In addition to fanning students’ creative instincts, great art teachers can help students become more self-aware, empathetic, and collaborative—and this generates better citizens in the long run, Rothko believed. At the Brooklyn Jewish Center, he hardly cared whether his students would go on to pursue careers in the arts. Instead, Rothko focused on cultivating in his students a deep appreciation for artistic expression.
“Most of these children will probably lose their imaginativeness and vivacity as they mature,” he wrote. “But a few will not. And it is hoped that in their cases, the experience of eight years [in my classroom] will not be forgotten and they will continue to find the same beauty about them. As to the others, it is hoped, that their experience will help them to revive their own early artistic pleasures in the work of others.”
And, in turn, Rothko’s own creativity was revived by his students’ unabashed expressiveness. When the artist began teaching, his works were still somewhat figurative, depicting street scenes, landscapes, portraits, and interiors with loose brushwork. Upon retirement, his style had transformed to complete abstraction, taking the form of vivid, color-filled canvases that he hoped would intuitively resonate with adults and children alike.