CoTA's teaching artists are professionals within their own fields of study.
Their work can be seen on stage, on exhibit and in publications worldwide. Several also serve as instructors at San Diego's public and private universities. In addition to serving as experts in their respective art forms, CoTA teaching artists have undergone intensive training in backwards design, project-based learning, arts-integrated pedagogy and the new academic standards, including Common Core, Next Generation Science and National Core Arts Standards.
Amanda Peñaloza-Banks, Teaching Artist (BA Honors, Contemporary Dance and Choreography, London Contemporary Dance School)
“We dance in relationship to ourselves, others and the world around us. This whole-bodied immersion provides an opportunity for physical, cognitive and social-emotional growth.”
Amanda Peñaloza-Banks’s dance pedagogy focuses on the the multi-faceted ways in which movement is beneficial to our wellbeing. With extensive training in dance performance, choreography, and teaching, she performed for 15 years with contemporary dance companies in Europe. The central role that European dance companies place on educational work began her 20+ years practice in the field of dance and movement education.
Amanda teaches in community and professional settings. She has been a speaker, facilitator and trainer for seminars, workshops and courses on three continents, and has been a teaching artist with CoTA for the last five years. Other current work includes actor movement training and period dance on USD’s MFA Theatre Program (2013-current), and a community based expressive dance practice for adults (2013-current). Amanda is also currently studying on a Movement Analysis and Somatic Practice Program.
Jodi Tucci Brisebois, Teaching Artist (BA Fine Arts, School of The Art Institute of Chicago)
Jodi Tucci Brisebois is an experienced collaborator, educator, and visual artist. She works in her California garden studio and with a variety of neighborhood communities. Always creating work to tell a story, she creates public participation installations like with Mo’olelo Performing Arts Company’s for Adoption Project: Triad, and Stick Fly. From large-scale installations and set design to international commissions and exhibitions, the true essence of Jodi’s artistry is through the connections she facilitates between artist and community. With a philanthrophic desire for community building through arts education, CoTA is an extension of Jodi’s artistic philosophies. Ardent in creative community development, Jodi continues to expand her collaborative connections in order to nurture vibrant centers of local arts and culture.
Her recent collaborations have included theatre set work was with Transcendance of National City and painting commission with MotherToBabyCA at UCSD. Jodi has been presented with the Art and Environmental Solutions Award for CHALK and The American Institute of Architects’ Spirit of Service Award given in recognition for her work in the community. As an artist educator, she was featured in "Personal Visions", at the Museum of Photographic Arts in San Diego. She is nationally published in the text books Art: A Community Connection and Theatre: Art In Action.
In addition to CoTA, Jodi works as a visual arts educator with the National City- based ARTS (A Reason to Survive) Center and the Institute of Arts Education.
Carmela Castrejón, Teaching Artist (BA Fine Arts, Emphasis in Sculpture, San Diego State University; Bilingual/Cross-Cultural Teaching Credential, San Diego State University)
A seasoned interdisciplinary visual artist with over twenty years of teaching experience, Carmela Castrejón has participated in numerous collaborative projects world wide.
Castrejón is experienced in the many roles related to the art-making process and has an extensive background in production and both solo and group exhibition. Internationally, her work exhibited in Tijuana Organica at Space Studios, Corner house, England; Imagining the Book at Alexandria Bibliotheque, Egypt; and biennials in Sydney, Australia, and Venice, Italy. Additionally, Carmela’s photographic essays have shown in Spain, South Africa, Australia, Mexico,and the United States.
Her recent exhibits include Vallum Castra, at Woodbury University, San Diego, California, and Signos, Sentidos y Deseo at Museo IIC, Mexicali, California, and Capitulo II ARS Latina, Ceart, Tecate, Mexico. Carmela possesses an inherent, philanthropic desire to educate and creatively inspire individuals from all walks of life. This includes correctional populations and, in particular, underserved youth. In addition to her artistic craft being exhibited internationally, Carmela has also taught globally. Carmela has worked extensively with youth of all ages in school programs where art has been used as an inclusive tool to promote literacy, writing, and life science concepts.
In alignment with CoTA, her philosophy of teaching art is not about the outcome, but on the process itself.
