Building Excitement About Art

The Island’s regional high school engages about half its students every year in a wide range of art, design, and technology courses. That’s twice the national average.

high school art design technology drawing

Gum Man – a head sculpted with ten years’ worth of chewing gum – sits atop a bookcase in Paul Brissette’s studio classroom at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School in Oak Bluffs. The chairman of the high school’s Art, Design, and Technology Department (ADT) jokes, “Keeps it off the desks,” as he molds a wad of his own onto the sculpture. Welcome to a whole new world of art education at the high school in the twenty-first century.

At last spring’s Evening of the Arts, an annual event showcasing student work and one of the high school’s most-attended events, a bowl of chewing gum sat next to Gum Man. Paul had set it out for visitors to enjoy and make their own contributions. All of the art coming out of ADT isn’t as unconventional as a collaborative sculpture made of chewing gum, but a hallmark of the program is its innovative approach. ADT teachers don’t walk away from surprises or the unusual; they nurture them in their students.

A new computer-heavy freshman skills seminar required of all first-year students is housed in ADT, but otherwise the department is not part of any required curriculum at the high school. There’s no shortage of interest, however. Some take classes; others spend their free periods doing art. Enough grads have shown up wanting to use the facilities that photo/graphics teacher Chris Baer had to ration their use this fall. Teachers from other departments like to stroll through the area.

Paul Brissette high school Tyler Shapiro
Paul Brissette, chairman of the high school’s Art, Design, and Technology Department, critiques a drawing for senior Tyler Shapiro’s portfolio.

The art program is thriving because it embraces change and expansion into new areas. The question ahead is what will happen when two mainstays of the faculty, Paul Brissette, the department chairman, and Janice Frame, the drawing and painting teacher, retire in June. Will that signal an end to the program’s long, successful run, or bring a new round of adaptation and innovation?

“Like the Island itself, we take the arts seriously,” says the school’s principal, Steven Nixon. When school renovations were made in the 1990s, a significant portion of the square footage was devoted to art, improving the facilities appreciably. Steven calls it the best-equipped high school art program he’s seen.

With an atmosphere more relaxed and informal than the rest of the high school building, the wing that houses art (along with music and theater) is a magnet for students. Their work decorates the walls and fills display cases; music often wafts through the halls. Up to half of the student body of about 680 manages to fit art classes into their schedules. The national enrollment average is 24 percent, according to Paul. “We’re not as big as sports, but we’re respected,” Paul says modestly.

ADT’s twenty-eight courses cover a much broader range of subjects than when school art classes used to be considered recreational – even disposable. Paul credits strong community backing and the school administration with the foresight to help the art program grow. The mix is practical as well as progressive, with an emphasis on how art translates into modern-day careers.

gum man collaborative creativity chewed color
Collaborative creativity: Wads of colorful chewed gum make up the distinctive Gum Man sculpture.

Home economics has been gone for five years, but in place of traditional sewing classes, the school now offers fashion design. Architecture – once taught in the vocational/technical department – moved over to art, and includes interior architecture, industrial design, and landscape design. Today the department’s diverse course lineup also includes instruction in such topics as digital drafting, three-dimensional design, and developing Android apps.

“Steve asked me if I wanted to take on technology,” Paul says. “He felt there’s a connection. That’s been great; having it separate didn’t make sense.” As a result, the art program has become a center for computers. Multi-media courses plunge the students into web design and video production, and the technology component folds in traditional computer science programming with courses in digital animation and game design.

“I think art’s going to go heavy into technology,” Paul says. “I think that’s the way of the world. As the job market evolves, we have to, too.”

