This Legend and Legacy interview was conducted by Fatemah Khawaji, a doctoral student in the Department of Art Education at Virginia Commonwealth University on April 11, 2018.
Brief Biographical Summary
Sarah Matthews has taught art at J. B. Watkins Elementary School in Chesterfield County for 23 years. She was named the Virginia Art Education Association (VAEA) 2018 Virginia Art Educator of the Year.
FK: Thank you for allowing me to interview you. The interview is just basic five questions. I'll start with the first question. Can you tell us a bit about yourself, your childhood, and your experiences with art. If you had any early influence with art from family or teachers. Also, what was your education from school to university, and beyond.
SM: When I was younger my mom always let me go to Saturday classes taught in the community, which was wonderful. I was always given artistic gifts, craft things, sewing, embroidery things to make, things to paint. One thing I was really lucky, one of my best friends, both of her parents were art professors at University of North Carolina at Greensboro (UNCG) in North Carolina. Her mom was a ceramic artist, and I loved going over to their house to see what kind of projects and paintings they were working on. I did a lot of clay and drawing classes with her. Just to be in that artistic environment was just really wonderful. They were sort of the first laid-back hippy people I knew.
I came from sort of a normal middle class suburban neighborhood and they were sort of in this funky area where even next door, another friend of mine, her parents had a recording studio and she was a hairdresser. So, rock and roll bands would be coming next door and she'd be glamming them up for performances, and then next door you have the hippy people who were doing yoga, making clay sculptures and ginormous paintings. I loved staying over at their house. It was my element.
FK: Wow. Neighbors, community, and a lot of great art influences surrounded you.
SM: Yes. That was a lot of fun. I remember I didn't get art when I was in elementary school. We had a roving art teacher that would show up perhaps five or six weeks out of the year. When I was in fifth grade I got an art teacher. She hand-wrote me a letter, and for years and years and years, I kept it in my bottom of my jewelry box. She said that she saw a lot of great talent in me and she wished that I would pursue a career in art. That was very meaningful to me, and I kept it forever. I wish I still had it. That made me love art as well.
When I got into middle school, I had the chance to either do band or art, and my sister was fabulous at band, so my parents thought I would be fabulous at band. I tried it, and I hated it, and I just didn't want to do it. So I begged them to please not make me do band classes. They finally agreed and I got back into the art and it was wonderful.
We moved to Virginia when I was in high school. I was in ninth grade. The art program in Chesterfield County was phenomenal. I got to do so many things, like stretch my own canvas, and make animated films. I had two very different art teachers. One was very hard core. We learned the basics and mastered techniques, and those things of that sort. The other one let me explore and do your own thing. So, I got to see two very different styles of teaching, and I learned a lot from both—that you can be hard and learn really well, or you can be experimental, and you can learn really well.
It shaped my views on what I can do, a combination of both ways of art technique and style. When I was in high school, my high school teacher was an older lady and she had to go out for a long time for some back surgery, I believe. We had this really young, cool, fun, long-term sub who came in. She really let us put our hair down and paint whatever we wanted and listen to music. She inspired me to be freer, more avant-garde with my art, and that kind of thing, and gave me ways to introduce lessons.
She turned off all the lights, set somebody up on a stool on top of a table, and told us to draw that. We were drawing the back side of her, which was her jeans. This was back in the early 80s when labels and things were in, so from that drawing I ended up doing a big painting of every kind of popular jean at that time, and learning shading techniques, and folds, and detail work. It was a really good experience. Again, another teaching style. That was very cool.
FK: That's a really great experience. How about university? Did you immediately go into art education or did you take a roundabout path to art education?
SM: Lots of different things. First, I didn't know what I wanted to do. I had a boyfriend in high school who I was so in love with, and I thought, "I will go where he goes," because I didn't know what I wanted. I finally found out he was going to VCU, and said, "Okay. I'll do that." And so my hardcore art teacher helped me get my portfolio together, and I was accepted. I went to art school at VCU. In the first year you go through almost an art bootcamp.
SM: It was hard. I was with the same group of students for all of my major classes. They had been told in high school that they were wonderful and perfect by their art teachers, but they'd never really experienced hardcore criticism, which I got from my tough art teacher in high school. So I was used to it, while most of them were crying. And I was saying, "Come on. You can do better." I embraced the challenge and when it was over I felt like I could conquer the world: "Just ask me to make anything out of anything. I can do it." I liked that it was very hands on, you had to have a project to go in and do it. It wasn't the bookwork, read a chapter and take a test. You were so much more involved with it and it was something where you couldn't cut corners. I like a challenge, so I really enjoyed that experience.
