Recently, The New Century School welcomed a familiar face to the permanent teaching staff. Elisabeth Willis has served as summer art instructor at TNCS (with The Painting Workshop) and also in various other instructor roles around campus since 2014. As TNCS bade farewell (for now) this past January to long-time art teacher Jenny Miller-DeFusco, who is pursuing a graduate degree, Ms. Willis has taken over the helm.
Already immensely popular among the students, she brings an impressive amount of experience to her new role, with both a Bachelors of Fine Arts in Art History and a “MAT”—a Masters in Art and Teaching from the Maryland Institute College of Arts (MICA). Although she anticipated entering the classroom full time one day, she freelanced after graduating in 2011 to spend time on her art. She is a painter, typically using oil or water colors. “I want to keep a balance between teaching and doing my own art. They each inform the other,” she said.
One unique aspect of her art is the scale. “I work very small,” she explained. “Working small” began during a 2008 semester in Italy, where she fell in love with doing landscapes in miniature. In contrast to the vastness of what her fellow students were doing at MICA, such as murals, she found “band-aid size” (approximately 1″ × 3″) and other handheld variations to be just the right fit.
Not all of her work is tiny, however. She also paints water-color illustrations for children’s books, which she came to as a teenager through her step-mother, who ran the children’s section of a library. Despite that field being notoriously difficult to get a foothold in, she taught herself to paint with water colors, and her initiative has clearly paid off.
“I really gravitate to water colors,” said Ms. Willis. She has taught adult classes in water color technique through The Painting Workshop, something she may resume in the summer during the academic hiatus.
Regarding her teaching approach at TNCS, she is feeling her way carefully while she determines what students have already been exposed to and what she can introduce anew. “I think kids are a lot better at art than people might give them credit for, so I like doing blind contour drawing, drawing with the non-dominant hand, and especially portraits as early as kindergarten. We go step by step with where the eyes go and so on, and they totally get it.” In fact, at the time of this interview, she was doing “snow self-portraits” with her students, which are not traditional portraiture, but are intended to give a “taste of winter” . . . and sure are joyfully cute!
As surprising as it may sound, given the ease with which she has acclimated to her position, elementary was not her original choice of age grouping to teach. In fact, her plan had always been to become a high school art teacher doing portfolio development or work in the education department of a museum. Almost from the moment she encountered the younger kids at The Painting Workshop, however, she realized how fun it was to teach and work with them. She now feels perfectly at home in this division, and she is a born teacher. “When I was a senior during my art history study, I worked as a teaching assistant, and I loved it. Even though I was extremely shy and quiet, I had no problem in the classroom. I love teaching, and it has helped me, too,” she said.
Upcoming art-related events to look out for include the stage sets Ms. Willis will design and create for the 2016 TNCS Spring Concert as well as the first-ever TNCS Art Show to be held sometime in April that she will (democratically) curate from her students’ work. “The kids are super pumped about it!” she said, winningly betraying her own enthusiasm for this very exciting endeavor.
Other than observing a few classroom rules, her students have no other cares but to have fun and make art. “I don’t care if they can’t draw a nose,” she explained. “But I look for three things from them: craftsmanship, following directions, and participation.” This adds up to respect—respect for the pursuit, the materials, and the classroom. Nevertheless, she also believes that, in some ways, art gives kids a break, a chance to switch off certain parts of their brains and tap into others.
“Art shows us where we all came from, and where we are heading,” she finished. With this profound insight, she seems to say that art is just about everything where humanity is concerned.