Posted May 20, 2008

Printmaker's renaissance begins at 50-something

Bachelor of fine arts: printmaking

Like almost every other graduating student at Temple's Tyler School of Art, Cheryl A. Rybacki's journey to a bachelor of fine arts degree in printmaking began with a childhood spark.

Yet few Temple students at today's commencement ceremony have walked a path as long and circuitous as Rybacki's, so please forgive the family and friends of this 53-year-old former South Philly green grocer and mother of two grown children if their graduation party is a bit more emotional than most.

"Going back to school has been so challenging," Rybacki said. "From the beginning, I thought: 'Can I really swim in the deep end?' Now I'm going to have that degree, and no one can take that away from me."

Born into a working-class family in Delran, N.J., Rybacki wasn't brought up going to art museums. Her first dreams of a career in art and design were inspired by animated films and a print of a Rubens drawing in her pediatrician's waiting room. A supportive art teacher encouraged her to apply for a scholarship to the Art Institute of Philadelphia, where she completed a two-year program after graduating from high school in 1973.

After a few years as a freelance designer, Rybacki met her husband, Don, in South

Philadelphia, where he converted a South Street flower shop into South Side Produce, a fruit and vegetable vendor that became a neighborhood institution. With Cheryl

Photo by Joseph V. Labolito/Temple University
Cheryl A. Rybacki came to the Tyler School of Art as a nontraditional student in 2006 to study printmaking. While going back to school presented her with some challenges, she wants to tell anyone who is thinking about going back to school to “Just do it!”

pitching in on everything from checkout to accounting, the store became the center of the family's life for more than 15 years.

In the early 1990s, Rybacki started volunteering at her daughter's school, a part-time gig that blossomed into a full-time job and rekindled a long-dormant desire to restart her own education. Eventually, with her family's support, Rybacki started taking a few courses at the Community College of Philadelphia, then cautiously shifted to a full-time schedule, including studio classes.

Then, in 2006, she took the plunge: She transferred to Tyler, where she renewed her exploration of printmaking (a Tyler department that recently earned a top-20 ranking from U.S.News & World Report for the first time in the school's history).

"Printmaking shares issues with other forms of art, like color and composition," Rybacki said, "but there are other processes that come into it — the wood grain, the chemical bath, the press, keeping the paper clean. I like the way you have to think ahead and be flexible."

Although plunging into her art comes naturally to Rybacki, adjusting to life as what administrators call a "nontraditional student" was more of a challenge. It's hard enough to fit in and find your way as a transfer when you're a 20-something undergraduate; for Rybacki, who was mistaken for a parent during her campus tour, it was daunting at times.

"It's hard," she admitted. "Stamina is a challenge; I can't stay up late like I used to. And as an adult, I have other responsibilities on my mind, like my kids, my part-time job at Ikea and the health of my parents. But I get so much energy from my classmates. They've given me new life."

They, in turn, have benefited from Rybacki's steadying presence. When a classmate died suddenly last month, some of her young, grief-stricken fellow students turned to Rybacki for support.

"Going back to school has been so rewarding," Rybacki said. "I feel so engaged. If there's anyone out there who's thinking about going to college at my age: Just do it!"