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Formulaic art? Not in this Educator of the Year’s classroom

High school art teacher earns overall MAEA award

Northview — You could say Nathan Kukla owes his teaching career to Godzilla.

As a then-undeclared undergrad at Michigan State University showing one of his sculptures in the mid-1990s, Kukla was standing beside his work, explaining to friends how he had created the piece. A group of third-graders listening in were riveted, he recalled, when he opened the sculpture’s lid to reveal a small figurine of the fictional prehistoric monster.

“They got super excited about that, which got me even more excited — not only about my work, but about art… That’s when I realized, ‘Oh, this is what I want to do, to get people excited about art, and to get excited about making their own stuff.’”

Now with 25 years of teaching K-12 art under his proverbial belt — all in West Ottawa Public Schools until this year, Kukla has been recognized by his peers as a leader in the field. The Northview High teacher was named High School Art Educator of the Year in September by the Michigan Art Education Association. And in a surprise announcement on Oct. 26, he was named overall Art Educator of the Year.

Profiles, from left, include Kukla, far right

Figuring It Out

Born in Welland, Ontario, Canada to American parents who moved north following Ohio’s 1970 Kent State University shooting while they were students there, Kukla’s family returned to the U.S. and settled in Benton Harbor in 1980. He graduated from Lake Michigan Catholic School in St. Joseph in 1992. 

He called his high-school art classes “more formulaic” than expressive, and suspects it was there that “I found the secret to education is figuring out how to make things interesting for yourself… Within the parameters of what you’re given, how can you make (an assignment) interesting and fun?”

Though he comes from a family of educators, he said, he had opposed joining the profession. “Part of it was just kind of a way of rebelling,” he said.

But when MSU required him to declare a major his junior year, he resisted any that were art-related because “I didn’t want to focus just on painting, or sculpture, or printmaking,” he recalled. “I wanted to learn how to make all art. They said ‘The only people who do that are art education majors,’ so I said ‘OK, I guess I am going to be an art education major.’”

Kukla has continued to make his own art, including a mixed-media print-making piece centered on how to explain war to a child, and a two-dimensional, 30-foot commentary on state education budget cuts that were entered in two separate years of ArtPrize. He still sells his work, has participated in juried shows, and a photograph he took won a jury’s choice award last year at the Michigan Education Association’s member art show.

A Natural Fit

Though leaving West Ottawa to take the position at Northview High this year was bittersweet, Kukla said, “I had to try this out … It was something I needed to do for that next step in my future. I’m still trying to figure out what I want to be when I grow up… I’m doing what I love, I’m trying to find new challenges and working on being the best professional I can be.”

His teaching approach felt like a perfect fit with that of his new district’s, of “asking open-ended questions. … Every (educational) situation begins with a prompt, and students’ creativity and imagination and experience gets put to use.

‘I’m constantly surprised and amazed by what students come up with. That’s why I love what I do so much.’

— Nathan Kukla, hIgh school art educator of the year 

“… There is always room for student voice, and that’s what we try to celebrate here at Northview: the authenticity of the perspective of that person, and being able to express their view of the world and how they interpret it.”

It’s that enthusiasm that feeds his own.

“I’m constantly surprised and amazed by what students come up with,” Kukla said. “That’s why I love what I do so much. Every single time we do a project, (students’ interpretations are) something new and interesting that I have never seen before.”

And though he has had students go on to attend prestigious art schools, win awards and even become art educators themselves, turning out art prodigies is not the primary objective.

“My No. 1 goal,” he said, “is to help students get through high school and figure out how to become the people they’re supposed to be.”

Read more from Northview: 
Teaching art ‘is what I’m meant to do’
Chosen by art, to her students’ benefit

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Morgan Jarema
Morgan Jarema
Morgan Jarema is a reporter and copy editor, covering Northview. She is a Grand Rapids native and a product of Grand Rapids Public Schools, including Brookside and West Leonard elementaries, City Middle/High School and Ottawa Hills. She found her tribe in journalism in 1997 and has never wanted to do anything but write. For 15 years she was a freelance journalist for The Grand Rapids Press, covering local schools and government, religion, business, home & garden and lifestyles. She and her husband, John, think even those without kiddos should be invested in their local schools and made to feel a part of them. Read Morgan's full bio


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