BY HOLLY JENNINGS
When I walk into Elissa DeChick’s art room, I immediately spot a woman with curly grey hair working at a table in the corner of the room, art students huddled around her. I assume I am looking at Elissa DeChick, the Fairport art teacher I have come to visit. Our photographer quickly corrects me, and points toward the front of the room where a group of girls are standing, having a quick conference before they begin their work. I don’t recognize which is Elissa, a petite woman in casual dress who blends in with her students, until her commanding teacher voice rises above the giggling girls who surround her. This is the Advanced Art class, and it happens to be comprised of all female students, which brings a unique dynamic to the classroom. The students are working on mixed-media portraits of females who inspire them, and their choices are varied: Malala Yousafzai, Sybil Ludington, a character from the cartoon Adventuretime, Audrey Hepburn, and Taylor Swift are all being portrayed in one medium or another.
The group in the corner of the room is also painting, but they are a part of an entirely different class that Elissa supervises while teaching the Advanced Art Class. The woman with the curly hair is Fairport High School artist-in -residence Lynne Feldman, who is spending 4 weeks at Fairport teaching students her art of fabric and collage painting. The Fairport Artist-in-Residence program has been in existence for 40 years. Residency lasts from 4-6 weeks, and the artists come into the school intermittently over that time period. The program gives art students the rare opportunity to study one-on-one with working artists in the Rochester area, without having to pay exorbitant studio fees.
Elissa’s classroom is inviting, and it is clear that this is the spot where these students want to linger, that this is where they are most comfortable. The walls are adorned with charcoal drawings and collages, a drying rack is filled to the brim with paintings, and the girls gather around worn tables that have accommodated hundreds of students’ works-in-progress over the years. It almost makes me wish I were back in high school, when life was open and full of possibilities. Almost. I remember that these kids also have to take trigonometry and gym class and get up before the sun does. Today, I only have to go to art class.
I sit down to chat with Elissa as the girls work away, and ask her about how she came to work at the high school she graduated from, and how she became known as “Art Mom” to her students.
Elissa DeChick did not go to college for art. In fact, she was employed at a fitness and cardiac rehabilitation facility at Rochester General Hospital for three years when one of her patients, the husband of her former art teacher, turned her long-term career objectives upside down. A graduate of Fairport High School, Elissa found herself back in communication with her former art teacher, who reignited her a passion for art. A week later, Elissa applied to the Nazareth Masters in Art Education program, where she received a post-baccalaureate certification degree and eventually graduated with her Masters in Art Education. Then, she came back to Fairport to teach.
It’s hard to ignore Elissa’s zeal for the artistic process. She works hard to instill flexibility and resourcefulness within her students, and she gives them the opportunity to express themselves artistically through a variety of mediums. Because Elissa is an artist, naturally, I ask her what artists have inspired her. Her answer is beautifully vague. “Everyone!” she says. Drawn to contemporary artists, she is also addicted to Pinterest, which she mines constantly, searching for new techniques and ideas to share with her students. “I get bored easily,” she says, which is actually a really great quality to have in an art teacher, as she is constantly reworking her curriculum, changing projects from year to year, making each class different and exciting. Regardless, I am determined to find out who her favorite artists are, so I visit her school website, where a link on her page promises to tell me just that. It frustratingly leads to a blank page.
Elissa aims to give her students the confidence they need to face their own blank canvases. She pushes them hard, and gives them opportunities to showcase their work whenever possible. At a recent 5 x 7 competition at the Main Street Art Gallery in Clifton Springs, two girls received top prizes. At the end of the year, students in the Advanced Art Class must prepare an artist’s statement, matte their own work, and showcase it inside the school for everyone to see.
Busy with family and teaching, Elissa forces herself to submit her own work in local shows in order to make sure she keeps up with her own art. She and Advanced Art student Ellie Cania are participating in Nazareth College’s upcoming Shared Spaces event where local high school art teachers exhibit their own artwork alongside the artwork of one of their students. Getting to know her students is Elissa’s favorite part of her job, and working with them has grown her as an artist. “As artists, we naturally feed off each other’s creativity. They’ve inspired me, given me ideas. It’s a symbiotic relationship.”
The bell rings, class is dismissed, but four girls linger, giving me a chance to chat with them. Of the four, three are planning on majoring in art programs at various colleges. I ask them what makes Elissa such an effective teacher.
“Everything!” says a student named Kerragen, “She’s like my mom. She gives good advice, and she cares personally about every individual. We call her “Art Mom.”
The girls admit that as sophomores they found Mrs. DeChick intimidating. “She made us work hard. She didn’t let us get away with things. It wasn’t an easy A.” Each is about to graduate, so I ask them to reflect on what they have learned from Elissa during their high school experience. “She broadened our horizons by making us learn many different mediums and techniques that improved our work drastically. She taught us to not be afraid of being judged, and that working outside of our comfort level makes for the best art. She taught us to utilize the people around us, and to learn how to take criticism well.”
Ellie Cania, who is tackling the Taylor Swift portrait, is participating in the Shared Spaces show with Elissa. Come fall, Ellie will be attending the Maine College of Art in Portland, where she would like to be an Illustration Major. “They don’t let you choose until your third year, though,” she says. “They make you go through the basics first.” Ellie is bubbly and all smiles. “I love arting!” she says, a term she has coined for her creative process. Her bright and enthusiastic attitude should not be mistaken as flippant: Ellie is talented and very serious about her art. She has already been commissioned by clients to do portrait work, and was a participant in Pratt Institute’s pre-college program in New York City. I ask her why she believes the arts are such an important part of school, and she lights up. “I just wrote my senior thesis about that!” she exclaims.
Her thesis paper claims that creativity is just as important as being able to read and write. “The world is changing,” she argues, “widening, but we are still basing success on the ability to pass math and science. No one in school is required to take art classes. People are focused on what they’re being forced to do instead of what they want to do.” Ellie wants the powers that be to recognize that the arts provide students with skills and experience needed in today’s world.
Ellie’s art teacher acknowledges that there is still a prevalent misbelief that there are two career options for art majors: starving artist or art teacher. To combat that myth, Elissa hangs a poster of 100 career choices for art major: graphic artist, web designer, photographer, game designer, logo designer, illustrator… jobs that require a background in the arts are limitless in this internet age. She invites several art colleges to the school to meet with the students, and gives a presentation at an annual College Information night, where she informs parents and students about career options within the visual arts. Former students have careers in jewelry design, advertising, architecture, fashion and graphic design. This year, she took students on a field trip to Dixon Schwabl, a large advertising firm in Rochester.
I leave the classroom before the students do. They are more than happy to use their free periods in the art room. Though portfolios have already been shown to colleges, their acceptances have already come in the mail, they stay because creating is second nature to them, and there’s nowhere they’d rather be. I leave behind a group of confident young women who have been exposed to a myriad of ideas and opportunities. Their future holds dozens of blank canvases, but Elissa DeChick has helped prepare them to tackle each one head on.
May 29 – June 13, 2015
Monday – Friday: 4 – 8 PM
Saturday – Sunday: Noon – 5 PM.
Opening Reception: Friday May 29, 5-8 PM.