During the late 1990’s, artist/teacher/writer Jennifer Fink was supervising art education majors at Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute. “What came up again and again was how alienated K-12 pupils were from books,” says Fink. “Many of the classrooms my students worked in had no texts or not enough texts. They used worksheets. It struck me that literature had been taken out of literacy.” Fink, along with artist Ellen Blum, put together an ad hoc group of “fellow travelers and family” to take action. Their efforts turned into the Gorilla Press, a workshop that promotes literacy through book creation.
Participants write and illustrate their own work in free classes, which stress the intellectual rigor of art and highlight the relationship between visual imagery and language. At the end of each six-week cycle, their work is compiled, printed and bound, and each student gets a copy of the finished product. “I believe in learning through doing,” says Fink. “A book you make is of greater value than one that is handed to you.”
To date, the Gorillas have partnered with eight agencies, including the Archdiocese of New York; The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center; Makor/92nd Street Y; Readnet, a Bronx Charter School; and the South Street Seaport. Several participants have stayed on, becoming Press volunteers. “One boy we met in 2000 is now in college. He became homeless while we were working with him. Despite adversity, he’s hung on and is now a mentor,” says Fink. “For kids like him, meeting others who are interested in art or writing is empowering.”
Fink sees the Gorilla Press (www.gorillapress.com) as an outgrowth of her belief in tikkun olam. “I was brought up valuing feminism and social justice and was taught to take responsibility for others,” she says. “At the same time, art saved me from a lot of things, including the banality of mainstream culture. The Press is a way for me to connect with people and create community across lines of race, class and sexuality.”