Sunday, December 17, 2006

Ruth Shuman of Publicolor

by Kate Ballen Ruth Shuman of Publicolor 12.18.06 — As lively as the lime green and sunburst yellow walls in her lower Madison Avenue offices, Ruth Shuman works a seven day week as founder of Publicolor. Her energy feels contagious as she simultaneously talks and smiles warmly at the rainbow coalition of teenagers typing and answering phones in the loft like space. Ruth Shuman’s mission: More color in the lives of thousands of students attending drab, peeling inner city schools. “I always have believed that if I put paintbrushes in the hands of kids, I could give them a sense of ownership. Frankly I have been appalled by how many inner city schools look like prisons,” says this attractive Upper East Sider who, dressed in a well fitted red jacket and elegant grey slacks, looks like she might spend her days as a museum curator.

Dave Sokoloff and Dana Herrman with a Publicolor student at the 2006 Top Coat Coat Party.
But instead Ruth Shuman fearlessly enters schools filled with gang members and violent crime throughout all the boroughs. Over the past decade, Publicolor has transformed almost one hundred buildings in Manhattan, Bronx, and Queens with strong bright colors that the students choose and then paint on their walls. “I’ve met amazing people that nobody writes about, that no one knows,“ she says quietly with genuine feeling. “I’ve met kids with so much uncovered potential that are on the way to dropping out.”  In addition to getting the teenagers to paint their lifeless school walls, Shuman has also started a college prep and mentoring program.

Ruth Shuman’s palette could have been restrained and exclusive. She grew up in Montreal to a “privileged family” but even as a teenager she remembers being drawn to working with troubled youth, the overlooked and neglected. “My father talked me out of being a social worker because he said I was too much of a softie,” she laughs. After a degree from Penn, she raised two sons who went to their neighborhood school of Dalton, pursued a graduate degree from Columbia in Art History, but eventually left to help set up Mayor Lindsey’s taskforce on Industrial design. But Shuman never is one to let life stand still. A newly separated woman, she went on to Pratt for a masters in industrial design while simultaneously helping to develop the Big Apple Circus and becoming a founding board member. “Suddenly my vision jelled,” she says, “I discovered my life's passion.”
Top to bottom: Ruth Lande Shuman, Linda Alixe Thompson, Karma Lande, and Lynne Lande at the Top Coat Coat Party; David Shuman, Ruth Lande Shuman, Nate Shuman, and Michael Shuman at the Top Coat Coat Party; Ruth Shuman and Will Herrman later that night at the evening celebration of the Top Coat Coat Party.
Through the Big Apple Circus, Shuman visited public schools and knew that color had the power to make positive change. She got Estee Lauder to sign on as the first corporate sponsor. There is no doubt that a major part of Shuman’s success with Publicolor is that it is not a casual hobby or charity for her. Within a second of talking, she recites statistics about the education failure in our city (such as one in three teenagers drops out of school). You have to remind yourself as Shuman delves intelligently into literacy problems that this is not a seasoned politician or educator at the podium. Along with Estee Lauder, corporate volunteers such as Credit Suisse, Goldman Sachs, and Bloomberg have signed on and gotten their their hands covered with paint. Not surprisingly, Mayor Bloomberg is known to be one of the first volunteers to arrive at school and one of the last to leave.

Now as ten years at the helm of Publicolor, Ruth Shuman admits that the business of her life now doesn’t leave much time for personal relationships. But she shows no sign of regret. “I treasure my work,” she says earnestly. In fact, she says she’s hoping to spend the next period of her life mentoring a new Publicolor leader and talking more publicly about  the drop out rates in our schools. “I’ve gotten so much more serious about life. I’m so driven by time and the urgency of our education problems,” she says. Shuman then pauses, pushes aside her thick manicured hair, and twists the fantastic large pink plastic ring designed by close friend, designer Gaetano Pesci. “I hope I finish life with a paintbrush in my hand,” she says with fulfillment.
Alice McKown, Clarinda Howell, David Clements, and Lori Miller
Amanda Cox and a publicolor student
Artist Vadie Turner
Auwa and Sydney Seiff
Colleen Stokes
George Motz Jr. and Ruby Motz
L. to r.: Vadie Turner, Kate Burton, Clay Ezell, and John Jalbrzykowski; Sam Cox.
Later that night, l. to r.: Artyom Kolodeznoy, Jennifer Diggins, Susana Moyer, Nikki Kule, and Andrew Torrey; Gael Towey, Stephen Doyle, and Jean Graham.
DJ Fucci
Johanna Igel, Diana Kirchner, Phil Kirschner, and Jessica Elbert
Kelcey Kintner Folbaum and Rick Folbaum
Tom Krizmanic and Marlaina Deppe
Lily Gunn and Alex Shuman
Melinda Buie, Rosemery Ramsey, Shelby Gaines, and Megan Sheekey