The Art Institute of Philadelphia is sending some love to high school art teachers with a new exhibition, “What Those Who Teach Can Do.”
Paintings, drawings, photography and sculpture were submitted by dozens of area art teachers, most of whom will be at the gallery reception April 18.
We asked some prominent artists in Philadelphia to recall their favorite art teachers, and checked in with some of the teacher/artists in the show.
Zoe Strauss (www.zoestrauss.com)
Zoe Strauss took some art classes in high school, but none of them grabbed her like that of her sixth-grade art teacher, Valerie Williams. The instruction she received from that teacher stuck with her for the next 30 years.
“One of the assignments in the sixth grade was making a papier-mâché piece of food. The assignment itself — while pleasurable to work on something, to make it, to present it, it was a fun activity — but there were real things about crafting something that came out of that.”
That day, Strauss made a blueberry pie.
“I rolled these small blueberries made out of newspaper and stuck them in the thing. It was a very meditative movement, and one that I remember doing, and loving. I remember the discussion about why we’re doing this even though it’s kind of goofy. It was pretty great.”
“So many of the things I gleaned from her are things that — there’s no way that she would remember them. One of the things that she told me was, even though I was never super into academics, she told me, “I think you should go to Sarah Lawrence.” This was unsolicited. What that secretly meant was, I think you’re gay. Later on in life I was, like, ‘Nailed it!'”
“It really helped me out. On every level, she managed to know me, she managed to guide me, and she managed to help push me in a way that allowed me in many ways to find and be myself in the beginning of adolescence. It’s priceless, what she offered me.”
Daniel Heyman (www.danielheyman.com)
Daniel Heyman is a painter and printmaker who has received the Guggenheim and Pew fellowships. He grew up in Port Washington, N.Y., and attended Paul D. Schreiber High School, where he took no art classes.
“I was in all these different honors tracks in high school and nobody ever suggested I take art,” said Heyman. “So I never did.”
He did, however, take architecture classes on Saturdays in Manhattan, at the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies, founded by Peter Eisenman. There he learned modernism and drawing from young architects fresh out of school.
“At a young age, I met people who were professionally in the arts, and incredibly enthusiastic and made no apologies about it. That was really something I didn’t get at all in high school,” said Heyman.
“I grew up in a suburb of New York where most people were coming from families with parents who were professionals — doctors, lawyers, things like that. Or in business. I never came across anybody who was an artist.
“So that made a huge impression on me, that there was this world outside of Long Island that valued things like art and architecture,” he says
Denise Lewandowski Desiderio (www.artbydenise.com/index.html)
Denise Lewandowski Desiderio, one of the artists at “What Those Who Teach Can Do,” teaches art at Kingsway Regional High School in Swedesboro, N.J. She often brings her own paintings to class.
“I practice what I preach,” said Desiderio. “I want them to see that everything I explain to them, I still use in my practice. I’m not just making something up — it’s not some textbook, this is what they’re supposed to know.
“Things like composition, understanding form, structure, and light, they’re really important to me, and I have a loose quality in my painting style,” she says. “I show that to my students, that they can still be creative and loose with their style if they want, but all the elements and principles of design still have to be applied to what they do.”
Desiderio says teaching keeps her chops up.
“As I teach my students things year after year, it reinforces things in my mind that I need to remember and not lose the important things that I’ve learned and practiced. On top of that, my students inspire me so much,” she says. “They’re experimenting with things, sometimes they discover things, and I think, wow, that’s neat. I’ll try that in my work. It’s a huge inspiration to me.”
Frank Bramblett (www.frankbramblett.com)
Frank Bramblett, who went to high school in rural Alabama in the 1950s, didn’t take any art classes as a teenager. He discovered painting in college. Although he taught for years at Temple University’s Tyler School of Art, he does not believe creativity can be taught in classrooms.
“The education is one where you’re given an assignment, the parameters of that assignment are explained, you’re expected to have something due at a certain time, you do it, it’s discussed and graded, and you’re given another assignment and you move on,” he says.
“Those assignments are driven by the length of the class, how many times the class meets, how frequently it meets, when the end of the semester is. All these things built into the structure of education, I think, somehow cut in to what it is that being a creative person is.
“And that is: the lifetime commitment to taking an adventure, taking chances, taking risks, doing those things that you have an urge to do and seeing what the outcome might be. And sometimes the outcome is not something you expected.”
Bob Reinhardt (http://web.me.com/restinpixels/Site/Rest_in_Pixels.html)
Bob Reinhardt’s submission to “What Those Who Teach Can Do” is one of a series of photographs of weather-beaten tombstones, taken in centuries-old cemeteries in Scotland. He teaches at Germantown Friends School.
“I had an incredible mentor when I was in high school,” said Reinhardt, talking about art teacher Bill Hart.
“He was very patient. Someone who didn’t stay through to my senior year — had gone to a different school — but the little group he collected, he stayed with us. He always kept up with us … so that we all had portfolios he helped us with. He wrote recommendations and just packed us off to art schools. Always checked up on us later on.”
Reinhardt says he feeds off the energy of his teenage students, while offering his own enthusiasm.
“It’s important to me to be a working artist, an artist who is creating. I’m teaching from experience, not past memories. It’s fresh, and there’s an excitement attached to it,” he says.
“Bill did that. He was always painting. We had our classes in his studio, so his work was around. The place smelled of paint.”
Tim McFarlane (www.timmcfarlane.com)
When he appeared on an ArtBlog podcast (www.theartblog.org/2011/11/tim-mcfarlane-on-artblog-radio) Tim McFarlane said his art teacher at Olney High School, Richard Segel, was the one who first sparked his love of color and post-Impressionism.
The abstract painter later studied at Tyler School of Art (1994), was featured three times in New American Paintings, and is now represented by Bridgette Mayer Gallery.
But there was also this other guy…
“I remember one guy in particular who was a substitute teacher. He came in, he was African-American, I remember he had a yellow, button-down shirt. He had an afro. This was the ’80s. Afros were still around.
“He brought in these drawings. He had these drawings of voluptuous black women. I was like, whoa! I hadn’t seen anything like that, you know, this is at high school. They were nudes,” McFarlane says. “He just came in and put them up and talked about himself and talked about his work.
“We did something that day, I can’t remember what, but the thing that stuck out about him for me was that he was African-American, and he had this confidence about him and his work. That stuck with me.
“I think about it, and it still resonates with me,” McFarlane says. “It was the smallest thing that made me feel like, yeah, I’m gonna do that.”