Creative Streak: Students Excel in School's Growing Art Program

By MAX HART

In 1991, students enrolled in one of the few art classes taught at the Martha's Vineyard Regional High School had only one place to go.

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It was a small room just up from the cafeteria, consisting of a dozen tables and some art supplies. A closet doubled as a darkroom, although photography was only taught as an independent study then. At any point throughout the day you might find the school's only art teacher, Paul Brissette, helping students with their projects.

Fifteen years later, you can still find Mr. Brissette roaming the halls of the high school, but any similarities with the old art department end there.

Once contained to that single room inside the middle of the school, the visual art department has expanded into a four-classroom wing at the far end of the building, a fitting symbol for a program that has blossomed into one of the school's most popular electives and, along the way, became a model for public schools everywhere.

"It is certainly one of the best public art programs in the state in terms of quality of teaching, quality of courses and number of students that continue on to further education in art," says high school principal Margaret (Peg) Regan. "Students here are exposed to the latest technology while always being encouraged to think in new ways. And I think that is a reflection of our community and its commitment to the arts. We are unusually supported in that regard."

"When I came here in 1979, there was a class called art," Mr. Brissette says with a laugh. "We have been really fortunate to grow into what we can offer today, and a lot of that has to do with the way technology has evolved over the years."

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Indeed, students today can choose from a range of visual arts classes in four disciplines: crafts and sculpture, drawing and painting, photo/graphics and 3D/architectural design. There are four full-time teachers, and where once there was an empty darkroom, four classes are now dedicated to photography and graphics.

It is no wonder more than half of the 849 students take an elective art class during their four years. And more than ever, Vineyard high school visual art students are being recognized for their talent. Student photography shows have popped up at Featherstone Center for the Arts and last month, 12 Vineyard students were honored with The Boston Globe Scholastic Art Awards; six won the prestigious Gold Key, the competition's highest honor. Four of those Gold Key winners - Marshall Pratt, Ben Sweet, Niko Ewing and Andrew Valenti - are now entered in a national competition for their photography portfolios.

The recognition goes beyond awards, too. This year, 17 seniors have been accepted into some of the top art school programs around the country, including Savannah College of Art and Design, Rhode Island School of Design, Parsons School of Design and the School of Visual Arts in New York city. It is the largest class of Vineyard students heading to art school.

"It used to be one or two a year, and then as the department expanded, that number grew to about four or five," says Mr. Brissette, who has been the chairman of the department for more than 25 years. "To have 17 get in is a really high number, but it is also indicative of the talent within the community as well as in this class."

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Mr. Valenti falls into that category.

Along with winning a Gold Key for his photography portfolio, the senior from Edgartown is excelling in his other art classes. And with most of his core requirements completed, he is spending the vast majority of his final year in the art wing.

"Now that I am a senior, I am pretty much doing whatever projects I want to do, and the school is always very open to that and very supportive," he says on a recent morning from Janice Frame's advanced drawing and painting class. "I can focus on what other interests."

On this morning, he is putting the finishing touches on his pointillism project. With uncanny precision, he is recreating a photo of himself laughing. An almost perfect rendering of the senior's profile, consisting of thousands of tiny dots, emerges on the paper.

Next door in the crafts and sculpture room, senior Meredith Curtis sits at a potter's wheel, shaving strands of clay from a nearly completed vase spinning in her hands. Her teacher, Scott Campbell, stands by with a few tips on how to level the base. One of Mr. Campbell's more talented students, Ms. Curtis says she loves pottery but is going to follow a career in international economics.

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Just down the hall, Chris Baer is teaching his beginning photography class. Freshman Alex Laflamme is taking a portrait of her classmate, Hayley Panek. Senior Marshall Pratt, another Gold Key winner, is only a few feet away, cutting a mat for one of his black and white prints.

One of the more recent changes in the department has been the introduction of technology-based classes.

While on sabbatical in the mid-1990's, Mr. Brissette surveyed dozens of businesses to find out what skills they would want students to learn in the coming years. Not surprisingly, their answers all related to computers and software.

"A big catalyst was the shift in technology," Mr. Brissette says. "In about five years, everything changed in terms of what people were using and what people were teaching. All of a sudden software was being integrated into classes. It was a situation where we had to modernize or be left behind."

Nowhere is the integration of technology and art more apparent than in photography, where digital cameras and computers have changed the way we take and look at images. Now, Mr. Baer teaches one of his photography classes using only digital cameras.

"The thing about digital cameras is that the kids are now able to take tens of thousands of photographs a year, and that is a huge factor in being able to develop compositional skills," Mr. Baer says. "By being able to see their shots instantly, kids have gotten better at recognizing a great photograph. It is amazing how much better the quality of work has gotten."

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The interest in photography has become so strong that Mr. Baer and his wife, Janice, have begun a number of extracurricular and after school activities for students.

Twice a week, Mrs. Baer takes group of students around the Island to shoot pictures. One group assists in a photography project at the Windemere Nursing and Rehabilitation Center while the other drives around looking for unorthodox Vineyard scenes. The latter students will present their work at an exhibition called Forgotten Postcards of Martha's Vineyard at Featherstone beginning on April 1.

"I have always felt that kids want to come to school for sports, clubs and the arts," Mr. Brissette says. "They know they will have the academics, but it is the extracurricular things that keep them really engaged. Art provides that release for them, whether it is painting, singing or theatre."

"Art is the antidote to academics," Mr. Baer adds. "Most kids need to express themselves creatively, and this is one of the places they can do that. Fortunately, they have a supportive community that encourages them to do that."