Voices From the Crowd: We Need to Support the Arts in Our Schools

Let me first start by saying that I know times are hard and money is scarce, but it’s not going to get better any time soon. Excuses can continue to be made, but it’s time to bring back the support for the arts in our community before they are cut all together.  Our community use to thrive on the Arts, from community theatrical Melodramas to outstanding artists.

Many of you know or remember me as the Art teacher in Vernonia from 1977 – 2004.   I was teaching there when the Arts were supported on every level from the School Board, superintendent, principals and community.  Darrel Proehl, superintendent at the time of my hiring, went out of his way to make sure that Vernonia had one of the strongest art programs in Oregon, if not the nation.  I will be tooting my own horn here a bit and may sound as if I’m bragging (which I am), but from 6th- 12th grades our program gave the student’s everything when it came to mediums in Art.  

When I arrived, I was given a room at Washington Grade School in the basement that was the size of 3 classrooms.  The size of the area was great.  We were able to do pottery, but only had one potter’s wheel.  Darrel came to me towards the beginning of the school year and said that the government was funding a program for new curriculums.  They were providing equipment and construction for these programs.  We started photography by building a darkroom at one end of the art room.  We were able to get a developing table, six brand new enlargers and a darkroom door that revolved so no light could get in. I already had an enlarger of my own, which made seven and one was donated later giving us eight.  The Black and White program in Vernonia was born and ran until the day I retired.  Next we were also able to get six new potters wheels through the grant and our pottery ceramics area was at the opposite end of the room with the main classroom in between.  This program also thrived until the day I left.

6th Graders were introduced to drawing and painting.  7th Graders were introduced to Black and White photo and Calligraphy, and 8th Graders continued painting, drawing and pottery.  HS Art 1 had several mediums because I had them for a full semester. We had a HS Photography class that switched at the semester so I could run two semesters of students a year.  Each semester we went on two field trips, one to the coast and one to Portland.  I took both the photography and advanced art on these trips. These students entered photo contest and many went on to do their own photography after graduation.  The instructor’s permission was a prerequisite to take advanced art.

I took the students who truly had a love for the Arts and ran them through programs that would ready them for college arts.  We had several students who went on to college and other art schools to continue their training.  I’ll talk about that more in a bit.  These students worked in painting, pottery, print making, stain glass and air brush.  We also did projects in computer graphics as computers came on the scene; I needed to modernize my curriculum to include computer graphics.   The computer graphics class was set up to create posters, business flyers, school projects, etc.  The students even did projects for the community businesses in Vernonia and Banks.  When digital photography burst onto the scene, we added that to the photo program. So as you can see Darrel Proehl’s vision for the arts came to life.  I just happened to be the instructor honored with the job.

In 2002 I had a student come to me who went through the program and said she wanted to be an Art teacher.  This was Kim Morrison, or when she was a student in Vernonia, Kim Oblack.   Kim was one of my best advanced Art students and went on to work for the Hillsboro Argus in graphics. She subsequently decided she wanted to be an Art teacher.  She attended Pacific University and completed her student teaching with me in the 2003-2004 school years.  I had decided to retire so the timing couldn’t be better.  Our vision was that Kim could drop in and take over the program that I had set up through the years, and continue the course that began under Darrel Proehl’s administration. How perfect was it to have one of my students replacing me.

Camelot was King Arthur’s vision and Vernonia Arts was mine.  As Camelot came crashing down, so did the Vernonia Arts.  When I left the powers to be at the time decided that this was a good time to save money and cut back on the Arts.  They didn’t have to worry about Mr. Tesdal in their face anymore and had a rookie teacher coming in that they knew they could control and pass on their cut back vision of the arts.  Kim Morrison was the perfect choice to continue  the great art program Vernonia had.  She went through it as a Vernonia student and was ready to carry on the program for the future.  She was also a photography student at Pacific University and was looking forward to continuing the photo program.  However it turned out the first program that the district cut was the photo program.  I found this out as I was finishing my last year, not from the administration, but through hear say.  I immediately went to my principal who confirmed it was true.  Not only were they going to cut the photography program, but they were also going to cut Art to a half time program.  Anyone who knows me knows that I was miffed. I was extremely disappointed for the students and the teacher in Vernonia.

