Lynn Hilton Conyers
Lynn Hilton Conyers
Lynn Hilton Conyers
The following interview was conducted on September 11, 2019 by David Burton. This interview is part of the Virginia Art Education Association Distinguished Fellow’s Legends and Legacies Project, a project intended to preserve the histories of prominent Virginia art educators for posterity.
Lynn Hilton Conyers received her B.F.A. in art education and ceramics from Virginia Commonwealth University in 1971, and her M.F.A. in ceramics from James Madison University in 1986. She taught three-dimensional art, photography and videography at Waynesboro (Virginia) High School for 34 years until she retired in 2007. She continued her teaching career as an adjunct professor at James Madison University, Blue Ridge Community College, and a variety of other adjunct positions.
Lynn Conyers’ influence as an educator extends well beyond the classroom. She has organized innumerable exhibitions for her students in the Waynesboro community, bringing recognition to hundreds of students, raising awareness of art and tirelessly advocating for art and art education in her community. She has been recognized for her professional contributions to art education through many awards, including NAEA Southeastern Region Art Educator of the Year (2016), VAEA Art Educator of the Year (2014), VAEA Retired Art Educator of the Year (2013), and Blue Ridge Art Educator of the Year (1986).
Mrs. Conyers is a practicing artist who maintains a large studio and a produces a prodigious amount of ceramic art, as well as other media. She has exhibited in over 100 shows and received numerous awards, including the Master Virginia Artisan Award (Artisan Center of Virginia, 2015), the Dawbarn Award (SAW Community Foundation, 2004), the Shenandoah Valley Visual Art Award (1990), the Artisan Center of Virginia Professional Craftsman Awards (2000-2019), and the Alleghany Highlands Art Network Superior Craftsman Award (2008).
David Burton (DB): Hello, Lynn. It’s so good to talk with you. I know you’ve been teaching for over three decades at Waynesboro High School, as well as being a very productive artist. I am excited to do this interview.
Lynn Conyers (LC): I’ve had a long career. Thank you for sending the questions ahead. I have pages of notes. In looking back, it’s hard to say whether I been an artist who teaches or a teacher who makes art. And I think that’s the best of both worlds, really.
DB: Art education is a unique type of teaching because we get to make up our own curriculum and get to do things pretty much the way we want. We teach out of our hearts and spirits.
LC: That is so true; it really is. You’re really it, and the kids depend on you to really bring it.
D.B: Tell me a bit about yourself. What is your background? What were your early art influences?
L.C.: I grew up in St. Paul, Virginia, in Wise County, in the far (western) end of Virginia, in coal mining and tobacco country. We were hillbillies and proud of it. People try to stigmatize mountain people but they are loyal, creative, innovative people, who make do with what they have. My family was there, my cousins and grandparents were there. My grandmother was an amazing seamstress. She did quilting, smocking and made her own lace. She did everything from her own tablecloths and even the dresses I wore as a little girl.
My parents owned a Western Auto Store which was like a hardware store. St. Paul was a really small town, about four blocks long and five blocks wide, with about 800 people. It was a beautiful little town with a lake in it where we ice-skated on in the winter, and where we roller-skated all over the sidewalks all summer long. In the store they had a motorcycle repair show, a TV repair shop, a home decorating center. My mom was an interior designer. She could take anything, any space, and make it really elegant. Daddy was an outdoorsman. We are part Cherokee Indian.
My great, great grandfather was called Rainwater Ramsey. He was half Cherokee. He was in the 21st Cavalry Division in Virginia during the Civil War, serving as a scout for the Confederacy. He was very well educated. There is a story that during the Civil War a group of confederate men tried to counterfeit U.S. silver dollars. But they made the mistake of putting more silver in their silver dollars than the federal coins had in them. Legend has it that they buried a whole bushel basket full of silver dollars somewhere on Ramsey Ridge, and people have been looking for that treasure ever since.
You see that Indian influence in my artwork without my even intending to do it. My father was a woodcarver and after he retired, he learned how to paint. I taught him, first in oils and then in acrylics. There is just this creative line that runs through my whole family. Everyone was into doing some kind of art without even realizing it. You know, the crazy thing is my school had absolutely no visual art program from first grade through 12th.
