15 January 2018

Art Educators with heART, featuring Jason M. Stewart!

Follow the beard! When I enrolled in my MFA graduate program, I did not realize that I would meet some of the most amazing people in the world. Of course everyone talks about graduate school cohorts as being people that you can lean on and commiserate with. But no one ever talks about becoming lifelong friends with these people, laughing into the weeeeeeeeeee hours of the night with these people, or learning about art practice and ethics and professionalism from these people. 

Our MFA graduate program rotated in new students and graduated a class each year. And the program was four summers and three years long. Jason was in the cohort just a year ahead of mine. It would be hard to imagine a group of people that I have had more fun with in all of my life then that cohort of humans . . . See below! Aren't they a sweet group of seven??!! I just want to squeeze them all! (You might remember in my last post that I visited Ashley, next to Jason in the v-neck, in Wisconsin just a few weeks ago for some baby love and amazing eats!)

But back to Jason. Jason is like the baby brother I never had! We laugh at the same exact things, enjoy food--cooking and flavors--immensely, and could potentially stay in the studio working for days on end (not once letting up for air or sleep). He helped me build my rockets in my third year (see below and here), and I could always count on him for honest and forthright critiques: via phone or email, and even in person. Just before my graduating year, we even Skyped and talked about my work going into my last summer. So many memories!

Of course it would be remiss of me if I did not mention his other half, Jessi. She is a nurse and probably THE MOST hilarious person I have every met. Jessi can also crochet the heck out of a skein of yarn. You can see Jason and Jessi costuming me in my second year of our MFA program here, towards the end of the clip. Last spring, Jessi and Jason came to visit me in Florida and stayed with me. It was so great to see them! And for my spring break this year, I will be driving up to see them in New Jersey, as well as several other friends and artists from our graduate program. Friends for life! 

Jason is an incredible artist, as you can see here. And he is a wonderful art educator, teaching strong technique and thoughtful approaches to creative exploration. So without further ado I give you Jason M. Stewart, in his own words.

What is your name and where do you teach (school and city)?

Jason M. Stewart, Ridge High School, Basking Ridge, NJ (Bernards Township)

What do you teach?

High School Art – Art Studio (1st year of the 4 year art track), Art Explorer (general education art class, design concepts – no representational drawing), Design and Creation (S.T.E.A.M. program sculpture and technology course), and Technical Theatre & Scenic Design

How long have you been teaching?

8 years, just started my 9th

Have you taught the same subjects throughout the entire time that you have been teaching?

No. I was originally hired to teach half time Elementary Art (grades 3, 4, and 5) and High School (Art Explorer and Ceramics). After one year I was moved to the High School full time. I have taught or will teach all of the following classes:

Art Explorer
Art Studio
Intro to Ceramics
Technical Theatre & Scenic Design
Design and Creation
Design and Creativity (a half year version of Design and Creation open to students not in the STEAM program)

Possibly teaching next year (Advanced Art Studio and/or Honors Art Major – 2nd and 3rd year Art classes)

Where are you from?

Metuchen, NJ

Where did you do your teacher training?

Rowan University, Glassboro, NJ
B.A. Art Education
B.F.A. Studio Art – Concentration: Printmaking and Painting
Minor: Art History

Maryland Institute College of Art
M.F.A. – Studio Art (multidisciplinary)

Student teaching experiences: Mickleton, NJ; Deptford, NJ; Glassboro, NJ; Gloucester Township, NJ; Bridgeton, NJ

Why did you decide to become a teacher?

