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Fall 2000

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Art teachers find summer mecca

     Each June, some two dozen high school art teachers across the country grade final portfolios and then grab their sketchpads and head for Saratoga Springs. School is out, and they’re off to make art of their own, through Skidmore’s four-week Art Teachers Fellowship Program.
Jono Pandolfi ’99 is hooked on the form and engineering of teapots, which he created prolifically during his Summer Six fellowship.

     The program was designed, almost twenty years ago, for teachers who are “first and foremost artists,” explains Maryanne Needham, the program’s administrative coordinator. “But they become teachers with busy schedules and summer jobs, and sometimes lose the passion that drew them to art in the first place.” The fellowships offered through the Summer Six art program (under the aegis of Skidmore’s special programs division), “let art teachers do the work that defines them as artists,” explains Summer Six’s cofounder and director, professor Regis Brodie. A high-school art teacher himself for some years, the Skidmore ceramist knows exactly what art teachers face.

     “They work hard and give so much to their students. This summer experience sends them back to their classrooms reinvigorated, excited about art for themselves and for their students.”

     With a competitive admissions process, the program each year draws a different mix of painters, sculptors, metalworkers, and others.They range from young private-school teachers like ceramist Jono Pandolfi ’99 to thirty-eight-year veterans like George Mesologites, a former New York State Teacher of the Year whose drawings of realistic winged figures have been favorably reviewed in the New York Times.

     First-time fellowships like Pandolfi’s offer room, board, instructional critiques, twenty-four-hour access to the Saisselin Art Building studios, and a stimulating camaraderie that really mixes the media: painters and printmakers share dorm rooms and dining-hall tables with jewelers and fiber artists, drop into each other’s studios to admire works in progress, and troop off to partake of Skidmore’s wealth of summer lectures, readings, jazz and dance concerts. “This place is a cultural mecca,” says Mesologites. “It’s just the right combination of tranquility and stimulation.” Marvels sculptor Evelyn Kandel, “I can work more here in one day than I can in three school months.”

     That’s a reality Jono Pandolfi learned in his first year of teaching ceramics at the Millbrook School in eastern New York. “You can make your own stuff at school,” he points out, “but you can’t concentrate on it.” And concentration is essential when you specialize in teapots. “They’re known as one of the elemental challenges of ceramics,” Pandolfi says. “The variations go beyond infinite. To make the lid sit correctly, you make the vessel and lid at the same time, use a measuring tool for the lid, and put in a flange to keep the lid steady. Then to make the pot pour correctly . . . well, each is a little different, and I learn something new from each one.” In four weeks as an art fellow, Pandolfi earned graduate credits and produced a whopping 100 teapots, including some dramatic sculptural numbers two feet tall, with slender spouts arcing boldly up from their bases.

     Each year, about half of the schoolteacher artists are “alumni” who return at their own expense. A New York Times mention of the program fifteen years ago first brought weaver Barbara Casper to Summer Six, for which she now serves as administrative liaison, handling housing, meals, and scheduling questions. “All year I teach art to ninth graders, direct after-school activities, do school committees, parents nights, and all that,” says Casper. “I am, absolutely, a teacher—but in my soul, I’m an artist.”

Fiber sculptor Barbara Casper is a fifteen-year regular who helps coordinate the schoolteachers’ “working vacations” at Skidmore.

     “Still, you have to do art to know that you can,” she adds. “These teachers get here the day after school closes—they’re still grading papers in their heads. Then they get here and it all explodes. They find out that their art is still there!” grins Casper. This past summer, for a fall gallery exhibition, she made 10 of her signature pieces: round vessels the size of cantaloupes, and flat brown sculptures shaped like seagull wings, all woven in natural linen on multicolored telephone wires that stick out of the finished pieces like spiny fringe. While Casper came up with the idea of using the scrap phone wire herself, it was a Skidmore art faculty member who suggested she try the weft-wedging and warp-pulling techniques that allow her to weave in 3-D. “I’m still pinching myself! I came here a weaver, and I left a sculptor. Now I’m showing internationally, I’m doing installations . . . . This program is a gift,” she says, summing up the art fellows’ dazzled gratitude and exhilaration.

     “Come September, you hang up your smock,” Casper admits, smiling ruefully. But it’s easier to return to the classroom, she adds, “when you’ve gotten to do what you dreamed of.”
—BAM

 


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