Art teacher Paul Brissette honored with Creative Living Award

Paul Brissette, left, was delighted with the unique beach rock Creative Living Award he received from Permanent Endowment Fund board members Carlene Gatting and Paul Karasik. The drawing of Mr. Brissette on the front of the podium was done by one of his students. — Photo by Lisa Vanderhoop

Two key elements of art teacher Paul Brissette’s life — beautiful artwork and a sense of humor — stood out last Thursday night when he received the 2012 Creative Living Award at the Grange Hall in West Tisbury.

The Permanent Endowment Fund (PEF) for Martha’s Vineyard established the award in 1983 through the Ruth J. Bogan and Ruth Redding Fund. It recognizes members of the Vineyard community who embody Ruth Bogan’s spirit and love for the Island and who have contributed significantly to the quality of life on the Vineyard.

Mr. Brissette is an art teacher and the art, design and technology department chairman at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School (MVRHS). During his 33-year tenure, Mr. Brissette has been instrumental in expanding a single-course curriculum in a one-room facility into an award-winning, nationally recognized program with 30 course offerings, seven specialized art, design, and computer facilities, and four instructors.

“When I told my high school guidance counselor I wanted to be a teacher, she paused and said, ‘You won’t get rich,'” Mr. Brissette said in his remarks. “And she was wrong, because I couldn’t be richer tonight.

“And I’m pleased to be among the creative living, because the alternative…” he added with a pause, that drew a laugh from the audience, “Didn’t sound too appealing.”

Mr. Brissette credited the success of the regional high school’s arts program to many passionate individuals, as well as the school’s faculty, an arts-friendly administration, and the Island community that supports it.

“For me personally, students feel more like extended family, than the names and numbers on an attendance sheet,” he said. “Little do they know that they teach us as much as we teach them.”

Since the award is about creativity, Mr. Brissette said he thought it would be appropriate to share a few of his thoughts on the subject.

“To be creative can be as simple as well-chosen words in support of friend in need, or as corporate as designing an iPhone,” he said. “It may be as sublime as moving an audience’s untapped emotions, or as complex as finding a way to grow old with purpose and dignity.”

Mr. Brissette said he was touched to see so many people there, including his wife, Mary; his sister, Claire Daigle; his niece, Allison Daigle; and his son, Jarret, and his girlfriend, Nancy Villarreal.

He thanked everyone, and Mary in particular for putting up with him as the spouse of a Creative Living Award winner. “We’re not the easiest people to share your life with, but we do make it interesting,” he acknowledged with a smile.

The Grange Hall was decorated with a collection of art work by students past and present, as well as some pieces by Mr. Brissette. Former students that attended and displayed artwork included fine arts painters Kara Taylor, David Tierny, and Ken Vincent, and filmmakers Jeremy Mayhew and Taylor Toole.

A presence aptly named “Gum Man” attracted the most attention. About 12 years ago, Mr. Brissette created a plaster cast base in the shape of a man’s head and mounted it on a broomstick. He encouraged his students to put their used gum on it, instead of under their desks, which evolved into an ever changing, multi-color sculpture.

The program included tributes from teacher Chris Baer, former student Kelley DeBettencourt, current MVRHS principal Steve Nixon, and former principal Peg Regan.

Mr. Baer offered his unique perspective as both a colleague and former MVRHS student, Class of 1985. He recalled that he first met Mr. Brissette when he took an art class as a “nerdy little freshman” in 1980. Mr. Baer joined the art, design and technology department in 1998 under Mr. Brissette’s direction and currently teaches photography and graphic design

“He taught me what good leadership looks like, and he taught me that a good teacher can teach anything,” Mr. Baer said. “I assisted him in a class called “Imagineering” where he was teaching students how to build satellites and skyscrapers… Now he has former students out there building skyscrapers. And another thing he taught me was that if kids forget everything we teach them, it doesn’t really matter if we excite and inspire them.”

Mr. Baer said Mr. Brissette recently came up with the idea to start an MVRHS art department alumni Facebook page, which has received some amazing postings by former students about their careers, as well as photos of their creative works.

“Paul is an imagineer,” Mr. Baer said. “He’s inspiring kids to build bridges to their futures with drinking straws and rocket parts and gum. Thank you for inspiring two generations, and from me, as well. ”

Ms. DeBettencourt, a wedding photographer, said she had an easy transition to college studio classes because of Mr. Brissette’s instruction. “Paul helped prepare us for the world of art, with his constructive criticism, discipline and deadlines, while keeping us motivated with his fun, quirky, and charismatic personality,” she said.

Mr. Nixon, who has worked with Mr. Brissette for 16 years, described him as an amazing artist, a fantastic teacher, and an exceptional human being.

“Paul isn’t just a visionary in the art world; he’s a visionary in the educational world,” Mr. Nixon said. “And of all the places I’ve been educationally, there is no place I’ve been that holds a candle to the art department and the work we do at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School. And I can honestly say tonight that without Paul, that would not be taking place.”

Ms. Regan also praised Mr. Brissette for transforming the art department, in written remarks read in her absence by PEF board member Paul Karasik. “From architecture to imagineering, the art department grew from a few dedicated majors to one that touched almost every student’s life,” Ms. Regan said.

Mr. Karasik and PEF board member Carlene Gatting presented Mr. Brissette with an award that featured a beach rock mounted on a wooden base. Mr. Karasik said it symbolized both the permanence of the Permanent Endowment and its intentions and the ongoing influence Mr. Brissette’s work has had and will continue to have through the years.

Mr. Brissette also received a special citation in recognition of his receiving the Creative Living Award from Representative Tim Madden, on behalf of the State House of Representatives.

“I think when you work with students, and especially in the arts where it’s such a creative side of the student, it’s special,” Mr. Madden said. “Looking around this room, you can see the positive effects you’ve had on the children in the community, and most of them have gone on to be quite talented adult artists as well, which is nice.”

The occasion was also a celebration of the PEF’s 30th anniversary. Board chairman Anne Williamson said the fund has provided almost $2 million in grant support over 30 years to qualified Island nonprofit organizations and $1.5 million in scholarships to students attending college, graduate school, and maritime training programs.

Mr. Williamson noted that one of the grants, to a collaborative community project to paint an Island history mural on the exterior wall of the Vineyard Haven Stop & Shop supermarket, was facilitated by Mr. Brissette in 2009.

The evening also included a drawing in which guests had the opportunity to win $1,000, donated by the PEF Board, to be donated to one or several Island nonprofits of their choice. MVRHS special education director Will Verbits was the winner.