When I think back over my 30+ year career in the arts I wonder, “Who is responsible for jumpstarting my love of the arts?” I often credit a high school teacher, Edith Henig, for requiring her class to keep a daily sketchbook. Mrs. Henig reviewed sketchbooks weekly, and mine contained what would now be considered doodles–over interpreted paisley and flowers reminiscent of Jefferson Starship album covers. Mrs. Henig left handwritten comments like “keep at it,” or “fantastic, you’re doing a great job!” Whether or not this was true, her notes certainly prompted me to continue and paved the road to pursuing the arts more seriously throughout high school.
I was lucky to be a student at East Brunswick High School, now designated a NJ model school of the arts, with amazing art teachers—Ken and Judy Koppel, Bill Murphy, Bill Marsh, Roy Risley, and Bette Lerner, teaching commercial art, printmaking, drawing and painting, ceramics and jewelry making. It was the 70’s and EBHS was way ahead of its time in developing an exemplary arts curriculum, and while I was there I had no idea they were trailblazers. I just knew art class was a place where I felt at home. There were 650 students in my graduating class, so it was easy to get lost in the shuffle, but not in the art room. At the same time, chorus was practicing down the hall in Building 3, and the now infamous Elliott Taubenslag, “Mr. T,” was coaching young drama students for the next EBHS theater production. It was art nirvana.
Before East Brunswick High School, I was a Catholic school student where art was poster contests and interpreting classic masterpieces, “picture studies” on postcards with essays. The Bernadine sisters were not big on art, but my penmanship remains testimony to their academic priorities. Back then it was my Mom who helped me with poster contests and reports on lives of the saints complete with statuary photos of all 12 apostles. Mom really was my first art teacher and loved painting—oil painting, ceramics, and up until her dying days a master of amazing needlepoint and crewel embroidery that grace my household today, so there was osmosis at work at an early age.
Post high school I entered Moore College of Art and Design, and Moore graced me with outstanding art educators including the late Deborah Warner who showed me that you can be an educator and maintain an accomplished artistic career as a fiber artist. I majored in Art Education with a goal to become an art teacher back at EBHS. That wasn’t in the cards, though I taught for a few years both privately and at 2 public high schools. There were other mentors yet to come to mold a career in public service.
During this season of thanksgiving, please thank an art teacher when you consider all who make a difference in the lives of students. You never know where their influence will lead, but you can safely bet that their creativity will breed an appreciation for beauty, discipline, skill, constructive criticism, history and much more that form the fiber of personal values and will carry them through their adult lives.