“I was born and raised in the Bronx,” says White Plains resident Neil Waldman, an author and illustrator for the past 40 years. “I come from a blue-collar family. No one that I’d ever met had gone to college except my teachers.”
Years later, when Monika Dolan, an assistant principal at MS 225, invited Waldman back to the Bronx to speak with students about his life and career, he found that, for many, not much had changed. College was still a far-off prospect. “I met kids who loved art, but didn’t know that you could do it as a profession,” he says.
Out of that visit, the Fred Dolan Art Academy, named after Dolan’s departed husband, was born. The free program, which Waldman had wanted to establish for years, allows students to study art with Waldman and other professional artists and teachers every Saturday that school is in session—about 32 Saturdays per year. The goal: Create a portfolio to use to apply to colleges and for scholarships. Some students start as early as fifth grade, giving up their weekends until their senior year (when they also work on their portfolios over the summer).
The Fred Dolan Art Academy is only in its eighth year, having moved to a new home at MS 45, but its success is undeniable. Every one of the program’s graduates—more than 20 in all—are
currently in college on scholarship. They’ve been accepted to such schools as the Rhode Island School of Design, New York University, the Fashion Institute of Technology, and Purchase College. There are currently 45 students enrolled (up from just six the first year the school started).
“They’re ideal students,” Waldman says. “Almost none of their parents have been to college, and they don’t understand the value of college. They’re pressured to drop out of school and get a job. So the people who come into this program are choosing to come in and work—and we work them really hard—rather than playing outside on the street with their friends. They’re strong people, since they have to buck all the pressure in their world.”
Appreciation is mutual. “The program is amazing!” says Pauline Lewis, a graduate who’s now at Dartmouth College. “I was a good artist when I went, but now I’m a fantastic artist. If I hadn’t gone [to the Dolan Academy], I’d never have been as good. I wouldn’t be going to college. The portfolio I created at the Dolan Academy really helped.”
Because of the tremendous success and subsequent increased popularity of the school, coupled with budget cuts to the organizations that helped support it, the Fred Dolan Art Academy had to start turning away students for the first time. “It gave me such a sick feeling to do that,” Waldman says. “That really pushed me. I had to find a way to raise more money.”
He did so in a manner befitting an author and illustrator: by starting a not-for-profit publishing house, Dream Yard Press. It released its first hardcover picture book, Al and Teddy, about two brothers exploring imaginary worlds, in September. Every penny of profit from the book sales goes back to supporting the Fred Dolan Art Academy.
What’s more, the tale of Al and Teddy is close to Waldman’s heart. “It was sitting down inside me for many, many years,” he says. “It’s based on my childhood experience, going back to when I convinced my brother that there was a secret kingdom under the Bronx. So I knew that it would be one of my most important, personal, and powerful stories.” And it’ll lead the way for future artists to tell their own stories down the line.
For more on how to buy Al and Teddy, or to support the Fred Dolan Art Academy, visit alandteddy.com.