Leonardo Francisco, Lead Artist (BA Visual Arts Media, University of California, San Diego)
Long-time arts educator, Leo Francisco (BA, UCSD Film and Video) is passionate about the possibilities of the arts as ways for children to explore, represent, and deepen their learning experiences. As a Lead Artist for CoTA (Collaborations: Teachers and Artists) and Arts for Learning San Diego, he teaches visual arts, dance, and arts-integration classes for elementary school students, teachers, and parents throughout San Diego County.
In recent years, Leo has led visual arts-infused math workshops at various educator conferences, including CABE (California Association for Bilingual Education), CSBA (California School Boards Association), and the Arts Empower Mega Conference.
When he's not teaching or playing with his 9-year old twins, Leo loses (and finds) himself in comics, children's books, hip hop, and samba.
Iain Gunn, Teaching Artist (BA Photography, Painting, and Printmaking, University of British Columbia)
From stilt walking to circus performance, Iain Gunn is privy to the colorful mystique of performance art. Puppetmaster extraordinaire, Canadian-born Gunn is drawn to the immediate creative element of street action and theatre, giant puppetry, commedia dell'arte, butoh dance, and shadow puppetry. Iain is currently a performer for the Animal Cracker Conspiracy, Dragon Knights/Stilt Theatre,and the San Diego Guild of Puppetry. Vital to Iain’s inventive passion is his work with youth from all walks of life. Iain’s arts- and culture-based pedadogy alongside his incessant wanderlust has taken him to countries such as Finland, Indonesia, South Africa, and Italy to participate in profound and rigorous workshops.
In Iain’s thirteen years of implementing the arts with youth in San Diego, he has served as a lead teaching artist with the San Diego Guild of Puppetry and artist in residence at the San Diego Children’s Museum. Most recently, he created a new arts-based curriculum with Young Audiences as part of their LAB program, successfully reaching students in underserved communities.
Ultimately, the fusion of visual art, theatre, and performance as a method for introspection and creative identity formation is critical to Iain as both an artist and educator.
Evie Mantone, Teaching Artist (BA Fine Arts, Emphasis in Sculpture, New Mexico State University)
Although many artists possess varied skill sets, Yvette "Evie" Mantone is especially unique due to her mechanical engineering background. Logical yet imaginative, Evie integrates the highly technical properties of engineering into sculpture. The works of Evie envelope a balance of both masculine and feminine qualities, as her sculptures invoke a unique presence with their voluptuous curves of steel, strung tight with rigid scores of yarn.
By pushing her materials into unlikely forms, she reverses their expected roles and manifests a feeling of androgyny. Inspired as a child growing up in New Jersey by the art of classical cartoons, Evie pursued and developed her passion while traveling throughout the United States, finally growing her artistic roots in New Mexico, where she received a bachelor of fine arts degree with an emphasis in sculpture from New Mexico State University.
While in college, Evie worked as a sculpture studio monitor for the Art Department at New Mexico State University, overseeing and maintaining studio equipment and materials. She also served as president of the Art Department Sculpture Club and was a volunteer at the Alamogordo Homeless Shelter. In addition, Evie participated in several juried art shows and was awarded Artist of the Week and featured in the Las Cruces Sun-News for her exceptional collection of works.
As a teaching artist for CoTA, Evie has the ability to foster creativity from both a scientific and expressive framework. While at CoTA, she utilizes her substitute teaching credential at the Chula Vista Elementary School District. Evie currently resides in San Diego where she continues expanding her portfolio and teaching art integration in the classroom.
April McBride, Lead Artist and Program Coordinator (BA Theatre Arts, University of California, San Diego)
A true performer at heart, April has always aspired to becoming an actress. An actress and singer who has performed extensively in San Diego and North County for close to twenty years, April has directed several productions for the stage and brings her passion for performance to all aspects of theatre, including vocal coaching for musicals and teaching character development.
April has enjoyed performing on San Diego stages in a wide array of theatrical productions, in which she has received three Aubrey awards for Best Actress for the role of Luisa in The Fantastiks, Lizzie in 110 in the Shade, and Lorraine in The Man Who Came to Dinner. April values the unique dynamic between performer and audience, from large-scale theatrical productions to intimate classroom spaces. Intent on developing the inner performer within individuals, April’s vibrant passion for the intricacies in vocal art and performance are contagious to both students and teachers alike in the classroom.
