy. Recently, we were deconstructing books and putting them back together, repurposing things that might have gotten thrown away otherwise. Today was the last day, so we looked back at the process together. One student reflected that it was weird to rip a book apart at first. But then, we really got into the process of creating art out of it.

In that class, we’re now moving onto a Japanese technique where you break a bowl, and fix the broken pieces with gold. There’s a lot of symbolism there – Taking something that’s “perfect,’ breaking it, and putting it back together. I want students to know that it’s o.k. to have bumps and bruises, it’s o.k. to repair. We are always working on ourselves. 

My 10th graders created fall environments. That was something they absolutely loved. They were working in groups of 3-4. Using model magic, paper mache, cardboard, paint. A lot of work with led up to working with those materials. Students got excited about the building process. I loved seeing them come in, and be like, “o.k., where’s the paint?” Once they did the building, they were so excited.

Is there anything else you’d like to share with students and families? 

I am always available if students and families want to contact me. If there’s any way I can be helpful, I am more than willing to do that. I stay after on Mondays and Thursday for students who have extra help. Even during lunch, I have students who choose to spend time in the art room, because they value that quiet space. 


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