Mary Ann Athens on Art in Education

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Ma at montreatMary Ann Athens is an amazing Asheville-area elementary art teacher and the mother of two. I first starting hearing about her, her summer camps, and her after-school art programs a few years ago and am excited to finally interview her on The Artful Parent! Here she quotes Einstein and talks about the challenges and importance of art in education.

***Note: Readers will have a chance to win a gift pack of some of Mary Ann's favorite children's art supplies at the end of this interview.***

JEAN:  I’ve heard so many good things about you as a children’s art teacher! Why art? What led you to teach art rather than, say, biology or English?

MARY ANN:  I didn't grow up thinking "I want to be an art teacher." I loved making things, enjoyed school and doing school projects, read tons of books (favorites were fairy tales, C.S. Lewis, E. B. White, Laura Ingalls and Roald Dahl) and wrote lots of poetry beginning in elementary school through college.

At Agnes Scott College in Atlanta, I started out as an English major but soon the lure of the theater and visual arts department pulled me in. After taking art history classes with Dr. Donna Sadler, a brilliant, kind and witty art history professor, I was awakened to the power and presence of art through the ages and into present day: the academic and aesthetic aspects, the multicultural connections.

I graduated with a degree in Art, and worked at a summer camp in Brevard, N.C. teaching ceramics. It was there I found patience and talent for working with children and helping them realize their potential as young artists. The potter I worked with, John Dodson of Mud Dabbers Pottery really inspired me to become an instructor who gives their time, talent and attention to a student. So…when I followed my then boyfriend (now husband) Clay up to UVA in Charlottesville, I not only pursued him, but also certification in K-12 art at James Madison University!

2nd aug session5

JEAN:  What is your favorite part about teaching art to children?

MARY ANN:  The snacks. No just kidding.

Most children approach art with excitement and open-mindedness, often with wild ideas and courage. The hundreds of young artists I have been so fortunate to teach in the past 15 years of being a public school elementary art teacher have embraced the art lessons presented to them and I am so grateful. I also love thinking up art lessons—if I'm excited about trying a new medium, material or approach or discovering an artist through teaching about art history, then the students get motivated as well! I totally "steal" and adapt ideas from other teachers, local artists, art galleries, and shows like Big Crafty.


JEAN:  What is the most challenging part for you about teaching art to children?

MARY ANN:  Finding balance in being an instructor in such a subjective, emotional, personal subject area. How do you bring out the best effort in a young artist? How do you teach technique without having students copy what you are doing? Is process more important than product? I really like guiding students to finish a project that they have put time and effort into—not just a one-time make and take art project to demonstrate a single art objective.

JEAN:  If you could share anything with the parents of your students in the years before they even come to school, what would you want them to know or do?

MARY ANN:  Provide children of any age with a variety of art materials and a place to store and work on their artwork. Use paper and materials right out of the recycling bin! Creative parenting blogs like this one and Filth Wizardry are so inspiring. FamilyFun magazine—great ideas! Also, taking children to art galleries and museums and signing them up for afterschool or summer art classes of any kind. There are some great preschool opportunities out there for young artists.

Aug art camp2

JEAN:  Why do you think art and creativity are important for children in the context of education?

MARY ANN:  "Imagination is more important than knowledge." In the world of education, a creative visual arts class supports the development of critical thinking skills and reinforces those amazing connections between art and other subject areas like science, math, social studies. Students are so ready for a break from sitting at a desk or working at the computer—they relish a chance to use hands-on skills to create a personal work of art.

Kandisky sketch

JEAN:  Any thoughts on the current state of art education in general?

MARY ANN:  If you are an art teacher who really cares about what you are doing, then you constantly have to advocate for your art program and your students. I guess that could be said about any subject taught in school, but art can quickly fall down on the totem pole of school curriculum and needs—often seen as extra "fluff" by both classroom teachers and administrators. In my experience, it is the rare classroom teacher who sees the opportunity and value in integrating with visual arts, and it is the rare principal who supports the specialists' programs with equity and appreciation. But they are out there—and I'm thankful for those that I've worked with.

