A Not-So-Still Life
Cindy Garza Moore worked with teens at risk of dropping out of high school. With art, she found a way to get them excited about classes again.
Cindy Garza Moore was working with at-risk teenagers in a Texas school district when she noticed something that would change her career: the students came alive when they were making art or music.
“These were kids who were dealing with really adult issues like pregnancy or addiction,” says Moore (’19). They had chronic absences and faced the possibility of not graduating high school. “It wasn’t so straightforward for them to just get up and go to school. But I saw right away that many of these students connected with the arts.” Students who previously skipped classes would make time for painting or music, creating a doorway for them to attend other classes. “They would say things like, ‘I think if I had an extra music class, I could make my schedule work.’” Sometimes, these extra classes gave students enough credits to graduate. Other times, it was the motivation they needed to get back into their other classes throughout the day.
Moore knew at that moment she had to throw herself into art education. But while she had worked in schools, she didn’t have a degree in teaching, and had no art experience. That didn’t stop her. She went back to school and then launched a nonprofit to make art programs available to her community.
Engaging Students in the Artistic Process
Moore grew up in Weslaco, Tex., a city of 40,000 just north of the Mexico border that she describes as “a little hole-in-the-wall place.” She doesn’t remember having many art classes as a kid, except for one class in middle school that was a graduation requirement. Just before her freshman year of high school, she moved to Lewisville, a city almost three times as populous that’s closer to Dallas and Fort Worth.
Moore “lived a whole life” before starting her job with at-risk students in the Lewisville Independent School District in 2011: “I got married, got divorced, moved to California, moved back, got remarried.” When she moved back to Texas from California, she was recruited to work for the school district. “I’m bilingual and had a lot of people and tech skills due to working since I was 15,” she says, qualities that made Moore an ideal candidate for a pilot program designed to reenergize students at risk of dropping out of high school.
Moore worked in the program for two years as its risk director, building relationships with teenagers who were close to dropping out, then working with them to design a schedule that would enable them to graduate instead.
“I started to realize, wow, the arts have this really huge, profound effect on the students,” Moore says. She was inspired to pursue a career in art education. Without any formal art training, Moore enrolled at Texas Woman’s University (TWU) for her bachelor’s degree in art education and her teaching certification, where she was plunged into art and education.
“I remember my professor asked how many of us were confident in our artistic abilities? And, like, 90 percent of the class raises their hands while I’m sort of looking around, just sweating it out. I didn’t know what I was capable of.”
Moore needn’t have worried. The professor’s lesson that day was that it’s more important for art educators to be passionate about engaging their students in the artistic process. Moore had that covered.
“I always loved the facilitation. Doodling around with kids in the at-risk program, and telling them that I just started drawing too. Those were really special moments.”
Moore’s art education at TWU ran the gamut: she learned about oil paints and papermaking. She fell in love with watercolors—she can still lose a whole day painting in the medium. And she grew as an artist; when she looks back at some of her earliest work, she sees rudimentary skills—and a whole lot of heart.
“I would show my students my [early] work, and they would be shocked,” she says. “I told them that it just goes to show that if you practice, practice, practice, you will get better at something. One day, you’ll make something you’re really proud of, and no one can take that feeling away from you.”
During her four years at TWU, Moore volunteered with the Teaching Artist Network, an organization that brings the arts out into the local community. By her senior year, she was voted its president, and she quickly ramped up the organization’s outreach efforts, bringing free arts events and programs to a wider audience in Lewisville and beyond.
Moore, who describes the early part of her 20s as somewhat rudderless, had found her passion—using art as a way to connect with people and to help her community.
I hear from students who tell me that I changed their lives, or that they felt seen and cared for in my classroom. That’s the best. That’s all you want, as a teacher.
Changing Lives through Art
After graduating from TWU, “I felt like I was halfway there,” Moore says. “And I’m not one to do anything halfway.” She enrolled in the master’s in art education program at the CFA’s School of Visual Arts to round out her schooling. The online program allowed her to stay in Texas, where she was raising her daughter, Ella.
Moore says she was drawn to the advocacy curricula in her classes. She wasn’t just learning how to teach students art, but how to engage with them and their communities at the same time.
“I just fell in love with the professors at BU,” she says. “It was such a nurturing environment, and I felt like I was part of a community. They gave us autonomy to complete projects in a way that spoke to each of us as artists, and that was so formative for me. I didn’t feel like there was only one right way to do things. I try to give my students that same autonomy and foster that same curiosity in them.”
Halfway through the two-year program, Moore created a nonprofit organization, Creatives Unite, that married her activism and her art. She and a group of volunteer artists, musicians, and creative problem-solvers sought ways to bring art to people and do some good.
At one event, she and other volunteers created watercolor portraits of pets at an animal shelter—anyone who adopted a pet got to take home a custom portrait. The shelter cleared out in a day. Creatives Unite volunteers also hosted workshops to teach teenagers how to use their creative talents in a job setting—kids who love music and audio learned how to create podcasts, for example. Every year, organizers would raise money to buy art supplies for children in the local children’s hospital. And sometimes, the organization hosted events that were related to creative fields in more tangential ways, Moore says. They taught people how to fill out financial aid forms for college, or how to manage their finances as freelancers.
Moore graduated from BU with a renewed sense of purpose. She taught at an elementary school by day, and poured herself into Creatives Unite by night.
Perhaps most rewarding, though, is hearing from former students in the at-risk program all those years ago.
“I hear from students who tell me that I changed their lives, or that they felt seen and cared for in my classroom,” she says. “That’s the best. That’s all you want, as a teacher.”
Now, Moore is preparing for another reinvention. She and her family are moving to the Big Island of Hawaii, to be closer to Moore’s in-laws. She and Ella have been learning as much as they can about the history and culture of the archipelago state, and Moore is already dreaming of how to build a new chapter of Creatives Unite in her new home—the first of a network of chapters she hopes to create for the nonprofit. While Moore is still in the earliest stages of imagining what an expanded Creatives Unite will look like, the goal, she says, “has never been about the money. It’s always been about the impact we can have on people.
“I’ve had some time—in between packing up our entire lives—to reflect on everything we’ve done [with Creatives Unite], and it still boggles my mind. We’ve been able to reach so many people, all with this idea of: What are we good at? How can we help? It doesn’t take much—just someone to care.”