DHS student Jaimie Welbourn shows her unconventional self-portrait, the product of the school’s new Visiting Artists program. Welbourn’s class was taught by local painter Meredith Rose./Photo by Steve Eginoire

A new class of artists

DHS Visiting Artist Program expands curriculum
by Stew Mosberg

When it comes to school budget cuts, the first thing that often gets axed is arts programming. Fortunately that isn’t the case at Durango High School, where the mission statement of the visual arts department is quite succinct about its goal to offer “creative opportunities that allow students to develop a strong sense of self-awareness and expression.”

Driven by a diverse faculty, students may elect from photography, painting, ceramics, sculpture and drawing. One aspect of the newly defined “small learning communities” is the Da Vinci School of Creativity and Innovation. The basis for this program is the creative process, and it is designed to encourage critical thinking and problem solving through an arts-infused curriculum integrated with science, math, engineering and technology.

As progressive as these programs are, an even greater opportunity has been provided by a grant from the Michael Crane Memorial Arts Education Fund and Durango Foundation for Educational Excellence.

For the month of January, a visiting artist program was added to the school’s arts curriculum, enabling professional artists from the Four Corners to teach, guide and work directly with students. All pupils enrolled in the Visiting Artist Program were required to have completed introductory level art courses.

The program, which is aligned with 9-R’s strategic plan, is geared to engage visual arts students while enhancing the sense of a community-wide partnership.

Spearheading the new program are DHS art teachers Krista Karpel and Roxanna Mitchell. The two said they sought professional local artists who could relate well to students and provide insight into what it is like to have a career in the arts.

Artists were invited to apply for the program, and four applicants were ultimately selected to represent the five disciplines taught in the department. As part of the application process, artists submitted concepts for a project relevant to the specific courses.

Photographer Charlie Camacho and painter Meredith Rose were the first to start their six-session projects. Camacho introduced students to digital photography, the making of digital negatives and sunlight-exposed cyanotype prints. He said he was immediately struck by the students’ knowledge of digital art and Photoshop techniques; the high school’s well-equipped darkroom facility only added to the experience. Camacho’s surprise was further enhanced as the session went on. He was excited to see what the students came up with, and hoped he had inspired0 them to continue working with experimental processes. “I knew the students would be enthusiastic,” he said, “but I was surprised at the quality of work they produced. They really brought in some strong images (of their own) to work from.”

Another goal for Camacho was to add to the teacher’s skill set so she could bring the process to future students.  “Now,” says Camacho, “Roxanne has all the materials and know-how to make cyanotype printing part of her curriculum.”

As for Rose, she hoped to impart a higher-level experience to DHS students than what she teaches at the Durango Arts Center. To help prepare students for their self-portraits in oil, she showed slides illustrating the work of historical and contemporary “master” portrait painters. She then taught the class the basic but invaluable skill of stretching a canvas and preparing to work with oil paints.

Rose believed it would be more interesting for students to create self-portraits based on direct observation; that is by using a mirror. However, she asked them to “step beyond realism” and to be expressive, rather than photographic, in their interpretations. Rose excitedly described the experience. “Many were not scared to experiment and push their boundaries of painting,” she said. “We pushed their limits in canvas size, painting technique and the colors of their faces and hair; to blue, green and purple, for example. I am so happy with the results!”
Mitchell enthusiastically acknowledged Rose’s contribution to her students. “The level of knowledge, skill and talent that Meredith brought into my classroom was amazing, and I simply could not have matched it. The students thrived off her passion for painting and could not get enough about her stories as an art student.”

The results of student efforts will be seen at a group show scheduled to open in January at the Steaming Bean coffee shop.

Art Department Chairman J. Burnite, an award-winning ceramicist, is quick to acknowledge the vital roles the teachers played in developing the visiting artist concept. “Our whole department had voices into the concept, but it was Krista, Roxie and Trey Duvall who have done most of the work to lay out the basics,” he said. “At the start of the year, Roxie had a planning period specifically designated to develop the application and solidify the concept.”

Asked about the program’s future, Mitchell said the DHS Art Department will do whatever it can to continue to provide this opportunity. “Any time I can provide students with an authentic, challenging and fun experience that provides them with the opportunity to work side by side with a professional local artist, you bet I would do it again,” she said. ndemonstrates.