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ON THE SCENE: ‘Those Who Can’ ... teach art

January 12, 2018
By NAJ WIKOFF , Lake Placid News

Artists whose work is rarely seen, but whose influence is felt by many, are the art teachers who teach in public and private schools, and colleges throughout the region.

While some of their students go on to have distinguished careers in the arts or are inspired to become arts educators as well, many do not.

For some of their students, the arts will become a future hobby, but nearly all are stretched in ways they had not experienced before and learn that they, too, can be creative and express their feelings and emotions in a variety of individual and collaborative ways.

Article Photos

Kathy Eldridge, retired Tupper Lake Central art teacher, and Michele Gannon, Long Lake Central art teacher who had been mentored by Eldridge
(Photo provided — Naj Wikoff)

Growing up in Lake Placid, I had two primary art teachers, Sue d'Avignon and Bob Whitney. They transformed my life. Sue was my art teacher at Lake Placid Central. She inspired me to set my sights on attending Pratt Institute and encouraged me to participate in an afterschool and summer adult workshops led by her brother Sidney, which included instruction at the Old Mill in Elizabethtown with Jossey Bilan, and to apply to Northwood School so I could study under Bob Whitney.

Like Sue, Bob was expansive in his thinking. He introduced me to Vaino Kola and Robert Plumb, and, taking over the adult workshops from Sidney, established a summer art school in the former Grote's boat landing on Victor Herbert Road. Bob helped me experience the arts as a profession, one that required a disciplined approach to mastering its skills, and showed me how diverse artistic expression could be.

That diversity is on full display in the Lake Placid Center for the Arts gallery show, "Those Who Can A Regional Art Teacher Exhibit," on now through Feb. 17. The work of the 44 North Country arts educators showcased reflects a multiplicity of artistic expression.

The vibrancy of their art is a marvelous tonic to the cold sub-zero conditions swirling outside. Fun for the teachers is seeing each other's work. Normally, they experience the work of each other's students, but rarely seen is the paintings, sculptures, and drawings of the teachers themselves.

James Lemons, director of the LPCA, came up with the idea for the show.

"We were brainstorming ideas about a year ago," said Lemons at the show opening Friday, Jan. 5. "At this time of year, you want color and vibrancy because of the bleakness of the weather outside, and shows of local talent tend to do better. We were talking how the work of high school students is so good and what a shame it is that no one sees or recognizes the work of their art teachers. We felt they should be recognized and honored, and the show just fell into place."

While conversing with several of the teachers at the opening, I was struck that even with their art on display, and their expressed pleasure in seeing their colleagues' work. True to form, most spoke about their love of teaching and what drew them to teaching in the first place.

Art teachers' access to students is limited in comparison to a math teacher who may work with students on a daily basis. Also, they are not in the business of teaching rules or facts, nor measuring success with exams that can be scored by the number or right or wrong answers. All teachers do try to teach their charges how to think, reason and use good judgment. When children are very young, none of them consider whether they can draw. Give them some crayons, and they will happily scribble away for hours at a time. In a sense, art teachers try to re-connect their students to that moment when they were willing to express themselves in a non-judgmental way and help them do so in a way that leads toward an intentional outcome.

"I love working with children and watching those 'aha' moments when they make a discovery, and they just beam," said Maria Deangelo, who has been teaching art nearly 30 years, 14 of them at the Saranac Lake Middle School. "I feel it's my job to fan the flames in where they want to go and what they want to discover, introduce them to new things, and push them a little further than they thought they could go."

For several of the art teachers, a great joy seeing some of their students become inspired to teach others. Kathy Eldridge, who recently retired from Tupper Lake High School, has seen several of her students go on to become arts educators and has mentored student teachers such as Michele Gannon, now teaching at Long Lake Central.

"Kathy was instrumental in helping me launch my career as an art teacher," said Gannon. "She was super kind to me. She was an inspiration. I believe a good art teacher has to like kids. They have to have a lot of patience. They have to know and have a passion for their subject."

"Passion drew me to teaching and the idea of having students experiment and be free to turn something into a wonderful surprise," said Eldridge. "I have seen self-esteem grow from zero to over a hundred. The arts are very empowering. When students get empowered, they can do anything they want. Some of my students go on to careers in the arts, but more end up having fabulous creative jobs."

Some area teachers have always wanted to teach, others have arrived through a more circuitous path. Ingrid Van Slyke served as the Northwood School nurse for 10 years before becoming the art teacher. While her first passion was art, the necessity and challenge of making a living led to her getting a nursing degree. However, she continued to make art, notably pastels, which she exhibited and sold along the side. Former headmaster Ed Good, an art hobbyist, recognized her talent and offered the opportunity to teach when the position opened and with outstanding results. In just three years, Ingrid's students have been accepted by Pratt Institute, the Rhode Island School of Design, F.I.T., Savannah College of Art and Design, among others, a remarkable record of achievement.

"What I like about being a part of this show is that the work of art teachers from all over is on display and that the exhibit doesn't feel stuffy," said Van Slyke. "Their work is bright, colorful, fun and exciting to see. I love that the art center is supporting the art teachers of the North Country."

"This is a wonderful opportunity," said SUNY Plattsburgh art professor Peter Russon. "I get to see the work of a former student, like Matt Burnett, who is now a colleague, which is awesome, but also just to see the high quality and diversity of the work that's being done by these faculty. A beauty of this area is that so many strong artists live, work, and teach here."

"I feel lucky to be exhibiting with all those other art teachers," said Carol Vossler, founder of BluSeed Studio and an art teacher at NCCC. "I'm proud to call them my colleagues."



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