Location: Cambria, California
College: Cal-State Bakersfield, Fresno Pacific University
Currently Teaching: Middle School Art Explorations, AP Studio Art, and everything in betwen
Fun Fact: If you ever need to just stop teaching for about a week, Suzette’s tutorial videos on YouTube are definitely good enough to do your job for you.
Her classrooms in a sentence: Places where students are engaged in learning, making and communicating through art.
As she’s quietly walking along the California coast, Suzette Morrow is contemplating. She’s thinking. She’s walking. She’s collecting driftwood. She does all of these things to, as she says, “put jelly beans back in the jar”. That personal time is important for someone who runs between multiple classrooms and has six preps every day. Anyone with that schedule needs some quiet time to keep their sanity.
I wanted to talk to Suzette because of the connection we have made on Twitter, and I love seeing all the tutorials she has posted on YouTube. I’ve learned a few things from watching her videos, and I wanted to take this opportunity to learn more. She was kind enough to take a couple hours to answer some questions. This is a long article, because Suzette has a lot to say–so much so that she has 7 artists in her top 5 artists list! (Who does that?!?) It is, however, all worthwhile so I think it is deserving of a longer read.
Tell me a little about yourself and your teaching:
I grew up in Los Angeles. After college, I taught art in Porterville for 20 years. After my children were all grown and gone, I moved with my new husband from the Central Valley of California to the Central Coast of California. I did not think I would find another art position, but God had different plans for me. I taught off a cart at elementary schools, and soon was employed at both the middle school and high school teaching art in the small town of Cambria. Essentially, I’m running all day without a prep period. The upside is, I have the potential of influencing and educating students for 7 of the most transformative years of their lives. This is a privilege I do not take lightly.
What about your classroom?
I have three classrooms, so that is one of the most challenging parts of my job, keeping the classrooms clean and organized. I am kind of Mom-like in that respect. I make people be responsible for cleaning up for themselves and the classroom in general. I have very good peripheral vision and excellent detective skills. I never sit down and take my eye off the group. So, I know who is using yellow paint and ditched it in the sink. I also have monitors for a lot of stuff. I have the longest wall blank for students to turn in assignments onto the wall. We critique it there. I like it to be public turning in a piece. Everyone admires work. We all get to see what others are doing too.
I think I am a caring teacher. That is probably my strength. I’m sort of Mom at school. If you need lunch money or a female product, you end up in my classroom–even if you don’t have art class. I care, and that gets out there. My weakness is I am not a very domestically attentive wife. My poor husband rarely gets dinner at five (or even seven!). I may or may not get the laundry and dishes done on a daily basis and the dust bunnies are more like gnomes. I just don’t think socks and underwater need to be folded. I blame this on the fact that as art teachers, we stinkin’ clean up stuff all day! I’m sick of cleaning up stuff by the time I get home.
I know you create a lot of artwork personally–how does that work relate to what you teach?
My strengths as an artist are my ability to work in many media, both two and three dimensionally. I am a problem solver and just love to work through ideas until I find solutions visually with the media that is the best vehicle to get my idea out. So, I will often work on the same concept in a variety of media, watercolor, acrylic, carving or ceramics until I get what I want out. I tend to prefer figurative subject matter, but not always.
I really try to make everything I do in the classroom be about the kid. I don’t talk about my artwork unless a student asks. I don’t think that anyone likes a teacher that is there to stroke their own ego. I do like to give my students a lot of short demonstrations to build skills so I try to keep my skills sharp enough to wow them, no matter what we are working on.
I like to learn new processes to stay excited for my students. I can’t wait for the NAEA conference for that reason. I need to keep growing. The old adage that says “you’re growing or going” is exactly right. If I am bored with something, I can’t fake it. I have to keep it fresh and fun.
I have to add here that I have heard the art teacher excuse that the kids suck all the creativity out of them and that they have no time left for art making. I find just the opposite to be true. I feel I have more rich and complex images that surface in my work because of teaching. I am sometimes surprised by a student’s face that will show up in an intuitive painting or collage I am working on. What we do is create bits of our lives. Art teachers are so blessed to have so many important bits to share.
About that idea of new processes: How often do you change your lessons? What exactly do you do to keep things fresh?
I don’t think I have ever taught the whole year the same in 24 years. I think that is one of the most exciting things about teaching art. It is not a chapter-by-chapter subject. It is never boring and you can always keep dialing in and changing it up. It is a constant recipe. Am I too boring? Did I talk too much? Did I explain that well? Dang, that lesson tasted just right!
Process, Product, or both?
Process. I don’t expect to see a product that is slick and commercial. I want kids to THINK.
I want them to love art more than they did when they started. I want people to feel capable of expressing themselves in a media (any media) throughout their lives without thinking that they have to draw like Michelangelo. I want people to leave me with an appreciation for art in society and see it as important.
What role does art history play in your classroom?
I want kids to know basic art history pieces before they leave, so I do art history in the first five minutes of every class in high school. They take notes and have a test at the end of the quarter. They can use their notes on the test. I think it would be sad if they left without knowing what the Sistine Chapel was and who painted it.
Taking the kids to a real museum is way up there on my favorite art teacher moments.
Who are your top 5 favorite artists?
Top 6, because I could not eliminate one from my list.
Caravaggio – He has a good story and a lot to talk about in his work.
Magritte – Such fun images to discuss, and a quirky dress code.
Georgia O’Keeffe – Strong woman.
Diego Rivera/Frida Kahlo – Obviously fun and engaging images and backstory.
Picasso – A diverse problem solver.
Hockney – Brilliant. I love to discuss his ideas about optics and tracing with the kids.
Finally, after teaching for 24 years, what keeps you from getting burnt out?
Oh boy, the burn-out question. Man, I worry about that a lot. For me, it is un-scheduled time. Because living by the bells, prepping, timing lessons and making 9000 decisions for other people all day takes jelly beans out of the jar. The ways I can get jellybeans back in the jar is quiet contemplative, undisturbed, un-scheduled time. I don’t always make art, sometimes, I just collect driftwood on the beach.
I just need to be alone and have time with God, putting love back into my empty jellybean jar. Unscheduled time when I don’t have to be anywhere or do anything for anyone for anything. It sounds pretty simple, but it is a rare commodity as an art teacher.
I have had my share of pushing the physical boundaries too hard and ended up pretty sick. As I get older, I realize I am not super woman and have to be realistic about how many jelly beans are left in the jar. It is a tough, tough lifestyle–definitely not for the folks that want to forget about their job when they are not on the clock. Art teachers are a rare breed, and I have seen many, many quit between year two and five.
Lastly, sketching is a daily thing. I have to do it. It’s up there with eating, sleeping and . . . well, you know. I am blessed to live in a beautiful place, known for being an artist community. I like to walk and talk and paint with others. I get a lot of support from my community for art materials and help in general. I do a lot of volunteer stuff and talking with people in my community while we are doing other things has really helped my art program. I love that about a small community.