I originally entered college thinking I would be a Graphic Design major because that seemed to be a logical art career where I could make money in the future. After about a month of one computer graphics class, I realized that I greatly missed using actual materials to make art and I hated sitting in front of a computer screen for long periods of time. I then switched my concentration from Graphic Design to Studio Art. After a few more weeks I began to realize that my Drawing 1 professor, Dr. Herbert Appelson (or Doc as he insisted everyone call him) was having a profound impact on me. He was the toughest, most demanding teacher I ever had. His assignments were time consuming, intricate, involved, and he required us to do 5 or 6 fully rendered 18” x 24” drawings each week. Each class started with a full group critique of the previous assignments and he was brutally honest in these critiques. During my first critique of college, Doc noticed that someone in the class had done the project wrong. He politely asked whose it was. The girl next to me raised her hand. He walked up to her, tore her drawing in half and said, “It’s only a piece of paper, do it again.” The student dropped his class the next day but I knew this teacher was someone special. Doc grew into my very first mentor; I took every class he taught – Drawing 3, Printmaking, etc. To this day, I still hear the nagging voice of a small, old, jewish man critiquing every mark or decision I make in an art piece. Doc was the first teacher who told me when my work was bad. My entire life I had been praised for my artistic ability. In high school my teachers rarely gave me constructive criticism and I often felt that my skills exceeded their ability or knowledge. Doc taught me how to get better and instilled in me the grit, tenacity, and work ethic needed to succeed. He pushed us to work in the studios at night with our peers because “being an artist is extremely lonely, it’s only you - alone in your studio for the rest of your life. Take advantage of this community while you have it.” Doc inspired me to be a teacher – I want to impact students like he impacted me.

However, after changing my major to Art Education I realized that the program only allowed for the introduction level of a variety of courses. I was not allotted enough time to truly master any of the fields of study. How can I teach students printmaking, painting, and ceramics if I’ve only taken the intro level of printmaking, painting, and ceramics? I also found that the caliber of artist work was a bit lacking in the art education program. I missed the criticality that I felt was needed with my own art practice. Because of this I double majored and eventually received a BFA in Studio Art, BA in Art Education, and a minor in Art History.

Is anyone else in your family a teacher?

No. My father is a blue-collar pipe fitter and my mother works in a cubicle (or as the rest of the world calls it – business).

What is/are your favorite subject/subjects to teach?

I enjoy teaching so many different subjects. In fact, my classes have changed each year I’ve taught. My flexibility as a teacher and my vast vocabulary and experience in different mediums has allowed me to teach many interesting subjects. I really enjoy the formative importance of Art Studio – developing students’ observational drawing skills and helping them to build the skills in order to better express themselves. I also really enjoy the new class I’m teaching this year – Design and Creation. This course is part of the STEAM program in our school and has a heavy emphasize on non-traditional art materials, sculpture, installation, and technology. We plan to make sound art, inflatable sculptures, portfolio websites, computer code manipulations, and many more.

How many students do you work with during a week's time?

Depending on that year’s enrollment I work with somewhere between 100 and 120 students each week.

What kind of artwork do you make?

My practice is a multidisciplinary practice that focuses mostly on painting, sculpture, and installation but is not limited to those three disciplines. I am interested in exploring the idea of “place” through multiple voices that I inhabit as an artist.

Do the students know you make things?

Yes. I often talk about my own studio practices, routines, etc. I think it is important for students to know that their teacher is serious about the subject they teach to the point where they practice it outside of school.

Have you shown them your artwork before?

I rarely show my work to my students for a few reasons:

1. My work, being abstract or conceptual does not align with the developmental interests of High Schoolers. The typical high school student wants to better their ability to render reality accurately or through their own expressive filter. Very few are ready to get into the topics of conceptual art, at least not when I have them in class – which is usually freshman year.

2. I sometimes feel that showing a student my work might make them want to emulate my style of work in order to pander to my own interests 0r to achieve a better grade. I believe the role of the teacher is to facilitate the student’s own expression, style, and ability; not make a carbon copy of myself.

With that being said, I will often model techniques, styles, and procedures through projects I make side-by-side with the students. However, these demonstrations or projects are intended to provide visual instruction for the student and are not representative of my personal art practice.

This year, our art department was approached by a local gallery to have a Ridge High School Faculty Art exhibit. This was the first time our department has actively shown our personal work in the community.


Do you think making your own artwork enhances, changes, or helps your teaching?

I think maintaining a personal practice is essential for successful art education. Students are very perceptive and can sense when you don’t really know what you’re talking about. But more importantly, staying on top of your own work is essential for thinking like an artist. Students want to master whatever technique they’re being taught and they are naturally creative and inquisitive. If a teacher starts just “going through the motions” and they forget what sparked their own interest in art, they lose that connection they share with the students – that of creation, creativity, and inquisitive searching. I always keep in mind that I teach elective courses, meaning students ELECTED to take my course over music, theater, or dance. They chose to be here! Why did they make that choice? Because they either wanted to be here or this was the best of the three options. Either way, the same thing that piqued their interest is the same thing that makes an artist curious about a concept, technique, material, etc. It’s that desire to understand something beyond yourself and then create something visually to express that understanding or some other idea. Sometimes words or actions cannot capture an idea as well as the visual art process and it is the job of the teacher to help students achieve that expression, representation, or interaction of materials.