Danielle Michaelis-Castillo, Lead Artist (MFA Visual Arts, University of California, San Diego; MS Counseling, San Diego State University)
Danielle Michaelis Castillo combines her passion for art with her interest in human development and personal growth. Michaelis Castillo’s approach to arts education is holistic and inclusive, intent on fostering creative development in youth. In the community she has designed and taught arts-based interdisciplinary curriculum for San Diego City/County Schools and the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego.
Well-versed in the transformative dynamic of artistic expression, her scholarly and creative work focuses on the intersection between community art and its therapeutic value for underserved youth. In 1996, as a commission for the San Diego Children’s Museum, she worked with youth collaborators to reconstruct a teenager’s bedroom as the basis for examining a broad range of developmental, health, and social issues. This project won a State of California Health Department grant and was redesigned to travel into high schools and community centers throughout San Diego County from 1997 through 1999. From 1999 to 2003, Michaelis Castillo co-founded and directed the Voices Project, a media arts program for underserved youth based in southeastern San Diego. More recently Michaelis Castillo has presented case-study research on the impact of community arts on the mental health of underserved youth.
In addition to serving as a lead artist at CoTA and working as a licensed therapist in private practice, Michaelis Castillo teaches Art Fundamentals at USD for students seeking to enter elementary education.
Annika Nelson, Lead Artist (MA Education, San Diego State University; BA Fine Arts, University of California, Santa Cruz)
The work of Annika Nelson bears a stunning similarity to her character: vivacious, warm, and inventive.Her work crosses cultural borders, encourages dialogue between generations, and portrays images of everyday life and the environment through her colorful prints and illustrations.
Annika has illustrated a number of books including Folk Wisdom of Mexico (Chronicle Books, 1994), Canto Familiar (Harcourt Brace, 1995), Pumpkin Prize (Macmillan, 1996), Dancing with Dziadziu (Harcourt Brace, 1997), Child of God (Liturgy Training Publication, 1997), Dominga's Wonderful Year (Liturgical Press, 2003), and Colors of Me (Sleeping Bear Press, 2012). Her illustrations appear in the San Diego Union-Tribune newspaper and in various magazines including Ladybug Magazine, Spider Magazine, Rock & Ice, and Climbing Magazine. She also produces images for companies, including Patagonia, Elite Racing, McMillan Companies, the San Diego Commission for Arts and Culture, Arthritis Foundation–San Diego Chapter, and the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club.
She is currently represented by Kelly Sonnack with the Andrea Brown Literary Agency. In addition to her illustration work, she has designed a number of interactive public art pieces. In 2005, Annika was awarded a $22,000 grant from the San Diego Port's Public Art Commission to design a series of interactive sculptures for Tidelands Park in Coronado. The project was unveiled January 21, 2006. In 2012, she created an interactive installation for the Artist Lens series at the New Children's Museum in San Diego titled El Camino. This installation opened to the public on May 31, 2012.
She also won the Leucadia 101 Bike Rack Design Competition. For nearly five years, Annika worked at the Children's Museum/Museo de los Niños in San Diego as the studio program curator and art director, developing and coordinating art-making activities and classes for its youth audience. Her responsibilities at the museum included bringing artists, parents, teachers, and children together to generate discovery and dialogue through art making. She also has been instrumental in the development and organization of a collaborative project between Rady Children's Hospital and Art Partners in Healing, a group of artists, designers, and students. Through their combined efforts, professional artists and art students develop and conduct art-making activities at the hospital, working with groups of patients, their siblings, and parents as well as working individually with patients at the bedside.
Annika's work as an artist and arts educator has led to consultancies and collaborations with the San Diego Museum of Art, the Senior Centers of San Diego, CoTA , the California Center for the Arts Escondido, and with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art's experimental children's studio, LACMA Lab. She teaches art and arts integration courses at UC San Diego Extension where she also serves a role as Associate Director of Arts & Languages Programs.
