Yarmouth art teacher sets 'platinum standard'

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YARMOUTH — It’s “all about the kids” for high school art teacher Holly Houston. 

But on Friday, April 27, the spotlight was on Houston when she was named Maine Art Educator of the Year by the Maine Art Education Association.

MEAE President Suzanne Goulet said Houston’s commitment to the “highest quality” of art education is the “platinum standard.”

“This commitment is shared with us through her classroom studio and statewide service to professional development and recognizing quality educators and programs,” Goulet said. “It is the core of her ethic. It is the best or she does not rest.”

Houston will speak at the Portland Museum of Art during Youth Art Month in March 2019 and will be honored again that month in Boston at the National Art Education Association’s convention. 

Houston recently received a $2,600 grant from the Yarmouth Education Foundation to bring a local artist into her classroom for a few weeks to help lead projects, which she’s done in years past. 

“To have an artist coming in is a wonderful sharing of ideas and resources and the kids love it,” Houston said. “I feel pretty committed to giving each of my classes a connection to the community” 

Visiting artist Tim Christensen said Houston teaches art in a way that “carries its relevance within itself.”

“She uses art to teach science, ecology, social responsibility, and communication,” he added. “This allows the students to build content and context into each work that they make, and places the emphasis first and foremost on communication of ideas through visual means, and on the creativity and insight required to do so in one’s own visual voice.”

A Maine native, Houston found a passion for visual arts early on, later honing her skills at Bowdoin College, where she majored in studio art. She spent about 13 years teaching art throughout Maine in Saco, Portland and Falmouth before settling down at Yarmouth High School 12 years ago. 

At YHS she teaches a range of skills from printmaking to ceramics. But her classroom doesn’t only serve as a teaching place, it’s her studio as well.

“I have a small workspace at home, but this is where I do most of my art,” Houston said during an interview Monday between classes. 

“I love the model of working next to my students and learning from each other,” she added. “I get very inspired by them.”

Tuesday afternoons, Houston said, are dedicated to this. During the academic year, she’ll stay after school most Tuesdays, sometimes until as late as 8 p.m., to work alongside students, creating and collaborating. 

“Some students will come back after a practice or something to work,” she said. “The fact that they want to come back and work is really exciting.”

Houston said she learns just as much through her teaching as students do during the after-school sessions and classroom time. For instance, Bowdoin didn’t offer ceramics or sculpture classes when she attended, so her focus was primarily on 2-dimensional art. Teaching ceramics to high school students allows her to try new things and learn about sculpting alongside them. 

“I’m constantly learning things,” Houston said. “It’s that mutual excitement of learning that keeps me going … I love watching my students have that ‘ah-ha’ moment.”

For this reason among others, Houston said of the various grade levels she’s taught, high school has been her favorite. 

“Kindergartners are wonderful because they think everything you do is amazing,” she said with a laugh. “With high schoolers, that’s not always the case, but most of the students who take art classes in high school really want to be here.”

Each student at YHS must earn one credit in Visual and Performing Arts to graduate, but many continue to take courses such as ceramics or Advanced Placement Studio Art. 

“When it gets to high school, there are so many life lessons around art … I love feeling like I’m helping kids express their creative side and find meaning in what they’re doing,” Houston said. “I hope they see what a wonderful thing it is to not only create something that’s beautiful, but something that others can look at and take something away from.”

It’s primarily the students she’s followed from Art Fundamentals through the years and electives up until high school graduation that Houston continues to follow – both figuratively and literally – on Instagram.

She recently visited one of her students who graduated from YHS and is now attending NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts.

“She’s established now and has her own thing going on,” Houston said. “That was the biggest gift …  The relationships that I gain with students and the pleasure I see them getting from creating things that are interesting and exciting.”

As for the gift of being named Art Educator of the Year, Houston said she feels “humbled.” 

“I’ve worked with amazing teachers from whom I’ve learned a lot from and continue to learn a lot from,” she said. “Teachers work extremely hard so it’s really nice to be recognized for work that we’ve done.”

Jocelyn Van Saun can be reached at 781-3661, ext. 183 or jvansaun@theforecaster.net. Follow her on Twitter @JocelynVanSaun.

Yarmouth High School art teacher Holly Houston, left, works with junior Marien O’Neill on April 30. Houston was named Maine Art Educator of the Year by the Maine Art Education Association.

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