Seth Rupert overcomes deafness to teach kids at Latrobe Art Center

May 26—Seth Rupert says he's lucky to have a job at Latrobe Art Center. But everyone else seems to think it's the center that is lucky to have him.

"It's hard for a deaf person to get a good job, even at Walmart or Target," said Rupert, who has been a fulltime employee of the center for more than 10 years. "I'm very lucky."

The Allegheny Township resident, 37, is the go-to guy for much of the center's day-to-day operations, said Executive Director Michael Tusay.

"He's probably the first one there and often is the last one to leave," said center volunteer Linda Miller of Latrobe.

Rupert interacts with member artists, helps to hang the exhibitions, works on the website and keeps a mental catalog of the center's artwork, supplies and other possessions — along with teaching almost all of the children's classes.

"He's such an asset to the center," said board member and member artist Kathy Rafferty of Unity. "He does so much, but most of all, he's just quite a nice guy."

It took a while for Rupert to become comfortable in his role and to gradually begin taking on more responsibilities, Tusay said.

Following graduation from Homer City High School, Rupert studied graphic design online through the Art Institute of Pittsburgh. He started at Latrobe Art Center as an intern under the tutelage of former director Gabrielle Nastuck.

After a year as an intern, he was hired as a full-time employee.

"I worked with Gabi for seven years. I watched her and learned at her right hand," Rupert said.

At first, he would only interact with Nastuck, because she knew sign language, said Sharon Shepard, a member artist from Loyalhanna Township.

"He was very shy, very withdrawn. I assume he didn't think people could understand him, or that he would understand them," Shepard said.

Stepping up to help

Deaf since birth, Rupert wears hearing aids that give him some residual hearing. He also reads lips and learned to speak through the oral deaf speech method — although he acknowledges that his speech sometimes can be hard to understand.

Teaching was the last thing he ever thought he would do, but he finally gave in to Nastuck's urging. He wanted to step up to help her out, he said.

"I was worried about talking to the kids and being afraid they won't understand me," he said. "But you don't know until you try it. I was nervous, so I pushed myself to do it.

"It was not quite as bad as I thought it would be. It helped me to build my confidence."

Several years later, the center's art education program is basically in his hands, especially for budding artists from prekindergarten through fourth grade.

"The only children's class he doesn't lead is the summer camp for kids in fifth to eighth grade," Tusay said.

In addition to the summer art camps, Rupert is in charge of children's art classes offered in conjunction with Latrobe-GLSD Parks and Recreation, private birthday art parties, holiday painting parties and spring and fall sessions for Latrobe Elementary School children with special needs.

He comes up with the theme for each one, usually including a mixed-media project.

"I spend a lot of time on the internet getting different ideas and brainstorming. I just play with it in my head," Rupert said.

"I've noticed that the kids rarely have a hard time understanding, because before Seth talks, he'll make sure the kids are all focusing," Tusay said. "He'll say, 'Don't do anything yet. Just watch and listen.' And as he talks, he's also doing what he wants them to do, so he's demonstrating at the same time. That helps them to understand.

"If they can't understand what he is saying, they can see what he's doing and then understand," he added.

Natural empathy

Rupert bases many projects on familiar children's stories, which also aids in their grasp of the project. And if needed, Tusay or another staffer or volunteer is always standing by to help.

"The kids adore him," Shepard said.

Rupert said his own experiences have made him empathetic to his young students.

"Last year, I had a 5- or 6-year-old girl who was so shy and so nervous because she'd never done this before and doesn't think she can do it," he said. "I try to make the art project as easy as possible for them. Then they think, 'Oh, I can do it.'

"I like to build their confidence. If I can do it, everybody can do it," he said. "And that matters."

He's proved that by his own example, Shepard said.

"It has been such a joy and a rewarding experience to watch him develop and grow until now it's like, 'Where's this? Seth will know that.' 'How do we do this? You have to ask Seth about that,'" she said.

Rupert said that work keeps him so busy that he doesn't have much time for any personal art projects these days.

Away from the center, he enjoys reading, watching a little bit of television and spending time with his parents, sister and two nephews.

"Family is very important to me," he said.

He's also an enthusiastic traveler, with some favorite destinations including the Black Hills and Badlands of South Dakota, Bar Harbor, Maine, and New Orleans.

"When I was a kid I always wanted to go to New Orleans and I finally did it," he said. "It's fascinating."

True to form, he said, one of his favorite aspects of the Big Easy was watching the street artists at work.

Shirley McMarlin is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Shirley by email at smcmarlin@triblive.com or via Twitter .