From there I decided I wanted to do art education because I got so much joy of making things and learning new techniques. I love to share my art with other people and get them excited about it. My first year of art education was a lot of theory classes. I was in one class with a bunch of girls and the first test came around. Everybody failed except for me and this other girl. From then on, the professor graded on a curve. From that point forward, he started to spoon feed us because most of the people in there were simply saying, "I like art. I like kids. I want to teach." I was very disillusioned and I was like, "No. I want to be challenged. I don't want to be spoon fed. I want it to be hard. I want to get my money’s worth."
I decided to change my major. I went through about six different majors. I wanted to be a biology teacher. I did a lot of biology, and then it was too much for me., so I don't want to do that anymore. Then I decided I wanted to be a weather woman, so I decided to go through Mass Communications school. But then I had to take a typing test and there was no way I was going to pass the typing test, so I couldn't do that.
I forgot what I took next. I took a wonderful class in archeology and I thought, "This is great. I want to do this." That didn't last long when I figured out I can't have a job in it. I finally got back to Occupational Therapy because you were helping people, which was fine because I'm a very people orientated person, and I thought, "This is great. I want to do this." One of the things I had to do before I could sign up for the classes at UNCG was to get so many hours of volunteerism.
I volunteered at a nearby elderly daycare center. I was working there and I started teaching them art. I really was passionate about teaching them how to paint. They were so excited, and happy to do it. I was almost crying: "This is what I really want to do." I'd walk through the painting halls and smell oil paint and just cry. So, I decided, "Okay. I'm going back to art education because this is what makes me happy.” I ended up going back to it. It was what I truly loved.
FK: It's a long journey.
SM: But it also made me more of a renaissance person in that I got a little dab of everything. At times I incorporate a lot of science in my art. I make my kids really study animals and the way they look, feel and live. They say, "This isn't science class," and I reply, "But you've got to know your subject if you're going to really create it well." I put a lot of that in there. I tell a lot of stories and give a lot of history. I'm really into different cultures. I try to give them authentic things. I'll put an African mask in their hands, or real mola, or a real statue or carving, so that they really know about the work.
SM: I'm glad I came from that era of old school before computers because I'd sit there and cry at my plan book my first couple of years, thinking, "What am I going to teach next." I would actually have to go to the library and look things up and make all your own visuals because there was no computers and things like that. But it made me really be able to make anything, out of anything. I’d think, "I've got to come up with a lesson on this. Great."
And if the internet goes down, I still have all my books and posters. So I feel, "Yeah, no problem. I can handle this." That's kind of a good thing too. I like the th hands-on part of it. My first teaching experience was at an at-risk school. You couldn't write a whole bunch of written directions for those kids because a lot of them had trouble reading. The good thing was, they didn't have even crayons or markers at their house so they were very excited with any material. It didn't have to be something fancy. They were just glad to have something. It was real fun to teach there because they really appreciated you.
To solve my discipline problems, I would interject a lot of humor and do almost a stage act to keep them interested, so they wanted to do what I had for them planned instead of fuss and fight with each other. Now, I might do an over-the-top presentation or motivation to because that was just my training ground for eight years.
When I came to this new school (J. B. Watkins Elementary School), which is where I have been for the last 23 years, the children were upper middle class. Everybody behaves, they sit and they listen. When I came in with using goofy voices and stuff, they stared at each other, "Oh my gosh. Is this teacher crazy? Is there something wrong with her?" They didn't know what to think of me, because I was over-the-top. But they've gotten used to it.
FK: I think they loved you.
SM: Well, thanks.
FK: You actually answered my second question. The third question is “What positions have you held and what did you learn from them? How has where you started changed from where you are now? Tell me about your teaching career?
SM: Okay. I said my very first year I was actually an itinerant. I was between two schools that were the hub for the special needs children. At that time, the special education classes had Pre-K through age 21, and located in elementary schools, because they were putting them based on more functionality as opposed to age. Both schools were having brand new. And the teachers were both new to their situation, even though they were veteran teachers. They had very, very different teaching styles. One was very strict, and you had to be clean; she didn't want to do anything messy. The other one was off the charts, just have fun, make it big, make it bold. I found my niche working with both of those.
Because they were new to the situation, they said, "I don't know how to teach these special needs kids. Give them to the itinerant." My very first year teaching, I didn't know how to teach normal children that well, I was just getting my feet wet. But then I had kids that were blind, and autistic, and some that were comatose, some who had limited or had no function with their hands. I had to come up with art experiences for these children my first year. It was a rude awakening trying to figure out how to help these kids experience art. That was my very first year.