I immediately drafted a letter to the superintendent, principals, and School Board.  I presented my feeling about the destruction of the art program to the Board.  It ended up that because they needed a place for the students to go for their electives, they kept Art as a full time program minus photography.  Kim took over being a first year teacher without much control over how her program was to be run.  The funding kept dwindling and eventually she transferred to Jewel School District where they were ready to support her and her program.

Linda Allen is the Art teacher who replaced Kim.  She had to accept a smaller classroom with the hope that when the new school was built she would get a room where she could actually spread out and teach art the way it should be.  I have substituted several times for Ms. Allen and know the conditions she has to work under.  She was housed in the Metal Fabricated building where the HS was before the new school. Small desks that can barely  hold two students at a time. The desks when I taught held 4 to 6 students with elbow room to work.  She had one sink for cleaning materials, and very little storage room for all the Art supplies.  Pottery was basically non-existent because it was located inconveniently over in the old shop.  Now they have even cut the Art program to ¾ time.

So this year I was all excited about the prospects of a new Art room in this wonderful new school.  They were going to have this beautiful new area for both the shop and the Art room.  And then rumors begin to fly again that end up being fact.  There will be NO shop, and the art room will be a regular classroom.  Shop in Vernonia goes back way before I ever came.  It’s a given that if you live in a town in the middle of the forest, a logging community, that a shop for the students is of course a priority.

My wife and I, like many, were there for the grand opening on the 21st of August.  It was great.  It was a wonderful celebration for the future of our kids and community.  It was like old home week where I saw many colleagues from past years, along with so many students both past and present.  We toured the building like everyone else.  I was impressed with the facilities until I came to the Art room.  My frustration at seeing this room cannot be expressed in words.  This room is as small if not smaller than the last art room.  The only saving grace is that it has an adequate sink for cleaning.  The storage room is not near big enough and there will be no pottery going on in this room.  We still have a kiln and potters wheels in the district, but where they are I don’t know.  I’m sure Ms. Allen had tears in her eyes because of the facilities she has been given to teach art in a brand new building.  I would think they could have put at least two rooms together.  I’ve been told there are rooms used only for storage.  With some planning they could have put two of them together.

Alright, I’ve said my piece.  It’s probably obvious I have stored this up for a while, like ever since I retired.  At the grand opening more than once I heard it’s all about the kids.  I couldn’t agree more.  At the root of everything I always hear it’s a money issue.  How much more would it have taken to give our students a decent shop while the construction was going on and an Art room where a teacher could actually teach all the mediums we want to give to the kids?  There’s a kiln just sitting somewhere along with the potter’s wheels to create incredible works of art.

My plea to the Vernonia School District 47J and the community is to get the support back for the Art’s.  Many of you who may read this were my students at one time and now I’m subbing for your children and grandchildren.  Let’s bring back the support for an Art program that our children deserve.  Vernonia has always supported the Arts when I was teaching.  We had Art fairs every year showing off the students work from both the Art students and the beautiful wood projects from the shop students.  Our students showed their work around town, at the US Bank and Sentry Market managed by Randy Parrow, whose father was one of the best principal’s and superintendent’s it was my privilege to work under.  Art Parrow was also one of the strongest supporters of Vernonia’s Art program.  We need that support back.

Art is still only a part day curriculum and we need it back full time.  Many of you also probably remember that many at risk students thrived in the arts, and it kept them in school.  Just saying!

In the past, as a Vernonia teacher, I’d present my rather strong opinions by going through proper channels to present this document.  Now I’m a concerned citizen and retired Art teacher and still feel I have a stake in how our Vernonia students are taught.   I urge you to reconsider the current accommodations and to restore the art and shop programs to full time.


Doug Tesdal is a retired Vernonia art instructor who taught Vernonia students from 1977 – 2004.