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Quincy art teacher takes classes on the road

By DEBORAH GERTZ HU- SAR The Quincy Herald-Whig

QUINCY, Ill. (AP) — Rooney fifth-grader Levi Cashman’s birch trees looked a little flat.

So did classmate Lyllie Huff- man’s.

But a few well-placed pencil strokes, added in a recent art class, brought them to life.

Adding dimension and detail were the next steps in the wa- tercolor resist painting project led by elementary art teacher Melissa Nicholas, The Quincy Herald-Whig reports.

A quick review of how to draw a cylinder — a circle, two straight lines and a “smile line” — created the three-dimen- sional form of a tree trunk and a visual reminder for students.

“All lines on a cylinder have to curve,” Nicholas said. “Oth- erwise it’s going to look very flat.”

After carefully peeling away strips of tape applied to “resist” the paint, creating the trees, students “attached” the tree branches with straight and curved lines.

“That makes the branches look like they’re coming out from different parts of the tree,” Nicholas said. “Now it’s starting to become three-di- mensional.”

For the next step, the de- tail work, Lyllie used a colored pencil to add random curved lines across the tree trunks and branches.

“I enjoy art, but sometimes it’s hard. This is easy,” Lyllie said.

Levi never expected he could do a birch tree watercolor painting on his own, but Nich- olas opened up the possibility.

“She gives us a lot of exam- ples. She comes around and shows us each time she’s done with a step,” Levi said. “She’s made it a lot of fun.”

Seeing students build basic skills in art is fun for Nicholas, the sole art teacher for fourth and fifth grade in Quincy Pub- lic Schools.

“I just go to a different school every day. As long as I make it to the right school in the morn- ing, we’re good,” Nicholas said.

Classes hand out materials, cover technique and strategies for a wide variety of mediums, highlight different artists and art history and clean up — all in 30 minutes.

“I’m pretty flexible. I think that comes from being in art,” Nicholas said. ‘You have to be innovative, come up with a creative way of taking care of a problem. That’s right into what I teach students.”

Finished projects need to be presentable for grading but also provide an outlet for students to express their emo- tions and creativity.

“When people say ‘I can’t draw,’ I can teach you skills to make you better. There are rules to some things, and if you know the rules, you can make some really creative, fun things,” she said. “It’s about risk-taking too, making mis- takes, experimenting.”

Nicholas tries different things all the time, sometimes refining her approach with a project from her first class to her second at a school, and while all the schools generally do the same projects at the same time, the results can be totally different.

A K-3 special education teacher in QPS for 11 years before shifting to art 13 years ago, Nicholas was teaching art at Baldwin Intermediate School when QPS built the five new elementary schools. With staffing reassignments, she took on teaching all fourth and fifth grade stu- dents.

“It was a little overwhelm- ing at first. I had almost 1,000 students my first year doing this,” she said. “It’s a lot of prep — it’s actually easier than you would think because I’m so used to it now. I love doing it.”

Nicholas stores some extra supplies at Iles Elementary, but most travel with her — in the back of her car.

“I have a place to keep sup- plies (at each school) in what is usually a storage room and sometimes the psychologist’s or speech teacher’s room at the same time,” she said. “I teach in the media center, the library area.”

Back at Rooney, another class walks through the me- dia center on their way to lunch but Nicholas’ students keep working on their trees.

With detail work done, some students opt to add small animal prints in the “snow” of their paintings, a “happy accident” discovered by another class when a stu- dent got some splatter on his painting.

“We just used it. It looked like little prints in the snow,” Nicholas said. “I never thought to do that. I’ve done this 10 years and never had kids put animal prints in the snow. This is great.”

Students at Rooney, home of the foxes, also may add a fox to their paintings.

“I’m so thankful they were able to keep fourth and fifth grade art,” Nicholas said. “It gives them opportunities. They get the experience at ju- nior high, but sometimes they wouldn’t even know, wouldn’t try it if they didn’t have their fourth and fifth grade experi- ence.”

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