I could draw like crazy when I was a little girl. My dad drew with me a lot when I was young. My parents realized that and started looking for someone I could study with. By the time I got into high school, they found a lady over in Bristol, Virginia, which was about an hour away from where we lived. She was 81 years old. Her name was Nona Bunn Hodge. She had studied in Paris when Picasso was there. She set up still lifes for me. I would draw and paint. I started out in oils. One summer, she took me down to Flat Rock, North Carolina, and an artist, Maryann Kennett, from Washington DC, was there. Acrylics were just arrived on the scene. She was one of the artists who art companies hired to use their products until they were perfected to a point where they could be marketed. She painted huge canvases that were truly amazing. Also, that summer, Elliott O’Hara was there. He was one of the leading watercolorists of that time. I got to study with both of those artists.
Everyone realized that art was where I was going to go. Since there was no art in the school, my principal, after talking with my parents, decided that every Wednesday after lunchtime, I could leave school, drive to Bristol, study with Mrs. Hodge until suppertime. Then I came home. I went back every Saturday morning and studied with her all day Saturday. During the summer between my junior and senior years in high school, I lived at her house five days a week and came home on the weekends. I just immersed myself in painting. She taught me how to stretch canvas, how to use my brushes, and clean my brushes. I still have some of the brushes I had back then because she was such a stickler on taking care of your equipment. It was a sacrifice for my parents to do this because they were had to pay out of pocket for me to go, stay there and study with her.
I started looking at colleges. I went to Virginia Commonwealth University, which was still RPI (Richmond Polytechnic Institute) at the time. I was going to go into Fashion Illustration. I was really big into clothes, matching shoes and bags. The first year at VCU was the Art Foundation Program. I met Priscilla Hynson, from the Art Education Department, who taught Basic Design in Art Foundation. At the end of that year, you had to reapply to the (major) program you wanted to go into. Dr. Hynson asked me, “Well, Lynn, what are you going to do?” I said, “Fashion Illustration.” She said, “Why would you want to do that? You’re really a people-person. You will hate being in a room working alone all by yourself. You should go into art education!” So, I applied for art education and that started my whole career. I owe everything to her. She was amazing! I finally got to tell her that one time. She was such a dynamic personality and teacher.
After I graduated, I went back to Wise County and taught my first year in a middle school. Dick Richmond, who was the superintendent of schools, had been my dad’s principal at St. Paul High School when he was a kid. He told me, “If you will get a degree in art education, I will make a position for you when you come back to Wise County.” So, I did, and he put me in a middle school with a principal who did not want me or an art program. He put me in a little building out away from the main school building. It only had two classrooms in it. I was completely surrounded by asphalt in a building with no windows that would open. The only ventilation was when we opened the door. I had 600 kids who I saw in four days. On the fifth day, I would see Monday’s group twice, and the next week, Tuesday’s group twice, and so on. I had no budget whatsoever. I had 600 kids and no money. I went to all the classroom teachers and asked for any art supplies they could spare. I didn’t even have paper. Someone gave me that blueprint paper that architects use. I talked to people and got donations. I finally got some paper. I had a brand-new kiln but no clay or glazes. I stretched (melted) glass bottles all year long because they wouldn’t buy me any clay. Because my parents owned the hardware store, they gave me all their discontinued enamel paints in quart jars. There was no water. I had to carry all the water in buckets. It was a really challenging year. We did trashcan art for the whole year. At the end of the year we had an open house. I covered all the walls because we had done collages and sculptures. I can’t tell you all the crazy stuff we did. Someone from the Clinch Valley College Art Education Department saw the show and approached me. They said, “We would like to have a community show. We talked to a bank here in town and we want to have a selection of art from each class. Clinch Valley College was behind me, and the parents loved it. They hadn’t had any art program. I left there at the end of the year and I was worn down to a frazzle because I had carried in every bit of stuff we had used for the entire year.
I went to Staunton, Virginia, and a friend from VCU with whom I had graduated, opened a craft shop. I decided I was not going to go back to southwest Virginia. I went home one weekend and called the principal to resign. He said, “Guess what! I have a budget for you next year!” But I said, “Too late. I have already moved to Staunton, and I am resigning my position.” I began to look for a teaching position in Staunton but there was absolutely nothing. I ran the little craft shop for a year and substituted all over the area. That actually got principals and superintendents to know me. I was finally offered a job at Wayneboro the next year.
