When Independence High School teacher Leonard Buscemi was approached by Knight Theatre Head Director Cade Butler to help draw caricatures of students from the upcoming musical production, Buscemi had no idea he was embarking upon a learning opportunity for both him and his students.
Butler was interested in creating a unique playbill for the annual musical production “Matilda” that showcased the wide variety of students that make a musical happen. From technical theatre students to the actors and musicians, he knew that Buscemi could take the playbill to the next level.
Rather than including traditional headshots of everyone that made the musical happen, Buscemi would hand draw ink caricatures of each of the students.
“He not only agreed enthusiastically but went further to suggest that every student and director involved in the program should have one sketched headshot in the program,” said IHS Choir Director Robert Draper.
In full, Buscemi had a list of 156 people to draw.
As an artist’s artist, Buscemi started by studying the great Al Hirschfeld, known for caricatures of celebrities and Broadway stars who also hid the name of his daughter Nina in all his drawings.
Soon, Buscemi started drawing, hiding the name of each person he was drawing within their piece. Each piece is personalized with some aspect of what makes that person unique and includes great detail in the face, using a cross-hatch technique that he developed over time.
“They progressively got better and better as I developed my technique and style,” Buscemi said.
From November through mid-January, he spent much of his free time drawing each caricature, taking 40 minutes to an hour each during his spare time.
“I worked most of the winter break, waking up at 5 and going to bed at 11,” he said. “Needless to say, I didn’t see much of my family. I didn’t realize the extent of what I had gotten myself into.”
He started to see the dividends of his hard work as students began to witness his artistic journey when he displayed each 11x14 sketch in the art classroom. They began to recognize people they knew and began to ask questions.
“It is one thing to teach art, but a whole other thing for students to witness the process, planning and end result,” he said. “When students were able to see me doing that level of art with such quality, they began to internalize and learn from what they saw.
“It has encouraged them to grow in their art as well.”
While Buscemi’s students are widely recognized with a number of awards year after year, Buscemi hoped to expand their understanding that art is not only about ribbons.
“I wanted my students to learn that repetition gives you the ability to develop style and technique,” he said. “It takes hours and hours of diligent work to ensure growth, and I hope that my journey helped provide them the motivation to find the strength within themselves.”
The end result was incredible with displays of the caricatures lining the foyer prior to the Matilda performances. In the end, he graciously gifted the original drawings to each person that he drew.
“It was so gratifying as parents, students and staff began to see the artwork displayed,” Buscemi said. “The pain of the process was washed away. It was one of those things that had so many benefits -- the reward was much greater than the pain of having to do it.”
At Independence High School, Leonard Buscemi embodies the campus’ mission “Inspire to Learn. Empower to Excel.” He understands that instructing students is not just about teaching rote skills, but modeling their potential.