Margaret (Peggy) Wood
This interview was conducted by Dr. David Burton on August 17, 2017.
Peggy Wood taught for over three decades in the Petersburg (Virginia) Public Schools and the Chesterfield County (Virginia) Public Schools. She served in many offices and for multiple terms in the Virginia Art Education Association.
David Burton (DB): Tell me a bit about yourself; early childhood and school experiences.
Peggy Wood (PW): I was an army brat. We didn’t move around as much as you would expect, most of what I remember was living in Maryland and in North Carolina while my dad was in Korea. My mom was a nurse and we lived in a small town in North Carolina for a good portion of my childhood. I have a younger cousin who was very good at art too. In fact, she graduated from VCU (Virginia Commonwealth University) with an art education degree too. As kids, we played a lot of games that involved art. Who could draw the better, you know, that kind of thing, and that just stuck. I’ve always wanted to be involved in an art career ever since I can remember, even though my mom wanted me to be a nurse. I can remember wanting to be something that involved art although I didn’t know what. The natural step would be to become an art teacher and that’s what I did.
David Burton (DB): Do you remember any of your art experiences in school?
PW: Not really, other that people would call on me when they needed some art done. I could draw a little bit better than others. I do remember another student (whose name I can’t remember). I was fascinated by how well he could draw. He was one of those natural talents who could just remember and record details. He was so good at it and I was just mesmerized by his talent. I was kinda the class artist so any projects that involved art, others would ask me to help them, that sort of thing.
When my dad retired, we moved back to Richmond, which was his hometown. I was going to junior high school. Prior to Richmond most of the schools I attended were either on or near a military base or in a small town, so moving that late was hard...I didn't have those "life-long" school friends. I graduated from Hermitage High School (in Richmond, VA). Then I went to James Madison University (in Harrisonburg, VA) with the intent of being an art education major. I was already on that career path most of my life. Eventually I went on to VCU and earned my master's degree.
At JMU I was a fair student. I remember taking a class in ceramics and it’s funny because I am currently taking a class in wheel throwing. It’s still this elusive thing I’ve not been able to master. That is the one area that I always wanted to do well in but never did, and I'm still trying. (Laughs) Isn’t that funny? I love doing it but I’m not very good at it. I’ve taken classes in wheel throwing off and on ever since I got out of college.
I do remember many of my professors from JMU. Kenneth Beer was my sculpture teacher. Crystal Theodore was the art education teacher. Jerry Coulter was the painting teacher; and David Diller taught Ceramics. Shirley Cadmus, who is currently a successful ceramicist and very active in the art world, was a classmate of mine at JMU. Obviously, the ceramic instruction was there...it just didn't stick with me.
Because my dad was military, almost everywhere we ever lived, we would always go to museums; he felt it helped us appreciate the value of where we lived. When we first came to Richmond, we spent almost every weekend for months going to Washington, DC. We went to a lot of Washington museums.
I remember seeing van Gogh’s Starry Night, and being totally thrilled with that piece. Seeing it in person was so different than seeing it as a reproduction. After my dad died, my mom and I would travel some. We went to the Chicago Art Institute, and I can recall seeing the lead-up to Seurat’s painting of “Sunday Morning on the Grand Jatte”. All the studies he did in preparation, and each time I would think, “Well, this is it”, “This is it.” Then when you walk into the room and it’s so much bigger than I ever knew it really was. When you step up close to it, it was so abstract, but when you stepped away from it, you could see all these blended colors. I was totally blown away by that. Those two experiences had a huge impact upon me.
DB: Was your father artistic?
PW: He was a surveyor before and after the military. He had an engineer's mind. His handwriting and his printing were magnificent, beautiful script and printing. Just like the old-fashioned type of script. In that regard, he was very artistic.
My mom was from a farm in North Carolina. There were ten brothers and sisters. They were all very successful. Every single one of them either went to college or had a successful career. They cherished education. I wouldn’t call them “poor farmers.” They had a nice house; they owned property. They weren’t rich by any means but they were successful, and they believed in education, and for women as much as for men. That was pretty amazing back in those days. The four oldest were girls (before any boys came along) and all four went to college or professional training after high school.
DB: Where did you get started with teaching?
PW: Teaching started in Petersburg, Virginia in 1970. I was in the first group of teachers that were in the newly integrated schools. (Previously there had been a black high school and a white high school, each with grades 7 - 12. Petersburg’s solution to desegregation was to integrate the white high school for all high school students, black and white, and convert the black high school into a junior high school for grades 7, 8, and 9). I was in the junior high school. The year before that it had been the high school for black students. It was in a pretty rough section of town. It did not have a lot of the amenities that the (white) high school had. It was not in good shape. The previous art teacher moved on to the high school, and unfortunately took a bunch of the supplies with him since he had ordered them for high school instruction.
