A Precarious Time: Thoughts from a Teaching Artist

Since I was a kid, I knew I wanted to be an artist. That plan never changed, but as I got older and began to experience the world without the parental controls on, I realized that being just an artist wouldn’t suffice. So, what did I do? I enrolled at a university that is most notable for its business, biology, and computer science degrees as a humanities major. 


This isn’t a message about how I made the wrong decision and should have become a corporate-sellout-out-of-debt-in-five-years rather than a “starving artist.” In fact, it is quite the opposite. 


I graduated from the University of Madison-Wisconsin in December of 2020 in the middle of the COVID 19 pandemic with a Bachelor’s degree in Art, Communications: Radio-TV-Film, and a certificate in digital studies. All of these accomplishments have turned me into an artistically well-rounded individual, just not one who is attending networking events and having fortune 500 companies throwing job opportunities at me. The fear of finding a job in my field was already stressful, and a global pandemic that left over nine million people unemployed did not lessen my anxieties. During this unprecedented time, I’m grateful for being one of the lucky few who found a job that I’m truly passionate about.

Artistic Inspiration for Change

Keith Haring is a name I became familiar with in high school, and is one of the icons of contemporary art history. His use of lines and colors is something any art fanatic could ramble on about, but what caught my attention was what he did with those skills. Haring’s work advocated for social change, creating pieces that commented on the apartheid in South Africa, the Cold War and military-industrial complex, HIV/AIDS, and LGBTQ rights. 

Not only did he promote social justice through public artworks, he also hosted drawing workshops for children in schools and museums in cities across the world and created pieces for literacy programs and public service campaigns.

Haring’s dedication to serving the community is something that has always pushed me to do more than just create art for myself. 

He, like many artists, was a part of an artist circle where ideas and works were shared amongst one-another. Artists like Jean-Michel Basquiat and Kenny Scharf would attend events together and share a creative head space. This talking amongst other artists is key to growing as an artist yourself. As an art student at UW Madison, I was handed these inner communities with every class I took. The opportunity to engage in artistic dialogue with my peers was a regular occurrence, which is something I took for granted.

How did my educational experiences and artistic influences get me where I am today?

I carried what I had learned from these artists as I started teaching after school art classes at Patrick Marsh Middle School in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin. Prairie Music & Arts had been partnering with the Sun Prairie Community Schools for sometime and had transitioned all classes to a virtual format. Not only was this my first-ever classroom experience, but the challenge was doubled by trying to reach students virtually. During our meetings, I wanted to teach students the basic building blocks of drawing, while also engaging them in meaningful discussions. I felt it was important to indulge them in much needed peer interaction and opportunities to create with one another. Throughout the year, we created three mosaics, where each student was assigned a portion of a larger image. They were encouraged to finish their section with as much individual creativity as they wanted.

This project gave them the opportunity to not only explore their own inventiveness, but combine their artistic ideas into a completed piece. 

Opportunity and Giving Back

Instructing these programs was an experience that taught me not only about teaching itself, but also how to empathize with children during such a precarious time. As if being confined to home and virtual learning weren’t enough of a struggle as an adult, it was difficult to imagine what kids must have been experiencing during such a chaotic and formative time in their lives. Things like Zoom fatigue, lack of social interaction, and the fear of uncertainty brought so much stress into their lives. 

With all of this negativity, I wanted the kids to focus on the little moments that made them happy. 

I began each meeting by going around and having everyone say one positive thing that had happened to them since the last class. It could be the smallest and most mundane thing, like finishing a book or seeing a cute dog. As the lessons progressed, more kids were excited to share their positive moments, and being able to take a part of the lesson to distance the students from all of the negativity became one of my positive moments of the week. 

During a time of such unrest and uncertainty, being a part of a community has never been so important. Keith Haring understood this in a different matter – creating art during the AIDS crisis. After his diagnosis, his art became more rampant and political, creating awareness of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. The pandemic he lived through was very different, but it still rampantly destroyed communities similarly to what the COVID-19 pandemic is doing now. Before his death, Haring had said: 

“Those works that I’ve created are gonna stay here forever. There’s thousands of real people, not just museums and curators that have been affected and inspired and taught by the work that I’ve done. So, the work is gonna live on long past when I’m gonna be here.”  

This mentality of creating something permanent for yourself as well as others is something I hoped to create through the student mosaics. Our collaborative pieces are a permanent art piece, being preserved through a digital format that’s able to be shared through a variety of virtual manners. Like this blog for example. The likelihood of any of those students reading this and seeing the image again now is slim, but now their art is being shared with people outside of their circle. 

Their work doesn’t just last as a physical piece, but as an experience as well. Sure, they learned some techniques on how to redraw an image without tracing, but they also learned how to work with other artists without sacrificing their own creativity. While learning the fundamentals of drawing is very important, learning how to communicate what you’ve created is something much more valuable as a person.

With 2020 being my first year of teaching, I learned a lot about myself as an educator alongside how to handle unforeseen obstacles. 

Being able to connect my passions with students and watch them grow as artistic individuals is something I do not take lightly. At a precarious time, I valued my opportunities to give the students a space to think about things outside of the chaotic world around them. I’ve been able to experience the joys of watching a child become excited about their own work and discover friendships through the arts.

Going into teaching, I wasn’t anticipating the kind of impact the students would make on me. Many of the students, elementary age and middle schoolers, asked me questions that had me thinking more abstractly. How their discussions and their interests shaped what projects we would create, and shape how I viewed teaching. I learned that an informal art education is only 25% teaching the fundamentals of drawing, while the other 75% is about exploring interests, ideas, and who you are as a creative being. 

Parrot SPEAK 2020

-Madison Deyo, Art Instructor