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A champion of creativity

Art teacher inspires students to think outside the box and fulfill their potential

Kent City — Freshman Sylvia Freeland isn’t exactly sure what her future will look like, but she hopes to eventually find a career in something that involves art. 

Sophomore Julia Schnicke shares that sentiment: “In the future, I’d love to pursue a career in art; I just haven’t quite figured out what yet,” she said.

Students like Sylvia and Julia, who would like to incorporate their creative skills into future employment, have the perfect mentor in Eliza Sutton. 

A first-year art teacher for Kent City Middle and High School, Sutton vividly recalls struggling with the same career uncertainty. She attended “a small K-12 school where art was integrated into everything,” and said that art has been a big part of her life since around the third grade.

“But when I got to thinking about a career, I had no idea what I wanted to do,” said Sutton. “I found myself coming back again and again to art, and I tried to figure out how art would fit into my life.”

Freshman Sylvia Freeland shows off one of her drawings (courtesy)

While Sutton went on to study physiology, she eventually found a way to connect her studies to the reasons why people are drawn to produce art.

“Art is such a big aspect of my personality,” she said, “and it helped me to be the person that I turned out to be.”  

Teaching with Big Ideas 

Being a solo artist was not for Sutton. “I found it was too lonely,” she said. “To grow as an artist I need to compare my ideas with others. Face to face is important and it makes me know I can do more.”

That philosophy spills over into her classroom: “Watching my students grow in their art inspires me.”

Sutton’s students love the chance to create, and appreciate the freedom of expression they’re granted in her classes. 

“Art has interested me my entire life, and I have always been pretty creative,” said Sylvia. “It is cool to be able to expand and see how you can grow. (Sutton) lets us be creative and come up with our own ideas. She is such a great teacher. She inspires us to think outside the box and really fulfill our potential. I appreciate that.”

Julia agrees: “I love the creative freedom that we’re given in her class,” she said.
“Being given opportunities to use different materials and techniques has really pushed me out of my comfort zone, and it helped make me a better artist. Ms. Sutton has helped me grow by giving me the range to be able to try out new ideas and styles, and if I have some crazy idea for a project, she’s always behind it.”

Senior Lane Dailey and sophomore Ava Afton use outdoor finds for their art projects (courtesy)

Projects in Sutton’s classes are varied, with lots of room for creativity. She likes giving students a theme or “big idea” to work with. 

In a recent week, students were asked to work with the theme, “humans and the environment.” The young artists gathered materials from outside to make monoprints with gelli printing plates. They also made mixed-media layered collages out of photos or images collected out of magazines.

“I’ve always been a painter, and I’ve never been too fond of printmaking,” said Julia. “But with the techniques she’s been teaching us, it’s actually been really fun. I didn’t realize that there were this many ways to make prints.”  

Student art fairs were a big part of what motivated Sutton through her early years, so she is particularly interested in building art opportunities for her students. She’s already in discussion with administrators about forming an art club, with the intention of finding opportunities for “doing community art” and outside art competitions.

Julia is similarly motivated, and in fact just landed an award in the Student Scholastic Art Competition. “(Sutton) encouraged me to enter my work into the scholastic competition, and I won a silver key for my piece, ‘Reflections,'” she said. “I wouldn’t have entered if she hadn’t encouraged me to.” 

COVID Challenges

The pandemic compounded other typical first-year teaching challenges, said Sutton. Art classes often require physical demonstrations, which were more difficult when classrooms were virtual. 

“Art takes collaboration, and it has been especially hard for hybrid students when they join us on a Google Meet (class),” Sutton said.

While she has missed being in front of students every day, she said getting in the habit of recording demonstrations has had some benefits. 

“The students can go back and watch them again, if they like,” she said. “Also, traditionally, there is a lot of freedom in art and students hitting basic goals. And we don’t have the big state tests to worry about, so that makes it a bit easier.”

Sutton came to Kent City with no expectations and said she was surprised by the “enormous amount of resources” she had to work with.  

“I am so grateful for this opportunity of coming to a small town, with which I am able to relate better with students. It was like a gift to me.”

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Janice Holst
Janice Holst is a reporter covering Kent City and Sparta. She has been both a teacher and a journalist. A former MLive reporter, she wrote features and covered local government and schools for Advance Newspapers for nearly two decades. She also was a recipe columnist and wrote features for Mature Life Style and occasional entertainment pieces for On The Town magazines. She lives in Sparta Township and enjoys spending some of her retirement hours writing the stories of the northern Kent County school districts. Read Janice's full bio

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