Any disconnect that area high school art teachers have felt with the Art Department and School of Education at UW-Madison is dissolving, thanks to the support of Madison-based art alumna Helen Burish.
Middleton High School art teacher Robin Kourakis (BS Art Ed 2000) made connections with her peers from other schools at the workshops and felt reconnected with her alma mater after 11 years.
"I'm sad that I lost contact for years because it's such a great university," Kourakis said.
Burish organized a series of workshops to provide high school art teachers with hands-on professional development while giving the Department’s graduate students and recent alumni an opportunity to share their expertise and talent.
Burish recently retired from a long career as an art teacher at Middleton High School and joined the Art Board of Visitors – the Department's alumni advisory group ¬– bringing a unique perspective to the Art Board and the Department.
Because of Burish’s strong ties to local schools, especially Middleton, she was able to identify gaps in the relationship between schools and the university.
Burish and Art Department Chair Tom Loeser said they discovered that area art teachers felt estranged from, and even unwelcome to visit, the Department.
"I think it was more of a perception problem than a reality," Loeser said.
Inspired by a desire to reconnect schoolteachers with the Department, Burish funded and, with Loeser’s help, organized several workshops for area art teachers. They invited teachers to tour campus facilities, meet students and faculty, learn about the Department's curriculum, and explore innovative techniques in the free workshops.
More than a dozen high school teachers attended the first workshop in advanced serigraphy led by graduate student Chinn Wang (MFA 2011) last October. The teachers – some of whom came from as far away as Beloit and Janesville – included several art alumni who hadn't been back to the Department in years.
“I had an amazing experience as a graduate student at UW, and being able to share that with high school educators and also potential future art students was an opportunity I couldn't pass up,” Wang said. “I have an inherent love of the printmaking process, and I know that the techniques that are second-nature to me are mostly a mystery to the general public.”
Wang gave a brief introduction to her own work, demonstrated basic screen-printing processes, including her specialty – printing onto shaped plywood blocks that she uses to create three-dimensional print objects.
"All the teachers that showed up were glowing," said Art Department Chair Tom Loeser, who also attended the workshop.
Loeser and Burish, inspired by the success of the pilot workshop, recruited alumnus Ken Derengowski (MFA 2010) to lead a series of three workshops the following spring in silver ring making, etching and enameling.
"It all went so well, we just wanted to keep going with it," said Burish, explaining why she endowed the Helen Burish Art Outreach Fund to continue the semi-annual workshops. "And it all started because I joined the Art Board of Visitors and had just retired, so I had the time.”
The Art Outreach Fund will additionally support sending graduate students to visit the high schools each semester for short-term residencies and bringing high school students to the Department for graduate student-led workshops.
"It was nice to get to see what the Art Department is like now," said alumna and LaFollette High School art teacher Monique Karlen (BS Art Ed 1989). "It could really suit some of our students who choose to go on to study art."
The workshops inspired Karlen to explore what it would take to follow her dream of returning to UW for graduate school, especially if the Department is able to offer more evening classes to give teachers the chance to further their education while still working.
"I think this could segue into getting back into my MFA," she said. "It's always good to keep learning… it motivates me to go back and teach my students."
Karlen recently gave her students etching lessons and was able to include some of the tricks she learned from Derengowski.
The workshops also opened up "a world of networking," said Middleton art teacher Bob Elland, who didn't attend UW but has been to many Art Department exhibits and MFA open studio days.
High school art teachers in the region lack a formal network and make rare visits to each other's schools as part of their curriculum renewal process.
"Usually when you go to art showings and events, you see the same people, but this allowed us to meet people we hadn't met before," Elland said. "(Now) I feel comfortable calling them."
The workshop series serves as a mini-model for what an art teacher network could expand into. And, having a common experience around learning new and different types of artistic processes was fun and useful, he said.
"We as teachers need to have that spark lit… and get our hands dirty," Elland said.
Kourakis spoke excitedly about the new skills she learned at the workshops that she plans to use both professionally and personally.
"The workshops really had me 'looking' again," she said. "It brought the passion back."
Kourakis enrolled in a glass course in the Department this year after being inspired by the workshops and returning home from last fall’s high school art day at the Department to read an alumni magazine article about Professor Steve Feren.
"I read the last line of what he said and it was exactly what I was thinking that day: If you’re not willing to be scared and you’re not willing to fail, then you’re never going to make something that’s lasting,” she quoted.
all photos courtesy Helen Burish