Galleries : The Art Of High School
"We get every kind of student," says art department chairman Paul Brissette. "Only a few areas in the school do that."
Art classes at Martha's Vineyard Regional High School are filled with a heterogeneous mix - not just with those who want to go on to art school, but with top academic students, students who may be struggling, and special needs students.
On average, 40 to 55 percent of the Martha's Vineyard Regional High School student body enrolls in an art course during their four years, while the national average is 26 percent and half of the nation's high schools do not have art programs.
When he was a freshman, senior Ray Ewing of Edgartown took Chris Baer's basic photography class as an elective. Seven art classes later, he's getting ready to apply to art school.
"I didn't really know what I wanted to do then," he says. "Now I can't keep myself away from it. I'm just so geared into the whole track. It really made my high school career."
Mr. Ewing has shown his work in three group exhibits at Featherstone, as well as the Family Planning Show. During his junior year, he did architectural photography for True North Construction in Vineyard Haven. This summer he worked with a wedding photographer.
Referring to the high school's art department faculty as "a great support base," Mr. Ewing says, "They're very open to tailoring the artistic process to the individual student."
When Mr. Brissette started teaching art at the high school in 1978, the program consisted of one room and one class. Now in addition to Mr. Brissette, who teaches architecture, photography, and art portfolio, and Mr. Baer, a former student of Mr. Brissette's, who teaches photography, yearbook design, and digital drafting the department includes Janis Frame, who teaches drawing and painting, and Scott Campbell, who teaches sculpture, pottery and other 3-dimentional arts.
The curriculum includes 18 courses, rand over the years, has shifted from fine arts to the more career-oriented design arts. The department now calls itself Art, Design & Technical Education.
Photos by Ralph Stewart
According to Mr. Brissette, the art department produces 10 to 12 students per year - out of almost 200 - who continue on to art or design schools.
"I can go to any big city in the U.S. and find my students working there," says Mr. Brissette. "It's kind of cool. It's the satisfaction of teaching they talk about. You realize you're making a difference."
Staying on the cutting edge helps explain the department's success. After department members decided to go high tech, they acquired two computer labs. They are used for photography, graphics, yearbook design and digital drafting, as well as video in conjunction with the performing arts program. Both the program and the space are integrated with music and theater.
"There was a need," says Mr. Brissette. He helped redesign the high school building when it was renovated 10 years ago. A state fellowship supported him in developing the art program, and it turned into a statewide model for high-tech use of computers in the visual arts.
"I call it a 21st-century art program," he says. "Kids want to work with computers. Graphically you can do so much with them."
Sensitivity to the needs of the students also plays into the department's ability to thrive. Although the model for most departments at the high school is full-year courses, in art they last a semester, so students can fit them into tight schedules.
"We just changed a class in architecture, when a student came back and said it should be called environmental design or 3-D design," Mr. Brissette says. The art portfolio class he teaches is designed to create a competitive bridge for students going on in art after they graduate. A class in animation is in the works.
"We give them a really strong foundation," he says. "We're teaching a language here: visual literacy. It's not just pretty pictures - not that there's anything wrong with that - but it goes beyond into propaganda, advertising, almost everything human-made."
Community support for the arts is strong, and the connection goes both ways. Art students will design a wall mural for the Stop and Shop store in Vineyard Haven this school year.
"I want the kids to be involved and think about their community and its future." Mr. Brissette says. "I'm concerned that kids have a pretty dismal, scary view of the future. I truly believe we create our futures in our mind's eye, so I want them to think about how we can make a better Island, community, and country."
With the student enrollment declining, the department must look at long-term projections and plan to adjust. They may lose one level in tracks like fine arts and two-dimensional design. But for now, art classes at the high school remain full or close to it.
"Art is one of the few places kids have an opportunity to express their emotions and feelings in a safe way," Mr. Brissette says. "You've got to give them an opportunity to create. I think that's why I'm here."