Say the word ‘classroom’ to a group of random individuals ranging widely in both geography and demographics, and you’ll conjure up an extraordinarily diverse plethora of images and memories. Condescending teachers. Supportive role models. Bullies. Crushes. Achievements. Humiliation. Pencil shavings. Petrified, upside down bubble gum wads.
Educational institutions across both hemispheres have moulded and produced the finest artists, scientists and visionaries in the world, yet these same schools have also chewed up and spat out the remains of who could have been, who might have been, and destroyed their potential. How does one capture the unique individuals who make up a classroom and the challenge that this presents to the teacher who tries to reach them all?
As a retired educator, Shar knew better than to imagine that the breadth of the school experience could be consolidated, but the devoted artist in her still wanted to honour the single room that has so significantly impacted millions of lives.
A Tribute to the World of Education was on display at the Sharon Lynne Wilson Center for the Arts in Brookfield, Wisconsin and is representative of a classroom of individual students. Shar has repurposed these school desks using spray paint, acrylics and a high gloss finish to represent how students shine in their own way. She pays tribute to the educators of the past and present who try to inspire students to think, learn and succeed.
After entering the installation, visitors find themselves standing within the four walls of the educational experience, a classroom. Rows of painted desks sit silently in line, each one representing a different persona, a different existence. Some are outwardly light-hearted, featuring swirling roses or whimsical unicorns; other desks are darker and more reserved, hiding secrets inside. The room is eerily silent, but one can quite easily imagine hearing whispers wafting from desk to desk. As visitors walk down the aisles of desks, they can’t help but reminisce and imagine which desk they might have sat in and who the individuals were that surrounded them, both the other students and the teacher at the front of the room.
I sat down with Shar to find out what they might be saying.
So you were a high school English and speech teacher for 25 years. Is it true that the language department usually consists of the craziest teachers on a school’s faculty?
Well, I would not agree with that! I do think that all teachers need to be creative to think of innovative ways to present their subject matter and to reach their students. I was proud to be an English, Communication and Speech teacher. I taught from 1970 and retired in 2014, and I still currently teach today, but I do it very part time. I think that English and Communication and Language teachers need to have developed the right side of their brain and be creative, just analyzing literature and appreciating poetry. I very much enjoyed teaching writing, literature and communication skills.
And then you decided to shift gears and become a guidance counsellor for 19 years after your teaching days.
Yes. I was still teaching as well. I was a guidance counsellor with a case load and students would visit my office one on one, but I also did classroom guidance lessons on subjects such as bullying, post-secondary planning, career exploration, etc.
On the side you’re an artist who experiments in dozens of different materials and techniques. Where did the idea of painting old desks come from?
Throughout the years schools will gradually replace old desks with newer designs. When I would see discarded desks at flea markets it made me sad to think they were no longer useful. So that started the idea a little bit. I thought, oh gosh what could I do with this piece of furniture that held possibly… (laughs) a future president, or a future artist, but in any case, an individual who spent time learning in that desk. So I started collecting them, and even went to auctions to purchase some of the really old ones that were chiselled and carved into, and I thought that made them really interesting. And then I thought, so what am I going to do with these? And one at a time I gradually began painting them, and what came to mind were real individual students from my past that I either taught or worked with as a guidance counsellor, and their personalities and the challenges with those students began to come out onto the desks as I painted them. And this gave me reason to repurpose these desks then, either for art shows or for use as real desks. Some people buy them and put them in their homes for their kids to use.
What kind of feedback have you received from visitors of your various installations?
Some people walking among the desks at the Sharon Wilson Center would laugh and point to a certain desk and say, “This was me when I was in elementary school,” and then they’d walk to another row and point at a different desk and say, “And this was me in high school!” So it was nice to see them identify with different chapters of their lives. Many people want to sit in them, and some people have sat there for a while, and it’s like they’re daydreaming, and I wish I could have captured each one of their daydreams and the school day memories they were reminiscing about.
Do you find any recurring themes in your desks?
Many desks have multiple or even contradicting themes or moods. I’ve used the butterfly a lot to symbolize that every person is always transforming, and you hope as a teacher that a child transforms into a beautiful butterfly. Many of these desks have some happy and some sad images. Life happens to every child. We hope it’s all good, but of course no one’s life is all good. In one seemingly happy desk with a butterfly on it, I included inside a poem called Shhh, which was written in the voice of a small child. It was not a happy poem but told the story about a child living in a family where there was an addiction, and the child was told not to tell anyone about it. Beneath the desk as well was an old doll, shabby and dirty, representing other things that might be on that child’s mind. So it helps every educator to know as much as possible about her students in order to best help them and so on. Every child needs someone to trust in a school building.
Is there an overall message you want to send with the Reawakened Art exhibit?
The installation itself was called A Tribute to the World of Education to honour and appreciate the challenges that educators face on a daily basis. As you walk into the installation of desks, on the outside they look one way, but underneath the desks you see something else about that student. I hope the installation shows what teachers face on a daily, moment-to-moment basis, and what kind of responsibility the teachers have to encourage and help develop in the best way possible all of these individuals and honour the individual that he or she is. Some people think that teachers have a glorious job with summers off and all these big breaks, but a teacher never ‘breaks’ from the job. It’s such a responsibility, and teachers are working extremely hard, 24/7. You feel you have an impact on tomorrow, and that’s a great responsibility that never leaves your mind. I hope those who view the installation are able to recall at least one individual teacher who made them feel special, who made them feel appreciated somewhere along the line. I really hope so, since that’s perhaps the most important part of being a good teacher.
For more information about Reawakened Art and educator/artist Shar, visit her website at www.reawakenedart.weebly.com.
The author holds a master’s degree in multicultural education and is the PYP 5 classroom teacher and PYP maths coordinator at Strothoff International School in Dreieich, Germany. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.