The way that came about was at that time (1972), Virginia and North Carolina had their annual state conferences together. That year the conference was in Roanoke. One of the sessions was where you got to interview for jobs with superintendents and art supervisors from all over the two states. I interviewed with Winston-Salem (N.C.) Public Schools and Waynesboro. I got callbacks from both of them. I wanted to go to Winston-Salem because I have family down there but Wayneboro said they had to know by a certain date. It was a Friday. I hadn’t heard anything from Winston-Salem so I accepted the offer from Waynesboro. Winston-Salem called me Saturday morning. I had given my word so I ended up going to Waynesboro. The decision has given me the most incredible life I could have possibly ever wanted.
I started teaching in Waynesboro in 1973. The art program had everything rolled into one. Bunnie Austin was teaching there. She wanted the program to split into two-dimensional and three-dimensional. We also had photography but it was being taught as a hobby class, not professional photography. They brought me in to upgrade photography and begin a three-dimensional art program. They put me in this little tiny room which served both photography and 3-D. You can imagine when we were doing clay, the dust would drift into the darkroom. It was a nightmare. The room was finally condemned because there was not enough ventilation for the chemicals.
Our program became known as the best art program in the area. I taught photography and crafts. They finally built an addition on to the school so I got a new crafts studio which was also for three-dimensional art. I taught ceramics, sculpture, fiber and metalwork. We usually worked nine weeks in clay and then glazed until midterm. We went from additive sculpture in clay and subtractive sculpture in wood, plaster and other materials you could carve. After midterm, we would switch from the messy materials into fiber.
Ray Yoder, another amazing art teacher, would go to army surplus stores and buy up lots of materials, including kilns and looms. I had four floor looms and table looms. My students would pair up so one student could be on the loom while the other was working on a fiber sculpture. Then they would switch off. In those nine weeks, they would create two major hanging pieces—a three-dimensional fiber sculpture and a two-dimensional weaving that could still be hung. The last part of the year was given to metal working, including enameling and jewelry.
During the years we were building up the art program, the community getting smaller and smaller and the school wanted to start cutting back the art program and teaching positions. That created all kinds of problems for us. They told me that I was going to be even part-time the next year. You know there is no way to live on a part-time salary. I said to my administrator and said, “Why didn’t you stand up for me? You know how hard I work. You know how important this program is to these kids. Why didn’t you stand up for the program?” He went to the school board. The next year I taught in three schools—an elementary school, a middle school and a high school, so they kept me on staff. Then, Waynesboro annexed part of Augusta County. That took care of our enrollment problems and we were able to sustain our program.
During that time, Erin Girdler was in the elementary school. They were getting ready to cut her position too. The parents went to bat for both of us. We were both able to stay. We realized we were doing all these wonderful things but nobody knew what we were doing. We needed to let people know exactly what we were doing. We became art advocates. We decided we had to make our art program famous! One week Erin would write up something that she had done at her school, take a picture of it and bring it to the newspaper. Next week, I would do the same. We bombarded the public with everything the art program gave their children. That really helped build our program.
DB: That a great strategy—teaming up with your colleagues rather than trying to be an advocate on your own. That way, you create a coordinated front.
LC: The other thing we realized is that we had to become famous too! When you’re a celebrity, people give you a whole different level of respect than if you’re just that little art teacher tucked away in a corner of the high school. We started exhibiting our work everywhere that we could possibly get in. Waynesboro has a huge art show called Fall Foliage Festival. I’ve been showing in it for at least 34 years. We had our own artwork on display. We also had the kids become student helpers for the exhibiting artists. They had the opportunity to meet artists and also find out that being an artist is not all glamour; it’s also a lot of hard work.
We also started a program for the elementary kids called the Student Choice Awards. The children would make their own award ribbons in their elementary classrooms. They would go to the festival and give their ribbons to the artists. The artists got to the point where those ribbons were the best awards they could get.
We won the VAEA Youth Art Month awards 17 consecutive years. Then we missed one year but won again for six or seven more years. I always did two books. The first was about all the K-12 visual arts for the year. Then second book was about all the K-12 performing arts. Every time we won, we went before the school board and all the arts teachers were recognized for their contributions to the visual and performing arts programs. That made the school board aware of us, and the arts teachers were praised. The newspaper always did a big write-up about us. Those notebooks went into the superintendent’s waiting room so anyone waiting to see him could look through those notebooks. We really did milk those notebooks.
