Two months ago, Lora Spielman wrapped up her undergraduate career at University of California, Merced with a bachelor’s degree in cognitive science, a minor in art, and her long-term sights set on an art history doctorate. Before she embarks on her next academic journey, though, she wants to “get out and explore what this world has to offer” — and she’s starting in Yosemite National Park!
This summer, Lora is one of 16 interns working alongside park and partner staff through the Yosemite Leadership Program. In addition to hands-on internship experiences, the 12-week program includes an environmental leadership course, stewardship projects and opportunities to mentor other youth program participants.
This year’s YLP interns are working with people all over the park, from engineers and raptor researchers to ecological restoration crews, fire management experts and education-focused rangers. We’re delighted to have Lora working with us at the Yosemite Art Center, where she’s drawing on her own artistic interests and skills to design and teach summer classes for kids.
We asked Lora about her background and her experience in so far. Here’s what she said!
How did you get involved in the Yosemite Leadership Program?
I was first introduced to the Yosemite Leadership Program early in my undergraduate career, when I stumbled across the program’s table at the UC Merced club fair. Over the next few years, I met more and more YLP participants who were eager to share positive stories about their experiences. As my senior year was coming to a close, I started noticing signs around campus with a silhouette of a ranger and the words “This could be you!” “Yeah,” I thought, “that could be me!”
Not long before graduation, I ran into Jessica Rivas, a friend and former YLP participant who now works in Yosemite (Fun fact: Jessica has made guest appearances on this blog, too – check out her posts about working at the UC Merced Wilderness Education Center and taking a selfie with Pesident Obama). She encouraged me to follow my interest and apply. I was thrilled to discover that there was an internship position at the Yosemite Art Center — what a great way to pursue my interest in art education while experiencing the park in a unique way!
Had you spent much time in the park before YLP?
I visited Yosemite for the first time as a 10-year-old, with my dad. The first thing I remember was walking among the giant sequoias in Mariposa Grove. As a student at UC Merced, I took advantage of the fact that Yosemite was only a 90-minute drive away. I visited the park a handful of times each year while I was in college, and even had the chance to participate in the annual Yosemite Facelift event.
Describe your internship. What does your average day look like?
As the Youth Art Instructor, I teach three art classes each day (Monday through Thursday) for different age groups. I start my mornings with 3- to 5-year-olds. I read an excerpt of one of our Yosemite books, and then lead them through a cut-and-paste activity inspired by the story. The kids are in the early stages of their tactile development; each kid has a different skill set when it comes to identifying, drawing, cutting and pasting different shapes.
Next, I jump into an art class with 6- to 10-year-olds. Usually, we work on wax-resist watercolor painting, DIY survival bracelets, and animal masks. My favorite activity for this age group is creating bighorn sheep masks, because it gives me a chance to share the story of that endangered animal.
In the afternoons, I work with 11- to 16-year-olds. Recently, I’ve been focusing this class on field journaling. The students bind and decorate their own journal, and then go out to explore the meadow next to the Art Center. I encourage them to make close observations, and to look for details they might normally overlook. I might ask them to touch the bark of the trees or smell the leaves. I walk around with The Laws Field Guide to the Sierra Nevada and help them identify what they find. Once they finish sketching, I show them how to bring their drawings to life with watercolor.
What do you hope to share with kids in your art classes?
What really excites me about this job is being able to help kids experience the park through art. Prior to this internship, I had never really thought about that; I have only ever experienced the park through hiking, camping and backpacking. So it is truly amazing to help visitors, and especially kids, cultivate an understanding and appreciation of what Yosemite has to offer. This is something that’s really important to me, because I don’t think I had that appreciation when I first visited Yosemite as a 10 year old. That’s one reason why this internship is really special to me.
What are the kids teaching you?
One of the biggest things I’ve learned from the kids I’m teaching at the Art Center is the importance of patience. Each kid, regardless of age, arrives at my art class with different abilities and skill sets. That can be really difficult in a larger class setting, but I’ve learned that if I can sit down with them and give them some individualized attention, they will walk away feeling empowered to create art. That’s huge, because children are so self-critical of their work, and artwork is no exception.
What are your goals for your YLP experience?
If I’m being completely honest, I was a little scared of this internship. I’m originally from Los Angeles, so I knew that spending a summer in Yosemite would be more than a jump, hop and skip out of my familiar, day-to-day experiences. But that apprehension helped shape my biggest goal: to embrace and explore an area that’s outside my comfort zone. So far, I’ve conquered my fear of sleeping outdoors and even slept in a hammock overnight instead of a tent. It’s hard to describe the feeling of gazing up at the stars as the rustling tree branches lulled me to sleep. More recently, I went on my very first solo hike to Chilnualna Falls! These are all things I would have never considered doing prior to this program.
Another big goal has been gaining more experience with arts education. A long-term aspiration of mine is to become an art history professor, but in the short term I’m hoping to work in museums as an arts educator. I’ve been making art (in all its various forms) for as long as I can remember, and have been especially inspired by the art studio and theory courses at UC Merced. At certain points, I felt guilty for taking art classes in college when my peers were taking physics and computer science classes. But I realized that everyone’s brain works differently. Some are inspired by history, some by science, and some by art. My goal is to help others see how those three things can intertwine, and to empower others through what I learn.
Why is it important for young people to connect with Yosemite and other parks?
It’s more than important, it’s critical for visitors to experience national parks at a young age. I think a big part of this has to do with our ever-evolving technological society. As time goes on, technology becomes more ingrained in the lives of our youth. But I think there’s something so beautiful about coming to Yosemite, or any other national park, and going “off the grid.” Here, you realize that we don’t have to be constantly connected to information or social networks through our glowing screens. It’s amazing to just get out and explore, to pry eyes and fingertips away from devices and instead hear, see, smell and touch the natural world. For me, helping kids experience the park through art is all about cultivating an appreciation for nature at a young age, so that when they get a little older they’ll want to preserve the park for the enjoyment of generations to come.
Anything else you’d like to our readers to know?
The Art Center is an amazing resource for park visitors and staff. I wish I had known about it before I got this internship!
Whether you’re taking an art class with a professional in the Valley, or using the sketchpad and pencils you picked up at the Art Center during a backpacking trip, the artwork you create in Yosemite is special. Each piece is a living artifact of what you’ve experienced in the park, and how you perceived your surroundings. That’s something that nobody else, and no camera, can capture. And even cooler than that? You can do this while camping and hiking. Throw some art supplies into your backpack and let the natural world inspire you!
I’m incredibly grateful for this experience with the Yosemite Leadership Program, the Art Center, Yosemite National Park and Yosemite Conservancy. It has opened my eyes to things I never considered before and has connected me with people who care about my professional growth. I can confidently say that I am forever changed because of this program. Many thanks to Conservancy donors and everyone who has made this opportunity possible for college students and graduates like me!
The YLP internship program wraps up in August, shortly after participants present their final projects at the annual Youth in Yosemite Symposium. At that point, most of the interns will be waving goodbye to Yosemite, at least for the time being, but Lora is planning to stick around! She’s looking forward to taking a seasonal job with the Conservancy, through which she’ll be able to continue supporting our mission, connecting with visitors, and helping people enjoy their time in the park.
All images courtesy of Lora Spielman.