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Design Alum Claire Forste Talks Life and Education in Harlem

BYU grad Claire Forste hopes to change the art education curriculum by showcasing the art created and curated in the diverse neighborhood of Harlem, New York

Claire Forste, a Utah native, graduated from the design department’s illustration program in 2019. Since graduation, Forste has gone on to move cross country to the nation’s creative playground: New York City.

When asked in an interview, “Why New York?” the young artist responded, “New York attracts people from all over the world. A friend of mine always jokes, ‘Every person I've met in New York is the most interesting person I've ever met.’ And I think there's some truth to that. The space is incredibly energizing and motivating.”

Forste continued, “ gives me new ideas. I think about things in ways I wouldn't have before. Being able to go to the Met or the MoMA and be able to study these works of art in person is really remarkable.”

She added that there has never been a dull moment since she moved to the city. “I think I've had more ideas, more opportunities and there are more chances for diversity of thought.”

Although she admitted that having a formal degree for a career in design isn’t necessary, Forste said the skills she learned during her time at BYU are “invaluable.”

“I would not be as talented of an artist as I am without that training. And I think most importantly is the cohort, the BFA program has about 40 people in it and we're all very close and tight-knit,” she said.

Three months after receiving her degree, Forste took the leap of faith and moved to the City That Never Sleeps — without a job lined up. She has made her living by doing side jobs and freelance work.

One of her freelance projects was to create the artwork for the New York version of the card game “Love Letters.”

“A graphic designer at Squarespace wanted to buy her own copy but realized it was out of print. So she decided to just make her own New York version. She asked me to make all of the illustrations for it. It’s in that kind of that art deco, New York speakeasy kind of theme. We call it, ‘Telegraphs on Fifth,’” said Forste.

Forste dove deep into her research to produce an authentic product. “It was fun to illustrate within that specific style and make something that's so New York specific. I was able to explore all the different character designs and try to find real people who lived in the city to base it on,” she said.

This fall, Forste will be given a new opportunity to share the light and beauty that art can bring. This time, however, it won’t be on a canvas. Come September, the artist will start her new position as a teacher for the Harlem Children’s Zone, a charter school system designed for and focused on child success and college acceptance.

Children enroll in kindergarten and stay through high school at Harlem Children’s. The school's unique system works with the children throughout their education to help graduates go on to enroll in colleges and universities. These schools are placed in areas with predominantly high dropout rates. Prenatal classes are offered to mothers who are pregnant so they can learn the fundamentals of early childhood development. These classes lead the child to be more prepared come time for kindergarten.

“It's just an incredible model because it shows that it's not the kid’s fault, it's not their parent’s, it's not that there's something wrong with them, it's just the structure. And when you give them that consistency, they're able to achieve anything. I really admire the program,” Forste said.

The teacher-to-be has been hard at work trying to figure out how to teach and change the art curriculum system. “I've been doing a lot of research and looking into creating a curriculum that is reflective of just how diverse the art world actually is. It’s discouraging the way our education teaches it. Elementary school through college is exceptionally Eurocentric. There are so many wonderful artists throughout the rest of the world that just go unnoticed.”

Forste said that since most of her students in Harlem will be people of color, she wants to teach them that there were great artists that also came from Harlem. “I want their role models to be the artists who are doing work now and that did work in the past that look like them.” Forste will be creating her own multicultural curriculum and teaching art to third, fourth and fifth graders.