Tony Lee moved to Great Neck about a year and a half ago—and he’s still coping with “cultural shock.” Known by many as “Teacher Tony,” he’s the principal of a successful art school, New Color Arts Academy, which has been operating in two locations—Livingston, NJ, and Flushing, NY. As soon as Teacher Tony and his family settled in their new home, he opened New Color’s third division in Great Neck.
After being in the industry for more than 17 years, Teacher Tony has developed a good reputation and a steady following. He doesn’t have difficulty filling up classes at the Great Neck location, but he faces new challenges. For one thing, he finds that the Great Neck parents are a totally different breed from what he’s seen elsewhere. In short, the Great Neck parents tend to be more demanding, hands on and results driven. They are often worried that their children cannot draw realistically and they constantly ask when their children are ready for competitions.
“But why is there an obsession about drawing realistically? Eventually there is literally nothing you cannot draw. The only limit you will face is your imagination,” Teacher Tony has told the parents again and again.
He believes that misunderstandings about art education come from people’s limited knowledge about art itself. To be fair, art, especially in its modern form, is difficult to understand. Most ordinary folks probably can’t properly assess the value of a work of art. Recently, two teenagers pulled a prank at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art by placing a pair of eyeglasses on the floor. Some visitors apparently couldn’t tell the fake installation from a real one because they started taking pictures of the eyeglasses. Read the full story here.
So maybe the concerns raised by the Great Neck parents are not meritless after all. Teacher Tony is sympathetic to those parents and he understands that art education for the young is also a learning process for the parents. He has long developed a system to help the parents. At the end of each New Color art class, parents are required to attend a 15-minute evaluation session to discuss the artwork their children created with the teachers and their children. And there’s one rule—the parents aren’t allowed to criticize their children, which reflects Teacher Tony’s belief that there’s no “right” or “wrong” about art.
“You can probably say that there is this ‘balance’ about an artwork. But ‘unbalance’ may not be such a bad thing, because it is often where our children demonstrate their creativity,” he said. The evaluation sessions prove to have helped the parents better understand their children and art, and Teacher Tony believes it is what makes New Color unique and successful.
According to Teacher Tony, many people still mistakenly assume that one only studies drawing in art schools. He explains that modern art education is about visual art which involves mixed media, such as textile, clay and many other types.
“The key [to art education] is to provide an environment for children to express their artistic ideas freely and to kindle their imagination,” he added. Though his students often sweep prizes at art competitions, Teacher Tony strongly advises against sending children to competitions before eighth grade. He believes that the pressure and the judging criteria of competitions are not suitable for children’s artistic development at a young age. To Teacher Tony, all competitions are short-term gains, while artistic development is a lifelong journey. He hopes that his students will combine their artistic talents with their knowledge in other disciplines, such as sciences, and eventually be able to open ventures in new realms.
Teacher Tony studied design at China’s Central Academy of Craft Art and received a master’s in Multimedia Art Education from Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. In 1999, when he first started teaching art classes to his friend’s children for fun, he never imagined that it would become his career. In 2006, he was torn between accepting a job offer as a designer from a well-known company and starting the Livingston division of New Color and becoming a full-time art educator. He admits that he has never regretted the path he chose, because his students have opened up a new world full of ideas and possibilities that bring him joy and surprises every day. His passion in art education also helped him meet his Taiwanese wife, Cleo Lee, who not only assists him in running New Color, but also shares his belief and calling.
“I now realize that I do have a mission in this world,” Teacher Tony said, smiling shyly, “to take part in and witness the artistic growth of my students. It is the most rewarding part of my job.”
The New Color Arts Academy is currently presenting an exhibition of its students’ artworks to the public at 15A Great Neck Rd. in Great Neck. Teacher Tony encourages children to attend and create art during their visit. To make a reservation, call 516-446-8898 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.