Does working with young people help to enhance the artwork you make?

As stated before, students’ energy and inquisitive nature acts as an inspiration for me to get into the studio and explore my creative interests. However, I would not say that the specific work or projects I do with students act as an inspiration.

What is your favorite thing about what you do?

My favorite thing is making a student realize that they can achieve what they didn’t think they could. I teach in a very high performing district, where students only see AP classes as the real “College prep”. Therefore the students who are legitimately average, and in many cases smarter than I was at their age, feel like they don’t have a place to succeed. But Art can level that playing field. While we have students in the arts that excel in AP classes, they work right next to students who do not take AP classes and my goal is to make sure each of them finds their own form of success and when that happens, I have succeeded.

What abilities shift in you as a result of working with young people? Please explain.

It’s hard to say that my abilities shift because I’ve been working with young people my entire life. In high school, I worked as a camp counselor and I started teaching right out of undergraduate school. Therefore, working with young people is my way of life. However, I think working with young people helps me to realize developmental and cognitive differences in people I meet outside of work. They help me to find more patience when dealing with difficult situations or people when out in public.

Do you host any large events that feature your students' artwork so that the larger community can see what the students are doing? What about school specific events?

I am specifically involved with our end of the year art show, which is a massive endeavor that occupies two of our high school’s gyms and displays more 1,500 pieces of art from more than 1,000 students.

While I don’t specifically do other exhibitions with my students, our advanced level teachers have students participate in at least four additional exhibitions, some of which offer scholarships and awards.

I am also the advisor of the Drama Club’s Scenic Design and Stage Crew – This group of students create scenery for 1 play and 1 musical every year in addition to assisting with other projects throughout the year. We have won, and been nominated for, many state recognized awards – ranking us consistently as one of the best scenic design crews in the state. We have a website, www.ridgestagecrew.com.

How does collaboration fit into your teaching methods? What about personal choice? And imagination?

I think collaboration is at times very important and at times limiting. As someone who was a varsity athlete in high school, as well as someone who is involved in the collaborative nature of live theatre, I think it is important to experience and embrace collaboration. Collaboration helps you to think differently about an idea, get feedback, and learn the importance of accepting others’ input and ideas. It allows for bigger, more ambitious projects to take place due to the more forceful power of the group. It also helps struggling or low performing students to see effective modeling of techniques and ideas as demonstrated by a peer. Therefore, we do this often in some of my classes. However, it is also important for a teacher to focus on the personal and individual growth of each student. This means, making sure that top performing students aren’t being limited by a group dynamic – either by working at a lower level to match their peers or doing all, or most of, the work within the group. A great teacher once told me, “Teach to the top and the rest will rise.” Meaning it is important to focus lessons so that the top performing students will grow and improve. This can inspire those needing improvement to rise and push themselves further than they thought they could go. It is then the job of the educator to check in with each individual student so they can focus on their specific needs.

Personal choice is an important aspect of art making. I never want my teaching to produce “cookie cutter” projects. While students will inevitably work on projects with the same techniques, materials, and objectives, it would be terrible if each student’s work looked just like their peers’, or worse, looked just like my work.

Imagination is the most difficult thing to teach. Techniques are easy to model and improve, patience can be acquired or strengthened, but imagination is one of those things that grows through discourse with other individuals and is inherent to the artist and his or her aesthetic. Now, many of the classes I teach are foundation courses so the main objective of the class is to give the students the skills and tools in order to better expressive their voice and imagination later on within our art program. So, in many cases I teach “guidelines” to improve their work. I never call them “rules” because I want students to know that while I suggest certain things to improve their work and their skills, they will have the choice to resist these rules and even de-skill in any future art path they take.

Do you bring in people from the community to work with your students? Why or why not?

As much as I would love to bring more people from the community in to work with my students, I very rarely do so. The only reason for this is that I am so involved with many other aspects of school life that organizing visitors from community members becomes one more thing to coordinate, more paperwork to do, approvals to wait on, etc. Now, with that being said, colleagues of mine that teach the higher level Honors and AP art courses bring in guest critics, college reps, etc.