I wanted to use the trophy case which held all of the trophies from the former black high school. This was no longer a high school, so my attitude was that they were just dusty, old trophies. Why have them there when I can put artwork there? That was my very first battle with the persona of that school. They were very proud of that school and they (the teachers and coach who were still there from when it was a high school) weren’t willing to let it go. Now I can understand how they felt. But back then, looking back on it, being a young, idealistic art teacher fresh out of college, and thinking, “This is my school,” I didn’t understand it at the time. We eventually came to an understanding—I gained one cabinet.
I loved that school, and I loved the students even though it was such a rough time. Everybody was scared. They didn’t know what to expect. The neighborhood resented us as whites being in the school and, of course, nationally there was a lot of unrest. In our school, there was a lot of fear on a lot of levels. My kids, the students, loved art. They loved my class; they loved me; I loved them. It was a really, really great start for a career despite the political atmosphere.
I had a beautiful, great big room. It didn’t have air-conditioning. The principal there let me paint the walls and make it mine. It was just great; I just loved it. I had a group of kids—we didn’t call it an “art club”, kids came and went, but we met and painted murals in the cafeteria and just had a good, old time. I have some really good memories of those years.
I was married then and my ex-husband was a special education teacher. We were interviewed at JMU because he was a student there too. They really wanted him as a male, white elementary special education teacher in a predominantly black area. He was really a great influence on getting my job. But that job in Petersburg turned out to be a better fit for me than his was for him. It was made for me. I had few supplies. The room was filthy. There were challenges in every direction but somehow it just worked.
This group of students who I had worked with on the murals were all moving up to the high school, and it just so happened that there was an opening at the high school. So, I moved with those kids. They were a great group of kids. We did all sorts of outside activities. We painted murals outside of the school, painted the gym floor at Virginia State, taught art lessons to the elementary school kids in the school next door, learned how to paint clown faces from a professional clown.
I even took my art club students camping once when I was teaching at Petersburg High School. (I would never do that now.) We rented tents from Ft. Lee, we made up the menu and purchased the food...and off we went to the Peaks of Otter camping area (in western Virginia). We were there for Easter--three or four days. The students came up with their own Easter sunrise service. It was incredible!
Museums and gallery type exhibitions were always important to me when I was teaching. I started a display area-gallery at Peabody using traveling exhibitions from the VMFA, and moved it (the idea of exhibiting) when I went to the high school. I had a beautiful, big space at the high school. I borrowed a series of prints of the Book of Job. They were magnificent, very small prints, and they had the text panel with them that would explain what the print was about. We hung it in the space to make it appear to be a gallery. it was a beautiful show! I made an announcement over the public address for the students to come and see the prints of the Book of Job. Well, the only word they heard was “Prints”. They thought it was P-R-I-N-C-E, the singer, and all the students in the school showed up (laughs).
DB: Did any of your students go on in art?
PW: Well, Sharon Barber (an art teacher in Richmond City Public Schools) was one of my students at Peabody Junior High School. Sean Collins, who now teaches at A. M. Davis Elementary School (in Chesterfield County, Virginia), was one of my students at Providence Elementary. I expect eventually he will be a “legend” in art education. Another of my students became a graphic designer for Kraft Foods in Chicago and had a very successful career. I know several students who chose different career paths but art is still an important part of their life. Some even exhibit their work. I actually never thought that I was teaching art for students to choose art as their career but more to make their life richer no matter what path they took.
I encourage my student teachers to get more involved with their students, to not think of teaching as a 9 to 5 job because there is so much more going on beyond the school day. The students need to know you’re there and "teachable moments" seem to present themselves outside of the classroom.
Teaching is hard work. One thing about art teachers is that you’re always out there recruiting kids because if you don’t have enough students, your job will be in jeopardy. I knew I was a good teacher but to go out there and make kids take my class was crazy. You have to make art (and your program) visible in your school. It seems that art teachers have so many added responsibilities besides teaching. High school teachers may be working with 4 or 5 levels in the same class...or elementary art teachers may be seeing 500-600 students in a week.
DB: Looking back on your long career, how did you get started in a leadership position and what would you consider your legacy, your contribution to art education? You’ve done so much for the Virginia Art Education Association (VAEA) and for the National Art Education Association (NAEA) too. It’s a matter of advocacy and leadership.
PW: I have to say that it was Dan Reeves (chairman of the Art Education Department at VCU from 1979 to 1995) who got me involved in the VAEA. I was in a graduate class (aesthetics, I think) that involved a lot of writing. When someone in VAEA asked Dan for recommendations for someone to take over the VAEA Newsletter, my name was mentioned. He thought I could write pretty well. I didn’t know the first thing about newsletters. I took the position because it was a good transitional time in my life. I admired him as a teacher and figured if he thought I could do it, well, then maybe I could. I bought my first computer, an Apple 2-C, to work on the VAEA newsletter.
