Vineyard artists talk trends in teaching art

Ken Vincent in front of his paintings. — File photo by Susan Safford

You could almost hear John Holladay beaming over the phone. The Featherstone Center for the Arts teacher, Falmouth High School computer graphics teacher, and nationally known artist was recounting the stories of the accolades his Falmouth students received at the recent National Scholastic Art and Writing Awards ceremonies at Carnegie Hall over Memorial Day weekend. Mr. Holladay lives for this.

From more than 150,000 entries, only 600 were selected for the Carnegie Hall debut, including Tisbury’s Cullen Paradise, who took gold for design.

As with Mr. Holladay’s Island teaching colleagues, Ellen McCluskey and Ken Vincent, both of whom also teach at Featherstone Center for the Arts in Oak Bluffs, the magic happens when students get it, believe in their own creative powers, and begin to create their art.

The three teachers, who range in age from 70 to barely 30, see themselves as helpers to people who want to create — something that is a constant and not subject to trends. But all note the same trend in their classroom: a powerful motivation generating from their students whose ages range from seniors to teens.

Mr. Vincent sees many older adults who have put off their artistic hankering in favor of families and careers. “Now it’s their turn,” he says.

Mr. Holladay notices another trend making itself felt in his high school artists: “I have five classes of 25 kids each at Falmouth High in acrylics, oils, animation, and computer graphics. About 70 percent of the students are male, and about 20 percent will continue on to major in art and art-related fields in college.”

He explains the increase in pursuing careers in art, saying, “Career opportunities, particularly in the field of graphics and animation and related arts, such as board gaming, is growing and shifting so rapidly that in a few years college kids will have majors that don’t exist yet.”

The three teachers, each with different styles and mediums, essentially emphasize the same thing. “My job is to help them see,” Mr. Vincent said.

The irrepressible Ms. McCluskey works in and teaches pastels. “I’d say the most obvious trend is to become looser, freer, to work in bigger spaces, with less focus on small details.” She notes, “Perfect has been an ideal for many years, but I think buyers are getting tired of that look, they want freer looks.”

Ms. McCluskey describes her teaching process. “I break the painting process into three parts: sketching, blocking in shapes, then layering, which finishes the piece,” she says. “Then it’s student’s choice. I tell them to do the work they have come to do. If I’m painting a stonewall as a demonstration and they want to do a seascape, I tell them: ‘Paint a seascape.'”

She continues, “There are no exercises. I want them to jump in and create art. I ask them to go through the three stages just to clear out confusion. I’ve always taught this way and I’ve got more artists showing than anyone I know. Some of them sell more than I do,” she says, laughing.

Teaching art is as much a philosophical exercise as a creative one, Ms. McCluskey says, noting that she has instructed several students by phone, at least one of whom is selling her work very successfully. “I love teaching, watching people blossom. I’m 70 years old and I can’t stop.”

Mr. Holladay and Mr. Vincent also share the jump-right-in approach. In his teaching of oils and acrylics, Mr. Holladay exhorts students to take lessons from as many people as they can. “I was teaching an afternoon class and every time I said something, one woman would laugh. I asked her why and she said, ‘Well, I took another art course this morning and the instructor told us not to do everything you’re telling us to do.'”

All the teachers agreed, helping students to unlearn is a major component of the job. As Mr. Vincent explains, “The most important element is de-programming old beliefs that they can’t succeed. I work at making people feel comfortable because if you can get through the frustrating part and feel comfortable, everyone can find their own way, can find out who they are, and what they want to do.”

He adds, “Psychology plays a large part. Think of it from a biological standpoint: You are processing a three-dimensional image and directing muscles to reproduce it in two dimensions. If we are not aware on a human level of what we are doing, we are not addressing it correctly,” he said.

And representing the trend toward more approachable teachers, Mr. Vincent tells about running into a former student who had been struggling with painting in watercolor, a difficult process to master. He recalls, “She said she now uses her watercolor brushes only to apply her makeup.”

John Holladay shows his oil and watercolor paintings at the Louisa Gould Gallery in Vineyard Haven. Ken Vincent will show at The Granary Gallery in West Tisbury beginning July 3. Ellen McCluskey’s show at The Granary Gallery opened June 19.