Student success

Senior Ella Mahoney exemplifies how many students utilize the art program. She started taking art classes during her freshman year and soon realized they were her favorites. “It just made me happy to make something that other people liked,” she says. Drawing and painting classes became part of her schedule every year, as well as photography, crafts, and sculpture. Now she is enrolled in art portfolio, an upper-level class that helps students prepare to apply for art school. Ella also works on Seabreezes, the high school’s prize-winning arts and literary annual, and she spent three weeks last summer at the Columbus College of Art and Design in Ohio, thanks to a scholarship. Opportunities like these abound for those who are interested. Visual arts students, along with those in music, dance, and drama, receive community-based college scholarships totaling up to $70,000 a year.

Ella describes ADT as unique. “It lets students do their own thing while still teaching them,” she says. Janice Frame has been a mentor for Ella, who describes Janice’s student assignments as unusual and inspiring. In one, Janice had Ella and her classmates use colored pencils to draw Native American portraits. The goal was to layer different colors in preparation for using oil paints. In another, her assignment to create a non-traditional triptych landscape inspired Ella to depict three jellyfish.

Tova Katzman, who graduated in 2011, ended up taking nearly every art course she could fit into her schedule. She still raves about the program and the teachers. Her mother is Island artist Cindy Kane, and Tova avoided art at first, but Chris Baer encouraged her exploration of photography. “He was such a passionate guy about it,” Tova says. “He would talk and talk your ear off. He was so supportive.”

Tova’s sophomore-year photograph With the Sheep, of a young woman wearing wings and standing next to two sheep, won best of show at the Boston Globe Scholastic Art Awards. The photo then competed for a national prize, a first for an Island student. Tova earned a full-tuition scholarship at Massachusetts College of Art and Design in Boston, where she is now a sophomore, and credits the help she had from the high school’s art faculty: “They really walked you through the college process,” she says.

Jack Yuen native sophomore american portrait
Jack Yuen, a sophomore, works on a Native American portrait.

Tova’s mother, Cindy, who exhibits her own artwork nationally, praises the caliber of ADT’s facilities and says the high school program is “like college level. It has a fabulous faculty.”

Paul has been aggressive about bringing student artwork to the public. “I built display cases,” he says. “I put art in banks, the Steamship Authority, the libraries – in any public space. Now we have regular gallery shows.”

The Martha’s Vineyard Art Association awards scholarships to three high school art students and displays their work at the Old Sculpin Gallery in Edgartown. Ella Mahoney participated this summer in one of the three or four annual events for students at Featherstone Center for the Arts in Oak Bluffs; she also exhibited four paintings in a solo show at Sovereign Bank in Chilmark. Tova is not the program’s only Boston Globe Scholastic Art award-winner; Paul says some fifteen to twenty-five Vineyard students each year bring home awards for their work. Art students enter and win regional and national contests regularly, and the Internet has helped expand the program’s impact well beyond the Island’s shores.

This year Paul took on extra students in his art portfolio class. “It’s pretty impressive where they go,” he says. He visits schools such as Rhode Island School of Design, Massachusetts College of Art and Design, Savannah College of Art and Design, Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan, and Harvard Graduate School of Design in Cambridge to help students know about the possibilities – and keep the program up to date.

The high school’s art program makes a good fit for students who are creative but also understand the importance of career choices. Those not heading to art school want art in their lives no matter what kind of work they end up doing. The magic of ADT lies in the way it brings the creative and the pragmatic together.

The teaching team

Five teachers make up ADT’s faculty. Department chair Brissette has been there for thirty-three years, longer than anybody else. Except for his gray mustache and hair, he hardly looks or acts old enough to retire. “When I started here, there was just one of these little boxes,” he says, referring to his first classroom. “It looked like a prison.”

Armed with a bachelor of fine arts in art education, Paul expanded out from the single art course he inherited at the school. He invited well-known Island artists, including the late sculptor Tom Maley, the late weathervane-maker Travis Tuck, and painter Ray Ellis of Edgartown, to donate work to the school. During the nineties he spent a year at the University of Massachusetts Amherst studying architecture, and brought that subject into the program. A Fulbright grant took him to Java for a year to study batik, only one of his many research excursions and awards.

