A Sunny view of art | AspenTimes.com

A Sunny view of art

As Sunny Wilson, an art teacher at Basalt High School, explains what her class is working on, she whispers.

There is no need ” her classroom is filled with the dull background noise of arts and crafts tools being scratchily put to use ” but there is a palpable feeling of reverence in the room that Wilson’s whisper reflects.

It is the first class of the day, her favorite, “basic stained glass workshop.” The students, mostly upperclassmen at Basalt High School, are busy working on intricate stained-glass designs.

One student, an undersized junior in glasses, delicately tends to his work. His is the concentrated stare of someone knitting, or putting together a puzzle, or playing chess. Somehow slightly detached and intently focused at the same time, he doesn’t even look up as Wilson comes over.

“Making stained glass is more a craft than a creative art,” Wilson explains. “Once you know the basics, it’s all a question of concentration and patience.”

Sunny Wilson has been an art teacher at Basalt High for two years. She grew up in the valley, graduating from Glenwood Springs High School in 1994. When she left to go to a university in Louisiana, she knew in her heart she would find a way to come back.

It’s been an interesting journey home, however, including four years of vocational art training in college before a last-minute switch to a degree in education. “I didn’t want to be another starving artist in the French Quarter,” she says of her decision to go into teaching.

After finishing her studies, one of her first jobs was as a substitute in the Five Points district, a notoriously troubled inner-city neighborhood in Denver.

“It was my first real teaching job,” Wilson, now 27, recalls. “The class was so unruly. I remember chairs being thrown at my head.”

She found a much better reception in Basalt. Already her classes are so popular the school is considering hiring another teacher to handle the demand.

Wilson credits much of her success to the stained-glass workshop. She was inspired to start the class by former art teacher Annie Brooks.

Brooks offers a stained-glass elective at Glenwood High School, which Wilson never took (“A real regret,” she says). Still, it is a popular class and Brooks is an admired teacher. So Wilson enrolled in training course in stained glass at Colorado Mountain College last summer.

In Wilson’s class, students design their own projects and buy the glass they need. They work silently and alone, cutting out slabs of colored glass and then carefully grinding them into the appropriate size.

The class is predominantly female, save a scattering of diminutive and worried-looking boys. Their projects reveal much about the agonizing gender dramas of adolescence. One boy chose the emblem of a menacing dragon for his project; another, a vicious bulldog.

The girl next to him, in contrast, has arranged a majestic lighthouse with waves lapping serenely at its base. The girl opposite is currently putting the finishing touches on a red rose.

Wilson believes that her art classes, in focusing the students’ attention on their projects for a few hours a day, help them overcome the pressures and anxiety of adolescence.

“For me, art has always been a welcoming place for misfits,” she says. “And although this is less the case today, this class is still a nice vacation from the stress of high school life.”

It is true; Wilson has created a welcoming environment. On the walls above the students hang the work of the great masters and impressionists ” van Gogh, Gauguin, Monet. They would seem out-of-place next to the school’s heavy ventilation pipes were it not for the hushed atmosphere, not unlike a museum, that surrounds the students as they work.

In the corner of the room, immediately next to the fine art, is a giant papier-mache bull. Pasted all over its body are different cuttings from newspapers, magazines and books. The collage is the project of some of Wilson’s students. They call it a “cowlage.”

Above the bull’s left eye, so small it is hardly even legible, someone has pasted the words, “Sometimes you find yourself in the middle of nowhere. And sometimes in the middle of nowhere you find yourself.”

As Wilson calls time for cleanup, and the kids look up in disappointment to see how quickly the hour has flown by, it becomes clear exactly what they are learning in Wilson’s class. In that great teenage wasteland of high school, in the nowhere-ness of adolescence, the students in a small, sunlit classroom in Basalt are learning to find themselves.

[Eben Harrell’s e-mail address is eharrell@aspentimes.com]

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