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Rooted in Creativity: Why I became a Teaching Artist

HomeNewsRooted in Creativity: Why I became a Teaching Artist

In this blog post, COMPAS Teaching Artist Kelley Meister shares some reflections on the lasting impact of educators, inspired by hir family’s teaching legacy.

The smoothness of the wooden desks, the starched crisp uniforms, and the smell of chalkboards and school supplies greeted me. My grandfather had brought me to visit my grandmother’s kindergarten class. Thirty-four years later, my grandmother passed away. Her funeral was attended by so many of her former students, all of whom wanted to share the deep imprint she made on them. Teachers are often adored, sometimes revered, occasionally hated, but always remembered.

I come from a long line of teachers and artists. My grandmother was a painter and a teacher, like her mother. My great-grandmother studied painting with Thomas Hart Benton, the lauded Missouri painter whose giant WPA-era paintings decorate the Jefferson City capitol. Now, my grandmother didn’t have a famous teacher to point to as her mentor; her teachers, at least later in life, were much more humble in origin, but no less impactful. As a 10 year old, I would accompany her to the classes she took in the back of Michael’s and Ben Franklin craft stores. I loved going with her, painting t-shirts and wooden tchotchkes, surrounded by a dozen doting grandmothers. It didn’t matter who her teacher was or where she was learning. What mattered was that she was creating and that she was building community. My mom, a writer and college English professor, has taken up painting classes in her retirement, now too. I hear all about her watercolor class, her caricature class, her abstract painting class. And while I’m the sole person in my family whose career is teaching art, the legacy of those who came before me is strong.

I share these stories of my maternal lineage because I’m grateful to have this root for not only my creative self, but my devotion to being an educator as well. I came to teaching art as a way to make money as an artist that wasn’t tied to the commercial, competitive world of galleries. But truth be told, becoming a teacher always felt like a given, that it was in my bones. After getting my MFA from MCAD in 2008, I felt pulled to the work of teaching art in informal spaces, first at the Science Museum of Minnesota and then with COMPAS. I love the feeling of showing up to a school, library, or community center with boxes brimming with paint, charcoal, cameras, or circuit boards, knowing that I bring novelty as a visitor, an opening into creative thinking that these students need, and a memorable experience that expands the confines of what a classroom is often thought to include.

I recently was reading about the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic on everyone’s, but particularly our young people’s, mental health. A year and a half into the pandemic, I was running an after school art club for middle school students. It was immediately clear that these students needed a place to feel connected and safe in order for them to process all the big feelings they had been experiencing: the grief, fear, and anger at what was happening around them. As a teaching artist, I could create that space, give them something to do with their hands while they shared with me and each other some of what they were feeling. The students poured their hearts into the pieces they made, creating paintings that described their anxieties, sculptures of their fears. They used creativity to transmute their experiences, give them form so that they could share them with others.

Unfortunately, after contracting Covid-19 myself, my body has not yet returned to the abilities I once had to carry in heaps of supplies, monitor and track a roomful of students, and even stand for more than a few minutes. So for the time being, I’m not teaching much. But the creativity I have long invested myself in developing has been critical to adapting my life, my living space, my studio, my practice, and my career to my new disabilities. The skill of creativity is a gift that every teaching artist helps foster. As I learned from my grandmother, we don’t know where or how our students will someday use that gift, but we know and trust that our imprint will help them when they need it most. That is the reason I’m a teaching artist.

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COMPAS is an arts education nonprofit that puts creativity in the hands of Minnesotans, regardless of their age, background, or skills. Based in the Minneapolis-Saint Paul metro area, COMPAS teaching artists deliver creative experiences and arts programming across Minnesota.

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This activity is made possible by the voters of Minnesota through a Minnesota State Arts Board Operating Support grant, thanks to a legislative appropriation from the arts and cultural heritage fund.