I just re-entered the public school "work force" after taking a few years off, and I am encouraged by what I have experienced so far at Evergreen Community Charter School: the expeditionary learning curriculum naturally integrates visual arts into classroom instruction and students begin constructive critiquing skills in Kindergarten. I feel lucky every day (well, almost every day…) to be truly doing something I love. Like tomorrow: abstract expressionist paintings on transparencies with the 7th graders, stacking the layers, then displaying in windows before we go on a field visit to Jonas Gerard's studio in the River Arts District. How cool is that?

JEAN:  Super cool! Thanks so much, Mary Ann!! I would have loved to have you as an art teacher when I was growing up!

***Art Gift Pack Giveaway***

Mary Ann has put together a small "art teacher" gift pack of her favorite art supplies to use with kids (small watercolor set, oil pastels, model magic, small sketch pad, etc.). Readers who leave a comment by Friday, December 2nd at 11:59pm EST will be entered into a random drawing for this children's art gift pack.

The random number generator chose #54 so Silvina is the winner of the art gift pack!

What a wonderful interview! Thank you so much! We tend to forget how amazingly important for the development of the whole person it is to be able to produce something using your hands…

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  1. says

    How exciting I would love to set something like this up here in the UK but the down side is having to constantly justify the need for art. So I work with my kids at home and do lots of painting, arts and crafts and experiment with materials I can get my hands on. We have not yet used oil pastels if model magic.

  2. says

    I love hearing art teachers talk… My favorite quote here is that “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” How true and how forgotten in today’s public school world!

  3. Janice M says

    such good thoughts. I took lots of art classes as a kid and look forward to doing art with my daughter!

  4. Rebecca Johnson says

    Wonderful interview and great resources! Great pictures too! Would love to win the art kit!

  5. Tracy D. says

    We just love Ms. Mary Ann and feel so fortunate to have her as our daughter’s art teacher! Thanks for the great interview! We would also love to win the fantastic art supplies. Thanks for the generous giveaway. :)

  6. says

    It pains me to hear what my kids do in “art” class. I had this naive idea when we decided to send them to school (after homeschooling) that they’d get to use all these cool materials and methods that I hadn’t been quite managing at home with a newborn. Ha. Every week when I asked my kindergartener what he did in art, he said, “We drew with crayons.” I realize the art teacher (who is a very nice person; I like him a lot) is limited by space (no dedicated art room) and I’m sure by budget, but still…it pains me. I try to fill the gap at home, but school takes up so darned much time, it’s hard. If Mary Ann has any suggestions on how parents can effect change in their school’s art program–without it coming across like an attack on the art teacher–I’d love to hear them!

  7. says

    Thank you, Mary Ann, for bringing your passion and skills to our children at Evergreen! I’m particularly happy about your comment about bringing projects to completion with the children. I agree wholeheartedly. My kids are fortunate to have you as their art teacher. :)

  8. Stephanie H. says

    Great interview. You can totally hear the passion Mary Ann has for the art she teaches and the students she inspires!

  9. says

    Love seeing pictures it’s really inspiring to see how things can be done and used. Thanks for the interview. Art teachers we love you!

  10. Nancy says

    I feel so inspired! I am fortunate that our new principal embraces the arts and organized a fundraiser last year to raise over $5,000 for arts days for the whole school. I would love to see the students do more interesting art projects throughout the year which is why I find the abstract impressionism project so intriguing; there are so many interesting techniques out there to try. .

  11. Heather N says

    Thank you for another fine interview (and giveaway). I am very interested in what art teachers and artists have to say (how they got into the field, what they like about what they do, challenges, etc.). Thanks again.

  12. says

    I love your blog and this post in particular. I’m a graphic designer by trade and an artist at heart. I always try to find ways to incorporate art into the daily life of my 6 year daughter. And I think she is more animated and confident because of it. Great posts.

  13. Tamrah T says

    Behold the power art holds! It amazes me how some intended purposes in life will still bring you back to art. Enjoyed Mary Ann’s interview and interest to share her journey.

  14. deb mcmillen says

    I just love these interviews they have given me ideas for which have broaden me for my students I do art with them every Friday (working in an Autism class kingers/ 1st grade :) thanks

  15. says

    Makes me want to be an art teacher! I guess technically I have 3 students right now… :) Thanks to both of you for another great interview (I know, I write that every time, but it is true.)

