Arts Education – It’s for All of Us

The mention of “art in school” conjures a sensory kaleidoscope of paste, tempura, clay and happy children in colorfully-splotched smocks. True, kids love to paint, mold and goop up almost anything with glitter glue, but an arts education is much more than that. Experts say that regular engagement with the arts helps students develop an array of competencies which extend far beyond the easel and pottery wheel. In addition, art classes can provide a creative experience in which students imagine the future, visit the past and learn about other cultures and lifestyles.

Northern Californian artist Mary Lake-Thompson’s artwork is the kind that welcomes you through the farmhouse door for a cup of honeyed chamomile tea. Red-scarfed chickadees in ear muffs. A bicycle basket overflowing with plump vegetables. Sprigs of lavender clutched in a yellow bow. Over the past three decades, Lake-Thompson has become a nationally-renowned commercial artist. Often inspired by the rustic, natural beauty of her Oroville home, her unique designs can be found on a variety of gift products. Mary Lake-Thompson Ltd. aprons, greeting cards, totes and flour sack towels are sold by thousands of companies worldwide.

When asked about the secret to her success, Lake-Thompson likes to start at the beginning. “My family is artistic, and they always encouraged me,” she says. “As a kid, I was always doodling with a pencil or brush.”

Lake-Thompson grew up in Colorado and remembers when art classes were offered at every grade level. “I struggled with reading and probably would be diagnosed as dyslexic today,” she says. “I naturally gravitated to art, where I was able to show my strengths. I loved all of it.”

Lake-Thompson says she was motivated by her artistic successes in elementary and secondary school, enrolling at the University of Colorado as an art student. In 1970, the vibrant art scene on the west coast drew her to the prestigious San Francisco Art Institute where she explored a little of everything: painting, printmaking, sculpture and stained glass. Eventually, she earned her degree in photography. “That’s what helped me land my first professional job.”

When she hears about dwindling resources for arts in the public education system, she worries about the impact on kids. As schools feel pressured to demonstrate success based on student test scores, allocation of funding often favors the general academic curriculum. This, despite research suggesting children reap many benefits through regular engagement with the arts, including higher academic achievement and better graduation rates.

Stellar Charter School fine arts teacher Rachel Duryee believes students learn important life skills through working hard to learn, grow and succeed in the arts. Duryee is pictured with some of her students in front of an inspirational art piece in their classroom. Photo by Marjie Kennedy, Six Rivers Photography

In addition, arts programming helps develop a range of important life skills, such as creativity, critical thinking, observational skills and the ability to collaborate. Rachel Duryee is the fine arts teacher at Stellar Charter School in Redding and says her students learn perseverance. “There are a few students who are naturally talented in the arts, but for the majority, it is really difficult,” she says. “They have to work hard and stick with it to succeed.”

Keith Burrough is the ceramics teacher at Stellar Charter School. “Some students who struggle with regular academics excel with hands-on art,” he says. “It builds their self-esteem when they complete a project they thought they weren’t capable of.”

Sophia Steven-Del Torto, age 9, loves creating art using a variety of mediums in her fine arts class at Stellar Charter School in Redding.

Lake-Thompson knows all about perseverance and ingenuity. After several years in the Bay Area, she and her husband moved north to start a family in Butte County. Life became busy as she worked a series of “day jobs” and raised two daughters, but she never stopped making art. She sold small paintings out of an Oroville gallery and says, “I was only making $30-$50 on each piece, but it was exciting to sell my work.” Then, in the early 1980s, she sold 60 large paintings in an art show at The Nut Tree in Vacaville. This proved to be her big commercial break. One success led to another. She began to land contracts with well-known companies such as Eddie Bauer and realized there was a niche in the gift industry for her fanciful and iconic style. Mary Lake-Thompson Ltd. is now a thriving company, employing nearly 50 people.
As the next generation of artists begins doodling and tinkering, teachers can be an important source of guidance and support. And when schools understand the benefits of an arts education, everyone wins.

At Inspire School of Arts and Sciences, a public charter high school in Chico, arts education is incorporated throughout the curriculum. “Project-based learning leads to a creative use of skills,” says art teacher Linnea Smith. “So, a student could use the videography and graphic design skills she learns in art class to make a video for social studies class.” In addition, Smith says students at Inspire are exposed to a variety of artist vocations; photography, sound design and stage set construction to name a few.

“Sometimes parents aren’t very enthusiastic about a child pursuing a career in the arts,” says Smith. “There’s still that stigma of ‘the starving artist.’ But the truth is there are lots of jobs out there for creative types. The film industry, advertising, game design…you name it. The opportunities are there.”

Mary Lake-Thompson’s success is a prime example. Her tip for students today? “Stay up to date with the technology. It’s important to know the most current ways of editing, distributing and storing your artwork.” Coming from an artist who fills our 21st-century lives with vintage charm, that’s good advice.

Mary Lake-Thompson joins members of her design team in their creative process as the team reviews a new design.

Ashley Talmadge
About Ashley Talmadge

​Ashley Talmadge has always shared her home with a variety of companion animals. Currently her family includes two opinionated cats and two aquatic frogs. Her two young sons like to think of themselves as "cat mind readers."

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