Then, for the next eight years I was the at-risk school. When I was there I didn't have any children of my own so I became not only a teacher but another mother to many of those kids. I was very involved with the PTA. I was there every time they had supper nights. I would go to the kids’ baseball games and soccer games and give them a really sense that I cared about them. I spent a lot of time outside of school with those kids, doing special things to create a bond.
Then when I had my son, I decided, "Okay. I have my own child. I need to start doing things for him." It just coincided that there was an opening at the elementary school where I am now, at Watkins ES. The great thing about being here at Watkins is the music teacher here at Watkins. I taught with him for five years at the at-risk school and he came to the new school. Then, when the art opening came up, he said, "Sarah. Come teach with me. You'll love it." So, I said, "Okay." The music teacher and I had a wonderful relationship. I'd already been making the costumes and the backdrops for him at the other school, so I came to this school filled with upper middle class, and just really nice kids, and really great teachers.
I felt bad to leave the at-risk school. I loved the kids and I loved helping them but the teachers were so frustrated and burnt out because it was really difficult to get the academics down with those kids. There was a negative attitude. So, to come to a school where everybody was positive and happy, and the parents are glad to help because they had the time and the means, was great. It was like a dream come true. That's where I've been for the last 23 years.
And because I'm at, sort of, a dream situation, I've really opened my doors to student teachers and practicum students, which is something that I wanted to do, to give back, because I love my career and I want other people to love it to. In order for them to love it, it helps to come to a situation where you don't really have to think about the discipline or worry about supplies. So, I say, "Come on. You can come teach with me. You can do whatever you want. These kids will listen. Get your lessons down pat. Get comfortable with the kids. I said, ‘Materials and stuff are covered’. You'll be fine." I've had 23 student teachers, and I forget how many practicums.
SM: That's kept me on my toes because they're bringing in new methods and new artists. I always encourage them to teach with their passion. I said, "Don't teach something because you think that's the thing to teach." Like I'm going to do portraits. I said, "If you don't want to do portraits, don't. What do you love?" And I had one girl who was into flamingos. I said, "Well, then do something with flamingos. You can do drawings, paintings, sculpture. Whatever you want to do. You can do it with different grade levels. Just pick a medium that's good for that area. Do what you love." And she came dressed like a flamingo and brought in all her flamingo stuff. It was wonderful.
I've had student teachers who love to play guitar. I said, "Well, bring it in. Sing to them. Play for them." And she, the student teacher, sang the purple people eater song, and then they made all kinds of purple people eaters. That was wonderful!
SM: My most meaningful student teacher went on to become the Southeastern elementary art teacher of the year. He was fantastic. He came and taught with me. He was just so passionate about teaching kids and starting at the elementary level, (even thinking he would end up teaching high school), but he was having so much fun with my kids, just because they're so creative and they just want to do whatever you tell them. The sky is the limit. He actually wrote a song and had his fifth graders perform it. He even got engaged in my art room. He invited his fiancé to come see the project he was working on with these fifth graders and they became engaged in my art room, which I just felt was fabulous.
FK: That's awesome. Well, you actually kind of answered my fourth question, which is “What memories and/or experience stand out in your mind? If you have more you can add.
SM: Okay. Just to tell you about the loving environment, when I first came to this school, I was diagnosed with cancer, and I ended up having to go out for a few weeks at a time and go get surgery, chemo and radiation. It was my very first year here at Watkins ES. The kids and the staff were so supportive, and they wanted to make me feel good. The second grade team got together and they made a homework assignment that every kid had to make a pair of earrings for Miss Matthews. It could be anything they wanted because at that time (it was the last 80s or 90s), I was always known for my big, weird earrings, and stuff like that. These kids made them out of everything. There a son and father welded nuts and bolts together. They were made out of gum. They made paintings. They did seashells. It was just amazing.
Another thing they did, is they asked every kid in the school to bring me a flower on art day. Well, when you have 700 kids, you get 700 flowers. Some of them are bringing, not a flower, but a bouquet or a rose bush. My whole art room just looked like a florist's shop. So, I just turned it into an art lesson on O'Keeffe. So all week long it was all about the flowers.