  16. Lisa says

    Thanks for this great interview. The town I live in was evacuated this summer due to wildfire. Much of the nearby forest burned down. The first art project the elementary students here did was related to the fire. I was so impressed with the art teacher for that! Each grade did a different project over several weeks (they only have art once a week). I love walking the main hall of he school and seeing all the beautiful art. I never would have thought of making such beautiful art out of such a destructive event. I’m sure it helped the children to process it too. Yay for art teachers!

  17. says

    Wonderful interview. As a home school mom I am constantly challenged to provide a creative outlet for my children. The Artful Parent has inspired me with many ideas that we have used in our home and school. Thanks so much.

  18. sue says

    Mary Ann,
    Thank you for your wisdom. Process vs. product has always been a motivator for me. Process wins most every time. How do you satisfy the parent but nurture the child? I am thankful for the parents who understand the importance of process and love their child’s work because their child made it. Hoping that there are more art teachers out there like you!

  19. says

    I am a former math teacher and I don’t understand how some educators overlook the importance of art in education. I now ‘play’ with my 2 year old with as many different mediums as we can safely use. I can hardly wait until she masters scissors. :)

  20. Lucy says

    If only all kids had access to such wonderful arts education! When I was a kid in the 80’s, my “gifted” program did not view arts education as very important, and as such our required hours were shoved into two days per year of macrame. I would’ve loved a teacher like Mary Ann!

  21. Shelley says

    We love Ms. Mary Ann too! First taking her art class at Dry Goods and now at Evergreen — we are so fortunate to have her as a teacher. And I say “we” because the whole family benefits from the artwork Lucy creates with her!

  22. Lyn Z... says

    Sadly even in the best of economic times the Arts ares imply not as valued as Sports seem to be in the district my children attended…. its still true today as my granddaughter is now attending these same schools as Ia m raising her…. to balance what is so lacking in school I offer art classes from a local art league and lots of at home opportunities to create from her own inner artist!!! At 8 she is wise enough to know that All children are Artists!!! The was an inspirational read and reminded me of a dear friend who taught art for nearly 20 years in Colorado!!!

  23. Sharon says

    Thanks for another wonderful interview with a very inspiring person. I am starting to bring some of the ideas found online to my little one at home and letting go of the keeping clean thoughts in my head. Just have fun!!

  24. says

    I love hearing about parents and teachers advocating for the arts in the public school system! I wish there were more art teachers like this!

  25. Nicole says

    Great interview, I enjoyed reading it. I wish my oldest was a little more adventurous in art (homeschooled), but he tends to focus on getting something wrong – doesn’t quite understand that there is “no wrong” in art.

  26. Aly Kantor says

    I’m so profoundly jealous that I never had an art teacher like Mary Ann myself – the only fond childhood memories I have of creating art happened in my home. School art classes felt like an obligation – it was all about drudgery and copying exactly what the teacher wanted us to. Like Mary Ann, I entered college thinking I might want to pursue the humanities, but was courted by the visual arts department. I truly believe those four years of focusing solely on my creativity and imagination changed my life, and the way I think about working with my own (much younger) students in the classroom. Thank you for sharing this interview!

  27. molly says

    Lovely Interview! I teach preschool, with a large number of special needs students, who benefit so much from art! We do a lot of it!! Thanks for the reminder of why we do what we do!

  28. Vegetable Gardener, Cook, Homesteader, Miser, Homeschool mama says

    Thank you for the information and the interview! I am a mom of a four year old who has decided to homeschool at least his preschool year and your info is quite helpful.

  29. Lucy Zucaro says

    What a great interview. I love hearing about the experiences of other art teachers (I teach preschool). I was particularly interested in the comments about product vs. process art as that is a fine line I am continually challenged to walk.

  30. Silvina says

    What a wonderful interview! Thank you so much! We tend to forget how amazingly important for the development of the whole person it is to be able to produce something using your hands…

  31. MaryAnn F. Kohl, art book author says

    What a great teacher and person! Thank you for the interview. If I win the art kit, I will give it to the little boy I have just gotten to know whose parents do not encourage his art talent (they think it’s a waste of time and want him to be a soccer star), but would be fine if he got something “free” and would allow him to use it. :( He’s very talented and would thrive with some new materials. He would be thrilled.

