My love of art has been the center of my professional life – a teaching career from which I recently retired. I taught art to students in a public high school in Phoenix for well over twenty years. My challenge to students was to look at the world around them and inhale the colors, shapes, and textures to make art. The ultimate educational goals I had for students were to take visual risks, to see mistakes as happy accidents to be embraced, to create something new, and to realize that success today and in the future requires thinking outside the box.
The visual art assignments I created for students were often inspired by news events, cultures, and topical subjects, such as: bullying or identity issues. Art was the vehicle for student expression – I wanted students to use the vocabulary, techniques, and skills learned in the art room as a vital part of their educational experience.
An example of an assignment that greatly affected my students’ lives occurred in 2004 when the visual arts were under siege nationally, both intellectually and financially. I created a visual problem for students that required them to identify an influence – a person living or dead that impacted their thinking. The students were to create art and write about the work. As we viewed the art and text, we decided that we had the makings of a book. My students entitled the book, The Cutting Edge. This title is a double entendre – the cutting edge referred to the students as the cutting edge thinkers of the future, as well as the victims of the cutting edge of the budget knife in the visual arts. The students and I raised money to have the book self-published. Each student received a copy of the book, and then we started a writing campaign – The Importance of The Visual Arts in Education. My students and I sent copies of our book to the school board, the state legislators, and to public figures around the country. We received letters of encouragement and support, and the entire process allowed my students to grow both artistically and intellectually as they saw that art serves many purposes beyond wall decoration.
It was also important for me to have students understand that art is not limited to the classroom. Together my students and I became community volunteers through a wide range of art projects such as: working with young children in after school programs, creating large sculptural pieces to become integrated into our school facility, and making centerpieces for accomplished-educator dinners. Students also exhibited their own art in school exhibitions, local library shows, and other venues. Through the out-of-classroom experiences and the in-class art making, my students were immersed in all phases of the art world.
Each year for their final exam I set up a field trip for my Advanced Placement class, and used a school bus to take the students to my home/studio. I wanted these gifted adolescents to understand how art can be part and parcel of life. They were each required to select five works of art in my home, render the related images, and write an opinion regarding the art. This experience, for most students, was the highlight of their school year. Not only did they get to see me, their teacher, as an artist with a working studio, they were also able to see the art I created and have collected over the years. I believe that this culminating experience allowed students to understand why I teach art, create art, and love art so much.
I knew that not all of my students would pursue art as a career, but that art would affect each one, from the clothes they wore, to the games they played on their electronic devices, to the manner in which they expressed themselves. My goal was to prepare students to be problem solvers and creative thinkers through art. I cannot think of a better way to prepare students for the future.