Waynesboro is very art-oriented. It’s amazing how many artists live here. Another thing Erin and I did was to get on the steering committee to start an art center where we could take our students to see artwork. Every month I and the other art teachers in the high school would take all of our students down to the art center to see the new exhibitions. Plus, we started a student membership at the art center. The first day of the school year, we would present the idea that every student could be a member of the Shenandoah Valley Art Center for just $5, and they could exhibit their art there. The art center also has a Youth Art Month art exhibit every year.
The art center also does a senior exhibition for us. All the senior art students pick out their best piece to exhibit. They would write a biography of their high school art “career”—all the things they had done at Waynesboro High School, such as National Art Honor Society, the Photography Guild, all the trips we took them on, the workshops they presented and the guest artists they worked with. The Shenandoah Valley Art Center was a teaching tool that extended far beyond the four walls of the artroom.
I like the “immersion idea,” the idea that art is a part of everything. During the time when enrollment was down, we started an afterschool art program. The kids came back to the artroom every afternoon. They could work in the darkroom or on their craft project. We always had some kind of guild meeting going on. After we started this afterschool program, it packed our classrooms until we had to hire a third fulltime art teacher. (This is remarkable in a school of 850 kids.) This became the home-away-from-home for all the creative kids. We would have to stay until 5-, 6-, or 7-o’clock four days a week. We had a huge Christmas crafts and arts sale. The kids made things that we could sell. The money from the sales came into our art budget so we could have guest speakers, take them on trips and buy special materials. We also raised money for a scholarship at the end of the year. Over the years, we have received several memorial scholarships. The Fall Foliage Festival and the Junior Women’s Club eventually created more student scholarships because of all the help the students contributed to the festival. At the end of the year, there were a number of scholarships that were awarded. The students knew that they were supported through their art.
Another important thing we did was field trips to Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU), University of Virginia (UVA) and James Madison University (JMU) to visit prospective art programs. I loved when we went to VCU. We would tour the entire campus, with all its studios, and then we would go to lunch. Then we would spend the afternoon at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. JMU had an art workshop day that the kids all wanted to attend. On the first day of the school year, they would come in and ask, “Do I get to go to the JMU art workshop this year?!” There, they could spend a day with an artist and work in a specific discipline. UVA has an art program but they also have an architecture program. Several of my students have gone to UVA for architecture. I also was on the steering committee that started the Shenandoah Valley Governor’s School of the Arts.
I always gave a letter to the parents that outlined what they would learn in art, my expectations and what they could expect from a career in art. I also emphasized what they, as parents, could do for their children to encourage them in art. I let them know right from the beginning that if they have a talented child, yes, there are careers in art out there for them.
After I had been teaching for about ten years, I began to feel like I was neglecting myself as an artist. I went back to school at James Madison University and got a M.F.A in Ceramics. What that did for me as an artist and an educator is, I really learned to hone down every second of my time. There wasn’t any wasted minute. I got really organized. If you want to maximize your time, you have to be organized. That really worked for me because I knew then that I had this much time for the next day. That’s when I set up a studio for myself. The one thing I’ve learned working with other art educators is the ones who are practicing artists are the ones who have a dedicated space where they can make art. They don’t have to clear the kitchen table to paint.
DB: You’ve been involved quite a bit in VAEA and NAEA as well. Could you tell me a bit about those activities?
LC: Erin Girdler was a great influence on me. She was always involved in professional organizations. I joined NAEA when I was a student at VCU. We had a very active student chapter. We had art sales and took the money to go on trips together. That was my first experience with NAEA and VAEA. The year I joined, the VAEA conference was in Richmond. The art teachers were coming to the VCU campus for various workshops, so my ceramics instructor asked us to make dozens of small vessel forms that they could glaze. Then we would raku fire them for them right there. I made a hundred of those little pots. I still have some of them.