  32. Rosie says

    Thanks for sharing a wonderful interview. I am currently a stay at home mom to my two little ones but before they came along I was an art teacher in the public school system. It is always refreshing to hear from someone who truly cares about the students and the art they make.

  33. katie says

    hopefully your students will keep what they learn from your teachings and have a life-long love and acceptance for art, especially that which is process not product!!!

  34. Amy Fields says

    Love the interview!! If I win I am shipping it to MaryAnn Khol’s little guy! What a shame wanting a soccer star and not enjoying the talents children have. Great stuff as always!

  35. Mindy says

    Mary Ann is my kids’ art teacher at Evergreen and they love her. She lent them some drawing technique books to bring home and now they are “on fire” with drawing. We are lucky to have her!

  36. Patricia says

    I try to integrate the arts during therapy with my special needs kiddos emphasising to parents and teachers that it is the process and not the product that is important.

  37. susan saunders says

    As an Art teacher I specialize in 3-dimensional forms something most public schools dont have time or space for. All materials are donated by families and local business.
    Just scrolling thru your interview gave me ideas! You are awesome and i hope you teach art for years to come! there are not enough artists in the world!
    Susan m. Saunders

  38. susan saunders says

    There is an online ‘grant-like’ program called- Donorchoose program…you can ‘donate’ to her cause for more materials.
    Better yet- Buy some other art supplies, learn about them, and volunteer an art lesson in her class!

  39. jennifer says

    This woman is a born art teacher. I keep running into things that call to me to be an art teacher. Thanks for sharing.

  40. Karla says

    Thanks for sharing Mary Ann’s expertise. All the ideas are inspiring. It makes me want to move to Asheville to join her classes!

  41. says

    This was a great interview! I feel so lucky that my two girls have an specialized art teacher at their elementary school in a state where art funding has been totally cut out of nearly all schools.

  42. says

    Thanks for the great interview :) My own art days in high school I remember as being very dry and dull – lots of theory and making tone cards and colour wheels etc. I have tried to make art much more exciting and interesting for my children, and I am always on the look out for good ideas.

  43. Kelly A says

    Thank you for the interview, my daughter lacks confidence in art and I am searching for projects we can do at home.

  44. Jessica says

    I loved art and ceramics in high school, I’ve been thinking about becoming a art teacher as well.

  45. says

    Thanks for this interview! As a music teacher, I can totally relate to the struggle around others’ perception of my subject as “extra fluff.” I feel blessed to live in this town where many parents, at least, perceive the arts to be essential areas of exploration, not fluff! Best wishes to Mary Ann and everyone else nurturing creativity in young folks.

  46. says

    Thank you Jean and Mary Ann for both the practical and inspirational words/advice. I am a brand new preschool teacher and constantly comb the internet looking for inspiration and guidance. I found it here this morning!
    I am also a visual artist who really believes that messy process is the in-road to all things creative (pulling things right out of the recycle bin – yes!).
    To those who teach and advocate for art!

  47. [email protected] says

    this interview, and all the others that you have done, are so inspiring! i’m a mum of two young kids and your blog has helped me bring art, colour, and joy into their lives. thank you!

  48. Angela says

    what an inspiring art teacher :-) i’ve always wanted to find a way to lead a life full of art and exploration so appreciate others that have a similar passion and, like you said, advocate for art programs and students! thanks for what you do!

  49. Jams says

    I just got accepted as a volunteer art teacher at the local homeless center. 18 kids!
    It’s great to read these interviews and get advice on how to inspire creativity in children. I too am thinking on how to get out the creativity without encouraging “copying” the teacher.

  50. CarinaRdz says

    I enjoy reading all of your interviews!
    My little guy is starting to explore the arts and loves to sit at the table and draw/color in his art box that I have prepared for him there.

  51. Mary Ann Athens says

    Thank you everyone for you thoughtful comments and to Jean for the wonderful work she puts into her inspiring blog! Everyone’s words were such a boost to my spirits as I begin teaching again in a new art position. I’m putting the art pack together for Silvina ASAP!