This is not your mother's art room.
Unless your name is Zach Lombardi.
One recent school day, Janet Lombardi's 4th-graders at PS 60 on Staten Island were putting the finishing touches on wire and papier-maché sculptures of figures in motion. Three miles away, Zach Lombardi's 4th-graders at PS 29 were doing the same, albeit with figures a bit less traditional.
In both art rooms, projects filled shelves and window sills. Art hung on walls and on lines stretched across the room. Sculptures overflowed onto the floor.
Mother and son both teach pre-K through 5th grade and follow the New York City Blueprint for Teaching and Learning in the Arts. In the 2nd and 5th grades, students must meet benchmarks in painting, drawing, print-making, collage, sculpture, graphic design and digital media.
"A lot of it is fostering good habits and learning strategies. They get different skills every year and have this toolbox to take to middle school," says Zach Lombardi, who left a thriving art program at PS 200 in Brooklyn to build one at PS 29, where there was no program for two decades until he arrived in September.
"They're not all going to be artists," he says, "but the art room can be a place where we learn to collaborate and problem-solve and make mistakes and learn from them."
The goal in elementary school, says his mother, is to expose students to all the different art-making experiences. "I call it the art buffet," she says. "You let them try everything and see what they enjoy, what they're good at. They're so excited to tell their own stories, and I love honoring their voices."
Zach Lombardi says the more he challenges his students, the more amazing their work. "They have great ideas and they feed you. You leave work and you want to make art, too. And having your own artistic practice, you're doing what you preach every day."
Janet Lombardi's aunt was a professional artist and her mother "dabbled" in art. "Growing up, my parents took me to museums," she remembers. "There were a lot of books in the house about different artists." She studied art because she enjoyed it, but became a social worker. She began teaching art 20 years ago.
She introduced her son to the "rock star" artists like Henri Matisse — whose "very colorful, very free, kind of abstract work helps kids open up" — and to modern ones as well. As a teenager, he sometimes accompanied her to class.
"I wasn't trying to grow him into anything. I was just sharing something I loved — art and my work," she says.
"This is something she is so passionate about," says her son. "It's the thing she gave to me: I wouldn't have thought about teaching if it weren't for her."
Zach Lombardi has already made an impact at PS 29. "He created a buzz from day one," says Chapter Leader Brian Stephens. "Students are getting such an in-depth art experience and parents, teachers and administration love everything he's doing."
Among the activities he's organized are grant-funded programs with two city museums, a go-kart program with 5th-graders and an afterschool arts club.
Mother and son share a passion for animals and the environment. They want students to know art can be used to reach communities and to enact positive change.
Through Art for Animals, Janet Lombardi's brainchild, they make art about animals, learn about wildlife conservation and raise money for charities, including the Rainforest Foundation and the National Audubon Society, by selling classroom creations. They've celebrated the bald eagle's return to Staten Island, "adopted" birds from Audubon and donated to save a gorilla.
Fifth-grade teacher Trisha Walsh describes Janet Lombardi's room as an "inviting, friendly, no pressure kind of place." She praises projects that include teaching students about the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, then making balloon puppets.
"I wish I were a kid in her classroom," says Walsh. "Some children don't do well socially or academically. Some have issues at home. But in that room, they all feel cherished and valued and successful, and she does that."
In 2017, mother and son presented a workshop on Environmental Education in the Art Classroom at a citywide conference.
"It's nice to have this common thing we do," says Zach Lombardi.
"I don't know many people who can collaborate with their child on a professional level," says his mother.
Recently, each received a Service in Schools grant to support community action and education as a tool for change. It provides professional development and funds an afterschool program.
"The beauty of my position," Janet Lombardi says, "is its flexibility. I have the freedom to do fun stuff with kids and to be creative. And if I'm passionate about saving the planet and I want to empower children to make a difference in the world, I can do that, too."
Years ago, her son told her, "You're doing such an amazing thing with your life."
Now he knows what she knows: "Art teaching keeps you happy," Zach Lombardi says. "It's good for your soul."