“Art is there through everything. I never suspected that it’s all tied in.”
It isn’t easy to be an adolescent. You’re filled with lots of energy, both dark and light; sometimes an insuppressible moodiness clouds your vision, and sometimes a confidence so astonishing appears as if out of nowhere, leading to a sure knowledge that any time now you’ll be conquering the world. The students at the Ann Richards School in Austin vibrate with that energy, and with those contradictions as well: the majority of students here are economically disadvantaged, but 100% of them in the past four years have graduated and been accepted to college–most the first in their families to do so. “At this school,” as an assistant principal says, “You have to earn everything you get.”
Matt Smith, a tall lean man in a plaid shirt and khakis, his glasses slightly askew, his hair silvering a little, teaches STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) and STEAM, which adds art into the mix. STEAM, appropriately enough, sounds as if it grows, just as a stem does, but also it also explodes with energy, just as the students do when they add art to their electives. Mr. Smith teaches design, coding, and robotics, all under the rubric of art. After the first year in which students learn the basic technique, his classes work more as an open studio than a conventional classroom. He gives prompts and feedback, clarifies intentions and style, and then leaves the students to work independently. Mr. Smith helps his students make the connections between disciplines, as he did in college chemistry course that opened up his understanding and mastery of the ceramic glazes he used as an artist. According to Principal Goka, Mr. Smith is responsible for bringing this energy of art to the school.
The students in Mr. Smith’s AP art class are juniors and have, in the way of girls everywhere, found ways to individualize their uniforms, hoodies half zipped, unzipped, thrown over their shoulders, tied tightly around their waists. The classroom is a warm and welcoming place. The cabinets on one wall are painted the colors of the spectrum and neatly labeled—Printmaking, Tempera Paint, Drawing. There are labels for other cabinets and shelves—Art History, Digital Tools—and, in a corner, computers, tablets, a drawing tablet. The orderliness of the room doesn’t interfere with its liveliness. There’s a poster of Albert Einstein and flyers for art schools from California to Santa Fe to Baltimore. The room’s orderliness helps to make it a safe place to dream and to concentrate.
“Mr. Smith is responsible for bringing the energy of art to our school.”
Principal Jeanne Goka
Mr. Smith’s students grow silent as they measure 1/8-inch borders around their large pieces of paper and begin to draw. Is there anything more promising and frightening than a blank piece of paper? The heater hums, the students look hard at their projects, eyes bouncing back and forth from the subject they’re drawing to the blank paper.
Mr. Smith moves from student to student, and each tells him what she’s doing. His tone is friendly but, like the room, he’s organized, disciplined, and as the girls tell him what they want to do, he supplies definition and encouragement through vocabulary, praise, and suggestions: It’s about proportion. You’re establishing your focal point. Nice line work! That washy area there is good. I want you drawing lightly, not filling in until we agree you and I that it’s ready to go on. You’re making color choices. Show off that beautiful blue paper. Think about fading that into nothing so the blue paper becomes the shadows.
One girl is working on a lizard and has meticulously drawn in black the animal’s complicated scales—but she’s forgotten to make her border.
“Don’t sweat it,” Mr. Smith says. “Be mindful now. It’s proportionality. The border’s one-eighth to one-quarter inch.”
“I’m starting again. I don’t mind.”
“Okay. Measure it out.”
But once she has her border penciled in, she feels stuck and Mr. Smith, sensing this, comes back to her. She glances up at him and returns her gaze to the paper and the photo of the complicated lizard as if, should she look away too long, she’ll lose it all.
“Just let it happen,” he says. “Keep exploring and stick with it. You’ll find something you wouldn’t expect.”
“The art room is an oasis for students to be themselves. They are ready for something different here.”
Milah Williams comes into the room, moving slowly and deliberately to a table with an empty space. She’s a focused young woman, a ninth-grader, and today she’s wearing her hair into two symmetrical round bunches, measured out carefully. She’s wearing khaki pants, a black shirt and hoodie with black sneakers. Her glasses are simple: black arms and clear frames. She’s a serious fourteen-year-old girl with a great smile.
Mr. Smith gives her time to get settled, then pulls up a chair and sits next to her, telling her what she needs to do to draw the border and start her portrait. She’s working from a color photo of a young African-American woman with a crown of hair lit up against a bright blue sky, wearing big sunglasses, an almost petulant look on her face. It’s another, more glamorous Milah.