Albert R. Songalia, Teaching Artist (BA Visual Arts, University of California, San Diego)
Playful and young-at-heart, Albert Songalia is the embodiment of a fun-loving artist. A hardcore geek and former b-boy (breakdancer), his artistic practice is heavily influenced and inspired by pop and hip-hop culture. Albert's youthful energy was a creative asset at the New Children's Museum for over seven years. The museum's motto of "Think, Play, Create" is reflected in his desire to incorporate playful, interactive, and functional elements into his art as well as his more craftier creations. Albert also serves as a teacher and mentor at A Reason To Survive, or ARTS, a non-profit based in National City that provides free after-school art and music workshops for youth and teens. He is also a community artist with ARTS, having designed and painted murals at different sites in National City and Chula Vista. Albert's time as a CoTA artist has opened him up to learning and experimenting with different art forms and practices, thanks to his CoTA colleagues. He looks forward to future collaborations and more educational fun.
Christina Thurston, Teaching Artist (MEd, Lesley University; BS Biology/Minor: Chemistry, San Diego State University)
Kind-hearted and charismatic, Christina Thurston is a San Diego native, seasoned artist, and educator. With a connection to both the built and natural environment, her all-encompassing work is multifaceted, captivating, and soothing. As a public artist, her large-scale works include Aloha Spirit on Garnet Avenue in Pacific Beach, murals at La Jolla Village Center, The Forum, Point Loma High School, and De Portola Middle School. Within the realm of set design, Christina has trained and organized teams of artists to create scenery and backdrops for productions and plays as the charge scenic artist for the Old Globe Theatre and Image Events. She has also worked as a scenic artist for television episodes of Point Pleasant and Veronica Mars.
Accompanying her work at CoTA, Christina is a master teaching artist with Young Audiences of San Diego and a visual arts instructor with UC San Diego Extension. She also teaches art lessons to home-schooled children and painting and drawing classes to adults through UC San Diego Extension.
In addition to holding an MEd, Christina holds a bachelor of science degree with a major in biology with plant physiology emphasis and a minor in chemistry from San Diego State University. She has additional courses in art, ceramics, technical illustration, graphic design, and computer technology and multimedia from SDSU, Grossmont College, Cuyamaca College, and San Diego Mesa College. Having a multidisciplinary academic background, Christina is able to bring her knowledge of science and art to offer additional insight into providing students with rich learning experiences.
In keeping with her love for her native San Diego back country, Christina has helped to found a plein air painting group in Pine Valley, California, where she spends most weekends painting outdoors.
Natalia Valerdi, Teaching Artist (MFA Dance and Technology, University of California, Irvine)
Skilled in both creative movement and visual art, Natalia Valerdi is a choreographer and digital media artist. Though her work with CoTA began in 2011, Natalia has extensive teaching experience. Locally, her body of work includes dance instruction at La Jolla Country Day School and Bonita Vista High School, in addition to serving as the San Diego Dance Theater's Kids On Board education/outreach coordinator, providing students in San Diego County schools an opportunity to develop site-specific dance.
Her recent choreographic works include Caught, My Tears are a River, and White Dreams.
Natalia’s work expands globally, as she has performed, taught, and choreographed in Cuba, Europe, and Mexico. She is currently associate director of the Patricia Rincon Dance Collective, a local dance theatre troupe that completed a tour to Europe in 2013.
Among other works she coproduced with Patricia Rincon is Latino Now: Landscape of Desire, a documentary dance film about the American dream and the immigration debate, which was screened in Buenos Aires, Argentina, San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, and at the San Diego Repertory Theatre.
She has also worked as projection designer with UK choreographer Yolande Snaith, and with San Diego choreographer Alicia Rincon.
Natalia is also a founder of the Mid-Air-Trio, an improvisational jazz trio in collaboration with visual artist Anna Stump and musician Joyce Rooks, who have participated in happenings including Autumn Lights LA (2010 and 2012). She is currently a lecturer at the University of California, San Diego and at San Diego City College, and is raising two ninjas.
Reneé Weissenburger, Lead Artist (MA Literature, California State University San Marcos)
Reneé Weissenburger draws on her passion for literature, photography, and feminist theory to inform her teaching approach with CoTA and her creative investigation of memory, history, and the establishment of identity.
Her work with CoTA has asked students to examine their own ideologies using the mediums of writing, photography, assemblage and installation art, while remaining deeply concerned with expanding their sensitivity, perception, and creative skills. Apart from her dedicated work with CoTA, Weissenburger currently teaches literature and creative writing at National University and photography at UC San Diego Extension.