When I started to teach, I became a professional member of NAEA and VAEA, and I’ve been a member ever since. I’ve been president, vice-president, and secretary-treasurer of the Blue Ridge Region VAEA. I’m still Treasurer of the Blue Ridge region. I’ve stayed on the board because I am one of the few who has history. When new officers come on board, I can say, “This is how we’ve done it before.” That overcomes a lot of logistical problems. Our board works together closely. We have an annual retreat at Orkney Springs that has been going for over 30 years. This year we had a visiting artist who did a workshop on felting on silk. I also do a raku workshop during the summer.
I have also served on the state board of VAEA. I was the membership chairman, archivist, and retired art teacher chair. I have also been active in the Shenandoah Valley Art Center (SVAC). We take our students down there every month and they help out. Over the years, people have given SVAC bequests. This year the SVAC was able to buy a building that is adjacent to the one we already own for $390,000 and we paid cash. I think getting on the SVAC steering committee and getting that started was one of the best things I ever did. To see how that has grown and expanded is amazing. We have national shows there now. We have an annual art educators’ show there, and it travels to other venues all over the area. Having this community art center allows art teachers to call on other art teachers any time they need help.
I supervised the Virginia Department of Education Annual Art Educators’ Workshop for five years at Mary Baldwin College. In one week, the teachers earned three credit hours. We had a huge exhibition at the end of the week.
I have been in over 100 shows over the years, and won many awards, including a couple Best in Shows and Overall Best in Shows. I’ve received many awards over the years. One of the awards that meant a lot to me was given by the Staunton-Augusta County-Waynesboro (SAW) Community Foundation. A millionaire by the name of Buzz Dawbarn created this award. He said, “My life could not have been what it is if it had not been for my teachers.” This being an award from the community meant a lot to me, plus I received $6700 from it! All because Mr. Dawbarn wanted to recognize good teachers. Isn’t that amazing?
I have also been honored as NAEA Southeastern Region Art Educator of the Year (2016), VAEA Art Educator of the Year (2014), VAEA Retired Art Educator of the Year (2013), and Blue Ridge Art Educator of the Year (1986). I was pleased to get an award from the Artisan Center of Virginia called the Virginia Professional Craftsman Award (2016). I have been an Artisan Center of Virginia Professional Artist since 2000.
There was a group called the Alleghany Highlands Art Network that wanted to register all those craftsmen in the area outside of the larger metropolitan areas of Roanoke, Staunton and Waynesboro. Then they had a big show, and I was invited to participate. They picked three superior craftsmen and I was one of them.
DB: Looking back over the last 40 years, what changes have you seen?
LC: I feel like art is struggling right now. We see the kids all year long. We used to have them for 50 minutes a day and they came in and worked really hard. When the school went to block scheduling, they think they have all this time. It is too easy for the kids to fool around. I was able to present more substantial material when I was able to see the kids just 50 minutes a day.
I came up with tricks to keep them on task. I had a sheet that I carried around. Two or three times during the 90-minute period, I would walk around and ask, “Tell me what you’re working on?” I called them their “daily grades” but it was really a way so I never had to nag at the kids. You wouldn’t believe how quickly they would get back on task when they saw me coming with that sheet.
The other thing that was important to me was I want to make my artroom their home-away-from-home. The athletes have their teams to go to. The creative kids knew they could come to our artrooms. I always tried to be at the door to greet them when they came in, call them by their name, ask something about what they had been doing. And then, as they were going out the door, I was writing on my sheet all the things they had accomplished that day. They could tell me what they did. You have to make the artroom live for the kids. The last year I taught, I had some 104 kids in photography.
We had three clubs. There was an Arts and Crafts Guild, an Art Guild, and the National Art Honor Society.
My third- and fourth-year students wrote their own programs. I gave them a list of 40 different subjects in photography that they could focus on. They selected their curriculum for the year. Then they acted as though I was the person they were working for. They had to tell me how they were laying out their project, what their goals were, the research they had done on it. I would have them interview a professional photographer if it applied to what they were doing. Once the goals were set up, they would work, and they loved it! They would come in after school to work in the darkroom. When they have ownership, they will work themselves to death. It’s just amazing!
The kids trusted my judgment. I was never questioned about grades for their work. I set up a standard that they had to reach. To get an “A” they had to do an independent project. They had to decide what they were going to do, turn in their research to me, and set up their goals. They had the whole grading period to finish the artwork and turn it into me. The most they could get for all other projects they did during that time was a “B+”. I never had anyone question me on that either. I told about my grading system from Day One. I told them, “If you are really an artist, you will study independently.”
