Interview with Art-Ed Hero Kris Bespalec-Davis

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Student Work

Where do you teach and what grades do you teach?

Currently, I teach on behalf of the Hunter Museum of American Art in Chattanooga, TN.  My position mainly works to build connections between the museum collection and the community: helping develop curriculum, working with school groups that visit, and working with after-school groups like our Jr Docent program which teaches youth how to ask questions about and engage in conversations about art with their peers. I also recently started a monthly Hands On Art History course at Walker State Faith and Character Based Prison.  The class focuses on how art is connected to the time it was made as well as how it continues to influence our world today.

How long have you been teaching art?

I was a public school art teacher in Chicago for over 8 years and have been teaching at the college level for over 5 now but I have been working as a teaching artist in community art centers, nature centers, pop up neighborhood projects and museums since I was 13!  I have always loved working with my hands and getting people to explore their world and express themselves through art.

What is your favorite time of the school day and why?

I love setting up the studio for a class– getting the materials ready, making the demos, problem-solving, etc.  I love thinking of all the possibilities of what could happen once the class starts and then getting to reflect back on it once things have quieted back down.

What is your favorite lesson or concept to teach?

I love drawing connections between the past and present– being able to help place peoples minds into how things were when the work of art we are studying was created and being able to empathize or relate to that in a personal way really bring the work to life. I also hope it makes the case for supporting the arts right now.

What is your favorite memory (or memory you cherish) of seeing a student you taught who is older and no longer in your school?

I have stayed in touch with students from many of the places I have taught and have been overjoyed to see how they have grown and often made positive impacts in their communities.  An especially touching moment was when one of my students from the very 1st year I taught elementary school sent me a photo of a drawing she made of me from that year– I loved that she still had it and continues to check in with me to let you know how she is doing!  I also love when I still get the occasional “can I ask your advice?” question from students– semesters or even years after I have worked with them. I always want my students to feel like we are partners in learning, and I want to be there to help when they need it, not just during class.

Who is your favorite artist to teach kids about?

I get excited teaching about artists I know– people that are making and struggling and doing the work right now.  It’s too easy for students of any age to feel like success is limited to museums or “fame” of one definition or another, rather than really viewing art making as a discipline and a job they can develop using the skills and resources in their community.  It’s work! and there are people making it happen all around them every day.

What does your studio practice outside of the classroom look like and how does it make its way into your classroom?

I have a studio space set up in my house and I am sure to schedule or at least make space in my life as often as possible to get in there!  Sometimes it is research and gathering of materials, sometimes it is playing with techniques and making– usually all of the above at different stages! I always find inspiration in the classroom– from the art I am teaching about and the insights from students as well.  The more I talk about art, the more anxious I am to get back to making it!

Do you let people borrow your glue guns?

Only if people ask nicely! and I can see what they are working on….

How often do you collaborate across disciplines and what is a collaboration you are excited about right now?

All the time! I love collaborating with teachers who are not or were not thinking about art when they started designing the curriculum and finding ways to bring their lessons to life even more with it.  I also really enjoy getting to work with different departments in the museum–we have so many creative and inspiring people on staff that are eager to collaborate and make the ways we interact with our visitors and supporters even more fun and memorable.  I love some new hands-on spaces we are developing in the museum.

What would you tell a 19-year-old who is thinking about becoming an artist or art educator?

Expect to work really hard and fail a lot!  Learn to not take it personally and keep going. Offer to help when you can– volunteer, intern, and get as much experience as you can in the real world! Also– be quiet and listen more.

Who was your art-ed hero growing up?

Not growing up, per se- but Rebecca Keller continues to be an inspiration and has become a dear friend of mine! She was a professor I met in grad school, and she really embodies for me how multi-talented and flexible artists need to be.  As an educator, artist, writer, historian, mother, partner etc– she exemplifies the hard work artists do to support their work, their students, their families and themselves.  It’s always a balancing act. Her unwavering support and willingness to offer advice and friendship is a priceless resource I will be forever grateful for!

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