Tonawanda News

October 15, 2012

HAYNES: Planting the seed

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The Tonawanda News

Tonawanda News — My entire life was changed by a single moment back in 1998.

One decision I made during my junior year of high school in Texas started me down a path that led me 1,400 miles away to Buffalo to a school I had never heard of, a major I had previously never considered, a passion I never thought possible and a career I love to this day.

On a whim, I had decided to sign up for a very attractive Advanced Placement art history class that offered plenty of field trip opportunities and even a small scholarship should I earn a 4 or a 5 on the end-of-term AP exam.

The first thing most people ask me when they find out I’m originally from Texas is “How’d you end up in Buffalo?” It was a scholarship application handed out in that AP class for the Canisius College art history department that did it.

Canisius accepted me, gave me some money and I ended up majoring in art history. I later added a major in English with the idea of one day becoming an arts journalist, which, to a certain degree, I am now. 

I would not be sitting here, writing this column, had it not been for the existence of that art history class and all the other arts-related K-12 classes that molded me into a creative person — photography, band, journalism.

So what happens when K-12 schools start cutting funding to these programs due to budget woes? We’re talking about cuts all across the nation the past few years, but especially in our own backyard.

Mary Ellen Holler, an elementary art teacher in the North Tonawanda School District, recently told me about the impact some of these reductions have made. There are fewer teachers now than there were three or four years ago — three retiring teachers haven’t been replaced at the high school level, 2.5 at the middle school level and one at the elementary level. 

That leaves three teachers for high school, 1.5 for middle school and just two for elementary. Holler said she and the other elementary art teacher split up their week among the district’s four elementary schools, adding that she teaches close to 700 students alone in the span of six days. Seven-hundred students, for one teacher. Think about that.

As a result, courses have been reduced, she explained. In most cases, introductory painting, drawing or ceramics classes are still being offered, but perhaps not the more advanced classes that many high schoolers might need to be more competitive at the collegiate level.

“We want to move them along but they can only get to a certain point,” Holler said. “I want to hear from my students in college and I want to hear them say ‘I’ve done this or done that’ — whether it’s culinary arts, whether it’s writing, whether it’s the visual arts — and that they’re proud of what they’ve moved onto and that maybe we’ve planted the first seed. That’s what we’re there for, to plant the seed to grow.”

She wants to get a phone call like the one former NT high school art teacher Cindi O’Mara got recently from one of her students, Natalie Brown. Two months ago Brown, who is 24 years old, opened an art gallery, Project 308, on Oliver Street in North Tonawanda. 

The article you’ll read adjoined to this column details how the latest show at the gallery, “Must be Something in the Water: An N.T. Collection,” features 14 artists from North Tonawanda, most of whom took the same classes from O’Mara six, seven, eight years ago before major budget reductions forced the cuts of some of those classes. Three pieces by O’Mara — one of the teachers who retired and was never replaced — are also featured in the show.

Conversations with Holler and O’Mara had me questioning: Had these classes and teachers not been available to students like Brown and her fellow classmates, would we even have shows like “Must be Something in the Water?” Would a place like Project 308 ever have opened? How many Natalie Browns would we have?

Supporters of the arts will start throwing around statistics about how students in the arts score higher on the SATs and are more likely to stay off the streets in urban areas, all of which are valid and true. But they’re just statistics. 

We can see tangible evidence of what a solid arts education can produce in our little corner of the world with these 14 North Tonawandans’ pieces of art. Let’s just hope we can still be writing about an exhibition by about a dozen North Tonawanda artists from the same class a decade or two from now.

Contact features editor Danielle Haynes at 693-1000, ext. 4116.