We took them on a lot of field trips—to Washington DC and other places. The field trips were based around a project. We would go to the galleries in the mornings and then to the zoo in the afternoon. They had to photograph or sketch a selected subject at the zoo. They used their sketches to turn into other works of art. That would be worth one whole grade. It was toward the end of the school year, so those pieces became the art for our summer exhibition as well as the opening exhibition for the next year. That way, we already had our first major show up when the kids walked in the door the next fall.
One year, Gerry Coe, Sherrie Ciszek and I decided we were going to take the students to New York City. We knew it would be expensive and a lot of the kids would not be able to afford it. We got permission to sell candy bars all year long. The profits each student made went into their individual accounts and that would be used for their expenses for this trip. They were able to pay for their entire trip. We went to all the major museums, we saw three Broadway plays, and the Blue Man Group. I am sure they will never forget that trip. It was amazing!
Another time, Gerry Coe and I took the students England, France and Italy. Yet another time, I teamed up with the Spanish teacher and the French teacher for a student trip to France and Spain. I asked them, whether they were the language teachers’ students or my students, “Let me teach all the students about the techniques of travel photography.” They could cover the cultural aspects. All the students learned about travel photography. When we were in France, we went to Cezanne’s home in Provence.
Each one of my classes had a box that contained their formal, mounted and matted, ready-for-exhibition art. Each of my photography students had to have one print, their very best print, matted and ready for exhibition. If someone called and said, “I need a show. Can you put up a show?”, we could immediately put up a show.
The Women’s Club had a local show and competition. The students who were winners in the local show would then go to a regional show and a state show. Winners kept moving up. We regularly went all the way to the state competition because these kids knew how to produce quality work that was ready for exhibition.
My seniors all had a senior show at the end of the year. They worked all year long, knowing that they would select, hang and have their own space for their work. That got to be the major event every year. The senior show went up a week before we had our big end-of-year art exhibition that the community and all the administrators attended. The hallways would just be packed.
One year, the local Chevrolet dealer (whose son was an art student) came to us and said, “Why don’t we give you our dealership showroom for a month?” We had this gigantic building, so we talked to all the K-12 art teachers and said, “Let’s do a Celebration of the Arts.” We had an opening night that included the music and drama departments. We had that space for seven years and then we moved it back to the school. Talk about a contribution from the community—the dealer was a very gracious host. There was a florist in town who gave us an amazing floral arrangement for our refreshment table every year. He is still doing that some 30 years later!
The other thing we would do at that year-end event was the students’ induction into the NAEA National Art Honor Society. As each student came up and received their certificate of induction, we would have their artwork shown behind them.
I formally retired in 2007. But the school wanted me to stay on in their Supplemental Retirement Program, where I would substitute for any teacher, not just the art teachers. Instead of that, I proposed to the superintendent and the school board to let me develop a program called “Artists in the Schools.” I teamed up every art educator with an artist who came in and did a special workshop for the kids. I would document it in a big PowerPoint presentation that was shown at the “Celebration of the Arts” so the parents could see their kids at work. We also teamed up with Shenandoah Valley Art Center and did a presentation there as well. They provided some of the funding for some of our art materials. They also paid travel expenses for some of the artists. They were our partners, so we had SVAC working together with the school system.
I was also lucky because wherever I was, I was able to set up my own studio. I don’t sleep much. Early on, I set up a space that was mine. I have a studio downstairs in our home that is 28’ by 32’. That was my original studio.
When I retired, my husband built me a 40’ by 60’ studio. There is a 20’ by 40’ porch attached to it where I have my raku kiln. I have six kilns now. I also have an upstairs room that I hope one day to make into a weaving studio.
I am starting to do precious metal clay which is more manageable. I want to keep producing art. Now I am teaching for several colleges and universities, but I have my classes here at my own studio. I always try to include some social part in it because artists need to build friendships, bounce ideas off of other artists, and find other artists to work with.
I think that is something I learned from the way I taught. I always tried to build in making friends and feeling comfortable while they were making art. I think you get better art out of people that way.
DB: This has been wonderful! Thank you so much. Everything you have done is a model for other art teachers. You have had a remarkable career.