When guidelines for the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic closed down schools and many businesses, Gabi Nastuck of Latrobe felt bad that her special needs and private art students wouldn’t be able to have their lessons.
She teaches art classes two days a week at Clelian Heights School for Exceptional Children in Hempfield Township, and on other days at Miss Gabi’s Art is Good Studio on Harrison Avenue in Latrobe.
“I worried about what my students were going to do if they’re locked down in the house and can’t go anywhere,” she said. “How was I going to reach them? So I thought that since a lot of the students or their parents have Facebook pages, I’d post lessons there and see what happens. It’s unbelievable, and I never expected this.”
As of Friday morning, the class that she livestreamed on Tuesday had more than 3,200 views. Thursday afternoon’s class was at 1,100 and counting. She offered the lessons by word of mouth and shares on Facebook, and a brief spot on a Pittsburgh news station boosted the views beyond her expectations.
The lessons are open to anyone, they are free and can be viewed at any time by going to her Facebook page, Miss Gabi’s Art is Good Studio. Many of her students posted pictures of their art projects in the comments.
Nastuck is the former director of Latrobe Art Center and opened her own studio on April 10, 2018. She’s in the process of applying for nonprofit status.
“I wanted to bring art to people of all levels of abilities and all ages,” she said.
She found support from the nonprofit East Suburban Citizens Advocacy in Murrysville. Their mission is to provide advocacy and build inclusive opportunities for individuals with developmental disabilities. They put her in touch with some of the groups that she serves, including day and residential programs that bring their clients to her studio.
She has also worked with Westmoreland Case Management Inc., an organization called Above The Challenge in the Irwin area, and other groups in Ligonier and Belle Vernon. In February, she started teaching students at Clelian Heights.
Nastuck also has private students of all ages, summer camps and programs like the Mommy and Me classes for mothers and their children.
“Working with special needs is very rewarding,” she said about that segment of her students. “Art really pulls out a lot of what’s inside of them. The beautiful thing is that there are individuals who nobody ever thought would like painting or drawing, and then we try it, and they love it. Art brings out this whole new personality that they didn’t know they had. There’s a lot inside of them, and even if they cannot communicate, we’re bringing out their voices that haven’t been heard.”
Some, she said, shine with abstract painting where they can create interesting compositions. Others paint and draw so well that people have asked to purchase their art. But the students seldom want to part with something that they created with such love and pride.
“It’s a beautiful thing to know that their art is loved by so many,” she said.
Art helped Nastuck get through some very difficult times in her own life. She was born with osteogenesis imperfecta, commonly known as brittle bone disease, and experienced many broken bones and surgeries through her childhood. She now uses a wheelchair.
“I was laid up for six weeks with a full body cast and was unable to move,” she said. “Drawing, painting and coloring became very important to me, and my pap built me an easel. That was my way of de-stressing and coping, and it played a huge difference in my life.”
She also learned to play classical piano, and was the accompanist for her junior and senior high school choirs in her hometown of Vandergrift. She played, too, for musicals staged by the children’s summer theater camp at Apple Hill Playhouse in Delmont.
When it came time to attend college, Nastuck had to choose between music and art. The latter won, and at St. Vincent College she pursued a bachelor degree in fine arts with a focus on graphic design.
“Art enriched my life so much that I wanted to give back,” she said.
The first live stream art project on Tuesday was a drawing called “Bee the Light” with cute little bees and sunflowers. Thursday’s theme was an underwater scene of colorful fish. She calls it “Just Keep Swimming” in reference to getting through all the changes everyone is currently experiencing.
“Now in this crazy time where everybody is in a panic, if I can make you smile for at least one hour, if I can make you laugh, then I have done my job for today,” Nastuck said.
Young artists can use crayons, markers or colored pencils on any kind of paper that they have on hand, and follow the lessons step by step. New sessions will be livestreamed at 1 p.m. next Tuesday and Thursday, with the themes yet to be announced.