Paul Brissette last portfolio class
Retiring at the end of the school year, Paul Brissette stands with one of his last portfolio classes, from back left: Victoria Sadowski, Charlotte Hall, Nicole Parkhurst, , Julia DeAngeles, Samantha Valley, and Aoife Estes, and in front, Willow Monast and Julian Kelly.

This fall, the Permanent Endowment Fund for Martha’s Vineyard honored Paul with its prestigious Creative Living Award. “His passion to nourish Martha’s Vineyard through fostering the artistic talents in students is a priceless gift to the Island community,” endowment chair Anne Williamson said in announcing the honor.

Under Paul’s guidance, the department faculty operates as a tightly knit group, highly imaginative and energetic, exhibiting their own art in addition to teaching. Photo/graphics teacher Chris Baer has been at the high school eighteen years, fifteen of them in the classroom, three before that as a technician. An Islander, he studied under Paul. “It’s a lot of work,” he says, “but we have the freedom to be flexible in our approach – that makes it more fun.” Chris revived the school’s darkroom to add another dimension to what students, used to the digital world, could learn about photography. A scholarship sent him to a conference in Morocco, where he met teachers from all over the world. Now his photography students use an Internet program Chris set up to share their daily lives with students from around the world. He recently started a Facebook page that allows alumni and students to keep in touch and share their work (

Janice Frame, who has spent twelve years at the high school teaching drawing and painting as well as eighteen years at the West Tisbury School teaching art, talks about the harmony among teachers and the support each gets from the department. She plays music in her classroom and sometimes brings in snacks, but her expectations are high. “I see art as a discipline,” Janice makes clear. “I have them do one beautiful project instead of a lot of little ones,” she says. “It builds and it builds. They come out with a sense of confidence that they can really draw.”

Now in his third year, Al Mahoney (no relation to Ella) teaches computer science, multi-media web design, programming, and game design – applying his bachelor of fine arts in photography and graphic arts from Temple University’s Tyler School of Art as well as his master of education in instructional design and educational technology from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. An Island web designer for a decade, he came out of the private sector to teach. He calls his students sharp and creative in very funny, distinctive ways. “When they make their games and animation, it’s quite amusing,” he says. “They come from very creative families.” The film and video club he advises generated enough interest that ADT has added a course in digital video production to his teaching duties this year. Clubs provide a frequent route for developing new courses.

jake hart crafting a pot
Jake Hart, a senior, leans over to get the right vantage point for crafting a pot.

The new kid on the block is ceramicist Brendan Coogan, who teaches crafts and sculpture. He came from teaching at a small private school in Pittsfield two years ago, and he revels in the amount of support for the program here. “There’s a high value placed on art by the kids,” he says. “They kind of prioritize art.” He inherited a crew of accomplished potters from his much-revered predecessor, Scott Campbell (now retired), and this year his students are busy making mugs that will go on exhibit at Mocha Mott’s coffee shop in Vineyard Haven. “It’s a great thing for the kids to have their work appreciated,” Brendan says. He calls the comprehensive nature of the art program “ideal for preparing kids for what’s out there.”

What lies ahead for ADT at the high school remains a bit uncertain at this point. “There’s going to be a big shift, of seismic proportions,” Paul says, looking ahead to his and Janice Frame’s upcoming retirements. It will be a challenge to find teachers with a similar complement of skills, and there will no doubt be a reshuffling of courses. But the department’s strong foundation and track record are a good starting point.

One afternoon this fall, students in Chris Baer’s photo/graphics 1 class gathered around a table in the computer lab where they meet. Chris had just taught them how to make a photo contact sheet on their computers. Next he asked them to pick out the images of each other’s work they liked best. Information, questions, and comments flew around the room at warp speed. At one point Chris jumped up onto a table to talk about the photo images he was showing the kids on a projector screen. Did he have their attention? You bet. Were they taking notes? No need to; they got it. That’s art at the high school in the twenty-first century.