NEW HAVEN -- An icon in the world of contemporary art, Chuck Close knows a lot about the healing, beneficial aspects of art for young people. In fact, he frequently says, "If I didn't go to Yale, I would have gone to jail. Art saved my life."
On Monday, Close returned to the campus of Yale University -- where he received a master of fine arts degree in 1964 and once taught -- not to lecture art-savvy doctoral candidates, but to hang out "with my kids" at the oldest university art gallery in the United States.
His kids are 34 students in the sixth through eighth grades from Bridgeport's Roosevelt School -- and none had ever before visited the gallery.
The Manhattan-based artist, who turns 73 on July 5, has befriended the students as a volunteer mentor with the President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities and its national Turnaround Arts Initiative pilot program. Roosevelt is one of eight schools in the nation to participate in the two-year public-private program, which aims to improve low-performing schools by increasing student "engagement" through the arts.
Monday's tour of the recently renovated and expanded Yale Art Gallery was Close's third meeting with the group. The first was in November at the South End school. In December, the students traveled by bus to view a solo exhibition by the artist that was being featured at the Pace Gallery in Chelsea.
Now that the students have become more familiar with Close, they seemed to be a lot more eager to express their opinions on the Yale collection, which covers thousands of years from antiquity to contemporary art, involving various media from sculpture and photographs to paintings and decorative arts.
"They're so much more articulate now and seem so passionate about learning," Close said while touring in his customized wheelchair. Although he continues to paint, a catastrophic spinal artery collapse left him severely paralyzed in 1988.
Several Roosevelt teachers agreed that the results so far have been extraordinary.
"Absolutely unbelievable," said the school's art teacher, Rachel Monsam.
"His involvement has been an overall morale booster -- not just for the kids, but for the teachers," she said, noting that the absenteeism rate has fallen and behavioral problems have all but disappeared from her classroom.
"The students really look forward to art class. There's huge excitement -- and the students want to learn more and more about all different types of art," she said.
Roosevelt music teacher Gerard Tondiand reading teacher/librarian Chirs Oburchayagreed that the program is having a beneficial effect at the school, with students seemingly more interested in a variety of subjects.
Close, best known for his photographs, prints and hyper-realist, huge-scale portrait paintings, encouraged the students to maintain an open mind while viewing art.
"I remember when I first saw a painting by Jackson Pollock," which appeared to be a paint-spattered mess, he said, laughing.
He said he thought: "This can't be art. I was outraged ... Anyone could do this. But then I went home ... and it was grating on me. It was life-changing, because I realized that it was so shocking and so new. It quickly became part of the art world, which is elastic and expanding all the time. I realized that there are a lot more followers than innovators" in the arts.