What are your top five favorite art supplies to use with students, and why?

Because I have taught so many different types of courses this list could get quite long but I’ll try to keep it brief:
Clay – is a very forgiving material and can be an extremely rewarding and tactile experience for all students, especially ones with cognitive or physical disabilities. It’s a faster medium than some other sculptural options and has the added benefit of becoming something functional if desired.

Paper – is just so versatile! It can be cut, glued, folded, colored on, drawn on, painted on, etc.

#2 pencils and extra soft pencil (6B or softer) – when learning to draw realistically learning the master the control over a common Ticonderoga #2 pencil allows the student to become more aware of their own body in relation to the product. Relying too heavily on the full range of H and B pencils can make the student less aware of the hand pressure needed for control of the medium. Soft pencils are needed because they are the only things that will let the student get the darkest darks.

Cardboard – it is important for students to realize that not all art needs to be made out of precious and archival materials. Not everything needs to last forever, sometimes it can be temporary. Also, not every art materials needs to be purchased at the art store. It can be found in the trash and be done on the cheap!

Water based Paint (acrylic) – paint is a particular passion of mine. The idea of controlling liquid color and finding formal relationships between colors that help to direct the viewer’s eye is something that I love to teach my students. It is also something that can be intuitive and primal or refined and elegant. Unlike ink or even graphite, if you mess up you wait for it to dry and then paint over it.

What do you think is the best part of teaching?

Getting students excited about something and teaching them awareness. I typically say that I want my students to walk away with an appreciation for something that is important to them and that they be aware of the intricacies and beauty in the world or people around them. I will often talk about music in my classes, especially because I play music in my classes daily. But, I encourage the students not to just accept the music that is forced on them by the radio – go out and find the music you want to listen to. Be active in your life and don’t just settle for what is given to you. I’d like to think that the arts education I provide encourages them to this, even if they don’t continue with art.

When leading extra-curricular activities such as Stage Crew I want to instill in students the need to be ambitious, strategic, professional, and driven. We have the ability to do the bare minimum for our designs or we can have big ideas and work hard to get them done. We might have a limited budget, but we can be resourceful with our materials and think of ways to use non-traditional materials for designs. We might be limited on time (2.5 months for the fall play, 3 months for the winter musical) but if we stay focused and work as a team we can accomplish huge things. Since this is an extra-curricular club, students CHOOSE to do this. They chose stage crew over football, basketball, speech and debate, etc, therefore, why should they chose to give this thing anything less than their very best!

Do you have a favorite lesson plan that you could share with us?

Elementary – Cave Painting with Berries, “Blood”, and Sticks.

Students use the same tools and materials as ancient humans to create versions of cave paintings in groups on brown craft paper. The papers from each group combine with other classes to form a physical cave in a hallway display.

High School – this one is a tie between two

What Would Stew Do? A Guide to Composition in Art – Students are taught and shown examples of how to compose their artwork within the two-dimensional frame. We review the effects of centering objects, tangent lines, cropping, the rule of thirds, and various other ideas that are traditionally seen as “effective” or “ineffective” when creating a composition. Students are then shown artwork from masters of art history and asked to ignore the aesthetics or quality of the paintings and just give the artworks a score from 1 to 10 based solely on the composition.

Surrealist Collages/Painting – students use magazine cut outs to construct a surreal scene that is believable as a real space but with something dream like occurring. Then, they scan them into a computer, posterize the image, print out, grid the print out, and replicated that grid into a painting.

If I asked you when you were five what you wanted to be when you grew up, what might you have said?

Artist, astronaut, police officer, firefighter, detective (yes, this was in addition to police officer), rock star, and actor. These are my actual answers when I was 5 and the rock star and actor dreams are not yet abandoned.

And finally, what is your favorite song right now?

Chance The Rapper - Favorite Song ft. Childish Gambino (not really school appropriate though) . . . 

Any song by Hop Along . . . 

Any song by Courtney Barnett . . . 

* * * * *
Inspiring, yes? Do you remember your art teacher in elementary, middle, or high school? A college professor, perhaps? If so, what made that person memorable to you? Leave a comment below with your thoughts.

Check out more interviews here:
Camilla Spadafino
Adrienne Hodge
Nicholas Wozniak
Sarah Johnson

Up next! Recipes tests, upcoming gallery shows, and new house tour!

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