Another week I came in and every grade level team bought me a bouquet of balloons. We had to teach in an art room full of helium balloons floating around all over the place. It was fun. The worst time of my life ended up being one of the best and it was because of my school environment and my kids and my coworkers. I'm just very thankful that I have this to come to. Being an art teacher is a great happy job, and no matter what's going on in your life, you can come here and be with kids, create excitement and joy, you can leave a lot of the negativity at home.
FK: That's very true. That's a really touching experience. Thank you for sharing.
SM: You're welcome.
FK: My last question is, “If you look back on your career, what do you consider your goals and accomplishments as an art educator, as an advocate for art education, also as an artist? What change or contribution have you made to art education, either with individuals or to the larger picture? How did you go about it and how have you changed?
SM: I think my biggest contribution to art education has been opening the doors to people who want to be art teachers and making them find a way to love it themselves, and make your students love it. To tap into what makes them happy and to create excitement for the students, and to create variety, and hoping that they will see the need to change every year and not get stuck in a rut. Just see everything around them in their environment as an opportunity for a lesson or to teach the kids something. Just to keep things fresh.
As another thing I've done, because I'm always changing and having new people come in and bring me new ideas, for the last 25 years I have always given workshops, whether it be at the county level or the regional level, and always at the state level. I try and find unique lesson plans that I've created on my own, that aren't cookie cutter lessons, that will give fantastic results and they're fun to do, and they teach a lot of technique, or history, and that they're just exciting. I've tried to give back to all my other educators in the state, so again that they can become passionate and love what they do, and spread the joy. I think that's one of my big contributions.
I was the VAEA Elementary Division Director. I tried to get people excited and writing letter. My quarterly newsletter about whatever was new, exciting that I'd find out to pass on to them. I think by giving the workshops at the state level and helping all the pre-service teachers has been my big contribution.
FK: Wow. That's a lot of contribution besides your work at school. Thank you, Sarah. It was very, very nice hearing your story and your art experience. I really want to meet you in person and get to know you.
SM: I don't think I talked to you about what I do as an artist
FK: No, you didn't.
SM: That's the other thing I am, which goes along with my teaching thing. Before my son was born, there were seven of us (teachers) pregnant at the time at my school, and I wanted to give each of them a unique present. I had painted my son's room. It was my first time really doing a mural and I thought, "This is so much fun. I love painting big and bold, the big, bold kind of personality thing." So, I offered to paint things for all seven people. I did toy boxes and rocking chairs and then I started to paint things on their walls. I decided, "Hey, I like painting in this big, flashy way." And then when my son went into daycare, the people in the infant room were saying they wish they had stuff painted on the walls because they have these cribs that lined against the wall. The artwork on the walls would fall into the crib so they couldn't put anything up that was colorful and fun for the babies to look at. I said, "Well, I paint." They had me talk to the owner and we came up with a plan for the daycare center to do a barter. She owned five places. I started painting for her. And after I painted for her, another couple who were planning to open a Goddard School were touring daycare centers to get ideas for their daycares, and they saw a lot of my paintings. They found out who I was so I started painting Goddard Schools, and I have painted a bunch of those. Then word got out that there's a mural painter. Art teachers who would be asked by their PTA or principal to paint a mural, would say, "I don't do that, but I know somebody who does." Schools usually don't pay their art teacher for in-school work but they'll pay a professional. So, I got my business license and I've been painting murals for 23 years.
FK: That’s amazing.
SM: I've painted about 15 different schools, and many restaurants and private homes, and things like that. When I paint, I usually paint realistically. I love animals, and that's why I stuck at the elementary level or daycare center theme. I think as I retire, I think I want to go paint ocean scene murals in people's beach homes, so I can just go stay at the beach.
SM: Yup. Anyway. That's my art passion. That's what I do on the side. I can say one more thing.
SM: Another thing, about 10 years ago, there was a group of us art teachers at all levels, elementary through high school. We've known each other for 30 years. One of them was the person I did my elementary practice with. Some of them were people I went to VCU with. Some of them I actually taught with. But we have this close-knit bond, and they're all phenomenal teachers and artists, and they have all won awards at their schools and beyond. Because they are these top-notch passionate people about education and the art, we get together on a retreat every year and we all bring something to teach each other how to do that's new and innovative. That just keeps us excited as artists and also keeps our friendships intact. I encourage other teachers to find a group of people that make them happy, and go make art with them, and that kind of thing.
FK: Sarah, you actually built up a group with your friends, art friends, art teachers to share and learn from each other.
SM: Yes, and we do it every year.
FK: Wow. That's really awesome. Well, thank you, Sarah. I don't want to take more of your time. Again, Thank you for allowing me to have this wonderful experience with you.