High school educator reflects on teaching art

By Page H. Gifford, Correspondent

Fluvanna County High School (FCHS) art teacher, Michelle Coleman, knew at the age of 13 in seventh grade that art would be her destiny.

“I decided then that I wanted to be just like my art teacher when I grew up,” she said “I took every art class I could get my hands on in high school and even took private art lessons throughout high school as well. I never changed my mind.”

Originally from New Jersey, she got her associate’s degree at a community college before transferring to Radford University and completing her bachelor’s in art education. After being hired at FCHS, she pursued her master’s of arts in history and culture from Union Institute and University. Once former high school art teacher Diane Greenwood retired, Coleman stepped up from behind to fill her shoes, continuing to do what she dreamed of doing: inspiring art students the way she had been inspired.

The artists who influenced her include Andy Warhol, Georgia O’Keeffe and Keith Haring.

“I am drawn to pop art, bold colors, graphic styles, pop culture, and repetition,” she said. For that reason she follows the work of contemporary artists like Ryan McGinnis, Banksy, Shepard Fairey and Khinde Wiley. All of them display their styles in different ways but stay true to bold graphics, like McGinnis, or art deco influence in the graphic prints by Fairey, or the offbeat style of Wiley seen in his recent portrait of former President Barack Obama.

“I am drawn to work that focuses on our culture and popular subjects,” she said. Most are familiar with the semi-abstract work of O’Keeffe and Warhol, the father of pop art, but Haring features much of the political symbolism and repetitive patterns in his graffiti-like work, painted in bold comic book colors that Coleman favors.

Her influence is seen in the work of her students. Students who were strong in this spring’s art show were those who featured a bold graphic style and statement in their work. Rather than savoring solitude and self-discovery on her own, she has chosen to mentor others in their projects. She transmits her passion and concepts to a younger generation, sharing the joy of exploring the creative mind and, with practice, mastering skills to get to the next level.

Regarding her favorite mediums, she said, “I enjoy using collage, watercolor, and acrylic paint. I especially enjoy mixed media works because I don’t have to settle on just one media and I can add a lot of texture.” Watercolor was a preferred medium among many of her students.

“I want my students to learn to appreciate art, see its usefulness and its place in our world as well as understand that art is everywhere they turn. Sometimes when students think of art, they think of famous art hanging in galleries,” Coleman said. For this reason, she teaches them to look at things differently and to incorporate art into their environment. “I want them to understand that the things they enjoy: video games, clothing, posters, graphics on their phones, album covers, TV shows, sneakers, even their cereal boxes, are all works of art. Everything is influenced by it and everything borrows from it.”

She added that the concepts she teaches her students will likely influence the decisions they will make as they venture off as adults, such as recycling, layout, balance, keeping tools clean, safety and knowing how to use tools properly.

“Aesthetic ideals are part of human nature, and art makes it possible,” she said.

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