That’s when I met Barbara Laws (Newport News Public Schools), Cen Waters (Chesterfield County Public Schools), Chuck Bleick (VCU Art Education). We were all involved in revamping the newsletter. It was exciting to be a part of a team that was making changes; looking to the future. The changes we made were dramatic.
I have had various positions (all except Treasurer) over the years. I have been President, Vice-President (the officer in charge of organizing the annual VAEA conference), Secretary, membership chair and Middle School Division Chair. I served in some offices more than one term. And, of course, Newsletter Editor for several years. And, as the VAEA President or Vice-President, I served as a delegate to States Assembly at the NAEA convention each year.
DB: When I think of leadership, I think of you.
PW: Betty Tisinger (VCU professor, retired) and I have both served as Executive Secretary. Betty was the first, and established what the role should be. (Peggy is currently the VAEA Executive Secretary, an administrative position that is ongoing and not elected. The Executive Secretary coordinates all the various and sundry functions within VAEA.) I think that position has made a difference in VAEA. It takes some of the administrative burden off of the elected officers who are trying to lead the VAEA organization. I answer a lot of emails and do a lot of communicating, organizing and prodding.
DB: I know Rick (Lippson) has been a big part of your life. I know I need to include Rick in this.
PW: When I took a graduate class at VCU very early in my teaching career, Art Miller was there as a painting instructor. I invited him to come to Peabody Junior High School to do a workshop on stop-motion animation with 8mm cameras. The kids just ate him up. Even the 'tough" kids loved him. Years later I met Rick at Art Miller’s birthday party. It was a surprise party that Art’s wife was giving, and it was held in a building where Rick was living while waiting to take the Bar Exam. They invited Rick just because he was a tenant there. And the rest is history.
Rick loves art education too. When he was working with the Young Lawyers Organization, he would go to middle schools and talk about law and being a lawyer. They would do a field trip to the courthouse to observe a trial, and then to the jail, and to the detention center, so that the students could see the legal system first hand. But his first stop when he walked into the school would always be to find the art teacher because he just "fits" with an art teacher. He is very supportive of me and whatever I have to do.
As an example, when I was teaching middle school in Chesterfield one of my students was a latch-key kid who had trouble getting out of bed in the mornings to come to school. Rick started calling him every morning to make sure he was awake and would make it to school on time. Someone who cares can make all the difference in a kids’ life.
At one conference in Roanoke, Rick helped us distribute purchased water when there was a water main break in the city leaving the hotel with no water; and in Norfolk he found where he could purchase aprons for a workshop when a panicked presenter discovered that the box for the workshop was missing. He purchased extension cords to spare the expense of renting them from the hotel. He has assisted with contract issues, too. The list goes on and on.
DB: What changes have you seen over the years?
PW: VAEA had definitely grown. It has grown from a small group of interested committed people to a dedicated, professional organization. We look toward the future now; how VAEA or NAEA can make a difference or, when needed, a change. We have around 800 members of VAEA, and we usually have about 500 members attending our annual conference (Fall Professional Development Conference), which is fabulous.
I think one of the biggest contributions I made to the annual conference is streamlining the conference booklet and the registration process by putting it online. That has allowed members to correct their choices about various events. If one event is already closed, they know immediately and can find something else. In the old days registration was done on paper through the mail and paid with a check. If a session was closed you would find out the day of the conference and receive a handwritten refund check for the session you didn't get. By then a lot of other choices were not available either.
I manage "constant contact" as a means of quick communication, rather than relying on the newsletter to communicate what is happening both in the VAEA and in legislative matters. The newsletter is now more of a magazine with deeper, thought provoking articles; it’s not intended to be a tool for quick communication. We have the internet and Facebook now.
I think the field of art education has grown as well. Art teachers have more of an identity as an integral part of a child's education. Since the VAEA has become more involved in political and legislative actions there is better communication to teachers about actions they can take. I’ve been an advocate for art education most of my career and I'm now seeing how advocacy can go beyond the classroom and the school community. I’ve encouraged student teachers I supervise to become members of VAEA, to become professionals. I think I’ve contributed a “face” to Virginia art education through my role as Executive Secretary. When people have a question, they know they can come to me for answers, or at least, I can direct them toward the answer. I think it’s easier to contact one person than to filter down through the chain of command of the officers to get a question answered.
I am happy that I have the privilege of working with student teachers as they begin their path in the field of art education. Often, I am reminded of the early years of my career and hope that the student I am supervising will enjoy the rewards of successful lessons and the enthusiasm of their students. No doubt teaching is challenging but the returns are so worth it!
DB: Peggy Wood taught art for over three decades in central Virginia. She is revered by hundreds of secondary students who learned to love art and love themselves in her classes. She has been a strong advocate for art and art education throughout her career. Gracious and energetic, she has been an indispensable figure in the Virginia Art Education Association, serving in all the VAEA board offices (except Secretary), in several instances, for more than one term. She has overseen and contributed to the growth of development of VAEA over many years.