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Mary Ann Athens on Art in Education

by Jean Van't Hul
November 29, 2011

Ma at montreat Mary 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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