“Start with something easy to draw,” Mr. Smith says. “Make that your landmark. It’s about spacing. Okay. You need a flat edge.” She moves to the drawer holding rulers and other measuring devices, then returns and begins measuring her border. “Line it up,” he says. “That’s it.” She has color choices to make. She has more measuring to do, and the activity fits with her careful nature. She seems to want to do the work correctly, as suggested by Mr. Smith, but also to make her own mark. She isn’t a person to accept an instruction without thinking it through, and he respects that quality in her.
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Milah has used art to help with math—“perspective”—and she’s come to believe that “art is there through everything” she studies. She ties art into her classes in math, science, and technology. “In the math rooms there are posters of art pieces created using math.” Without Mr. Smith and the Ann Richards School, it’s doubtful that Milah would have discovered the convergence of art in all she studies. She’s studying physics and says she never “suspected that it’s all tied in, science and art.” It’s all about seeing and looking.
She’s already made college visits and wants to go to art school. “Art is something I like so I want to go to school to do that.” However, she’s also interested in becoming a criminal investigator. Milah has liked puzzles from when she was a child looking for the hidden object in a drawing. “I like to put all the pieces together.” Criminal investigation, like art, like science, is a way of seeing. “Don’t assume anything. Don’t stick to assumptions.”
There’s so much going on at the Ann Richards School—tests, clubs, homework, activities—that sometimes Milah feels overwhelmed. Mr. Smith “helps me think.” After she told him that she wasn’t comfortable talking to groups and to new people, he helped her gain confidence. He’s motivated and motivational. “He checks on everyone and gives good critical advice. He’s laid-back but he works hard. You can be comfortable with him. Sometimes I think I have artist’s block, but I’ve learned that I can get through it.” Milah, along with other students, often eats lunch in the art room. There, Milah has time to think things through. She’s observed that Mr. Smith “is always looking out for his students.” He’s looked out for her, and Milah’s no longer that girl who’s afraid of talking to new people and groups.
“You can be comfortable with Mr. Smith. He is always looking out for his students. ”
Mr. Smith’s been a teacher at the Ann Richards School for two years and he’s had a big influence on it. Before he came, art was an unpopular elective, but now it’s integrated into the curriculum. He grew up in the San Francisco Bay area, the son of a teacher. He attended Arizona State, where he earned a BFA with a concentration in ceramics and sculpture, returned to the Bay area, living there with his social-worker wife before they moved to Texas. In Austin, he subbed in the school system for about eight years before taking on math and engineering instruction at a middle school. When he learned that the Ann Richards School was looking for someone who could teach art as well as STEM classes, he saw a way to combine his interests as an artist and a teacher.
And, like any teacher, he had to learn his new school. He spent his first year at Ann Richards School trying to figure out what a student at 11, 14, 18 years of age needed of him.
“At the end of my first year, when I was told that Jeanne wanted to see me, I figured I’d done something wrong.”
Instead, the school’s administration had figured out that the students’ burgeoning enthusiasm for art required that they hire a second teacher, a huge compliment to him and to the school’s responsiveness to the students. The school got a grant for $100,000 to build a Maker’s Space, which is like a shop room on steroids. The students have access to 3-D printers there, for example.
Kids behave differently in art class, he thinks. “It’s an oasis for them to be themselves. I try to bring an academic rigor to what I teach but they do such a good job here at the rest of the subjects that the students are ready for something different here.”
One day when Milah was in seventh grade, she told him, “I’ll be in art class every year.” It’s unusual, he says, “for a student to know or say what she’ll do as a senior.” But he knew that Milah was serious. She’d stop by after school to show him her progress in her science projects and art projects. “Milah can be outgoing and she can be reserved, but I can tell that in a few years she’ll be a presence on campus. She’s there for everyone,” just as her teacher is.
Princess Victoria Ka'iulani Cleghorn of Hawaii, by Mr. Smith's AP Art student Jurnee Jackson
Aztec La Malinche, by Mr. Smith's AP Art student Anais Arechiga
Ching Shih, by Mr. Smith's AP Art student Nettie Comerford
Maria Pita of Spain, by Mr. Smith's AP Art student Julia Martin
Photography by Ave Bonar