Dia Ellen Bassett, Teaching Artist (San Diego State University, M.F.A., Sculpture/B.A. Romance Language, Art, Minor: Theatre)
Dia Ellen Bassett is a visual and performing artist engaged in the experimental and complex relationships found in seemingly mundane materials. Dia Ellen has the profound capacity to transform many materials recognizable within the everyday domestic sphere: linens, thread, worn clothing, among others. Her work is inspired and informed by the human experience: she often reflects on the past and future during the act of collecting materials, creating thread, and assembling line. In 2010, Dia Ellen received the Isabel Craft Scholarship to study textiles with artist Lucy Brown at Oxford University in London. Dia Ellen currently curates art exhibitions merging visual arts in diverse media alongside performance and community-engaging activities.
Leah Thomas (Michigan State University, B.A., English/Minor: German; Secondary Education Michigan Teaching Certification)
Michigan native Leah Thomas’ artistic endeavors showcase a multifaceted ingenuity. A graduate of the Clarion Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers’ Workshop, her debut novel, “Because You’ll Never Meet Me (2015),” was a finalist for the 2016 Morris Award. Leah’s work has appeared in both print and digital publications such as Asimov’s, Ideomancer, Daily Science Fiction and the Weird Fiction Review. While an accomplished author, Leah engages in cosplay (short for “costume play”): the meticulous creation of costumes inspired by fictional characters. Leah’s 2016 Comic-Con International cosplay of Diva Plavalaguna from The Fifth Element movie, has received accolades from the Los Angeles Times, MSN.com and the San Diego Union Tribune, to name a few.
Innately attuned to the value of arts education, Leah has long believed that approaching problems from a place of imagination and invention can make learning rewarding in ways it otherwise wouldn’t be. She is an educator with a global understanding of English Language Learners. From her experiences in Taipei, Taiwan, to stateside teaching to diverse economic and cultural backgrounds, Leah’s exposure to a diverse demographic ensures competencies of differentiated learning.
Tori Rice (Arizona State University, M.F.A., Creative Writing, Playwriting/B.A., Theatre)
Accomplished playwright, educator, and performing artist Tori Rice brings a unique skillset to CoTA: serving as a guest artist/teacher with the Aurora Mime Theatre, using improvisation, dance and movement theatre in elementary school classrooms as a tool to enhance learning. For over two decades, Tori’s work has spanned across California and Arizona to multiple audiences. In alignment to CoTA’s methodologies of teaching, Tori has fostered collaboration, teamwork and communication throughout her residencies. This past year, Tori won first place in the Scripteasers annual play contest titled "Like Ivy." She also enjoyed a performance of a commissioned piece titled “Sisters in the System,” based on interviews with individuals involved in the Juvenile Dependency and Delinquency court systems.
Jessica Findley (New York University, Master’s, Interactive Telecommunications Program, Tisch School of the Arts Evergreen State College, B.A., Film, Video, Animation and Hybrid Music)
Jessica Findley is an educator and multimedia artist with a profound understanding of the experiential, technical, and aesthetic dimensions of creativity. Jessica continues to explore the interplay of visual, sonic, and interactive mediums, garnering international recognition for her work. One of her artworks in particular titled, “The Aeolian Ride” has been inflating everyday cyclists in their cities around the globe for over a decade. Owner of her own design firm, Jessica’s well renowned clientele includes Moleskine, GirlScouts of America, Sony, LEGO and The New York Times. Jessica utilizes a number of skills from her background to engage students in inspirational and interactive lessons, as well as combining playfulness and creative problem solving.
Hannah has been fortunate enough to work professionally in theatre, television and film and has also written plays, directed and produced and in 2012 made her home in San Diego. Locally, she has received a San Diego Critics’ Circle Award for her portrayal of Agnes in ion theatre’s Bug, and a SDCC nomination for her portrayal of Virginia in New Village Arts The Clean House. Recently, she assistant directed Robby Lutfy in the production of Bad Jews at Cygnet Theatre. She performed her one-woman show Work: In Progress at the San Diego International Fringe Festival in 2012, and at the 2017 Fringe Festival two of her short plays were featured in Out to Lunch, which San Diego Union Tribune called one of Fringe’s “Best Bests.” One-half of Logan Squared Productions, she co-produces theatre, film and other artsy things, including THAT 24-HOUR THING, an annual weekend playwriting festival in the Fringe Festival, with her partner Ron Logan.