The following interview was conducted on February 14, 2018 in Henrico, VA., by Art Education doctoral candidate Vivian Medina-Messner. This interview is part of the Virginia Art Education Association (VAEA) Distinguished Fellows Legends and Legacies Project.
Terry Adams is a retired art teacher from Ruby Carver Elementary School in Henrico, VA. He taught art education for 40 years. He retired in 2015. Mr. Adams was named Henrico County Elementary School Art Teacher of the Year in 1994, and Central Region VAEA Elementary Art Educator of the Year in 1994. During his 40-year career, he taught in 11 schools including Carver, Varina/Mehfoud, Longdale, Laburnum, Montrose, Short Pump, Jackson Davis, Godwin, Pinchbeck, and Dumbarton.
Vivian Medina-Messner (V. M-M): Mr. Adams, please tell us a little about your experience as a child working with art.
Terry Adams (T.A): I was born right here in Richmond, Virginia, in 1953. My parents, I guess, were very tidy people and liked the way things looked. That rubbed off me, initially. I always enjoyed it. Whether it was drawing, or painting, or clay. I just enjoyed that process even as a child, even though I did not have any formal (training) as a child. It was always there and something that I enjoyed.
V. M-M: So you took some pencils and paints and you went out to draw? How was that experience and process?
T. A.: Well, anytime that I had extra time, on the back of my homework paper, there was always a drawing. Unfortunately, I remember having to purchase some of my textbooks because I turned the corners of my books and draw little pictures on the corner. By the end of the year, I would have a complete 300-page flip book on a math book.
V. M-M: Is there a teacher or artist you could remember who inspired you when you were a child?
T.A.: Ann Graham comes to mind as the most influential. She was one of my high school art teachers who inspired me the most.
V. M-M: How did she inspire you? What type of things did she do as a teacher to nurture your talent?
T. A.: She had the philosophy that you could do it, and you could be successful with art and that it was fun.
V. M-M: Tell me a little bit about yourself. What inspired you to become an art educator?
T. A.: Well, I’ve always enjoyed art. Thinking back (I’m going to date myself now) to when schools did not have art, in elementary school, I never had an art lesson. It wasn’t until high school that it was offered as an elective. And instantly, I went from a poor student to an honor roll student when I became involved in art classes. I was thrilled and really enjoyed that.
V. M-M: And what year was that?
T. A.: High school was the late 60s. I’m a lifelong Henrico resident so I went to Henrico County schools. They had something called the Art Guild which was for high school students who were very interested in art countywide. They would meet once a month and they would do anything from drawing and painting at Maymont Park or the Virginia River Park, going to the Virginia Museum, and even visits to the Smithsonian Museum. [We would meet] visiting artists in the area, as well as visiting VCU and the art program there. All that was just fascinating to me. I truly enjoyed it. And it made me decide that art was where I wanted to go.
V. M-M: How did you come to art education? Was it your first choice?
T. A.: Never in my wildest dreams did I think that I would go into art education or think that I wanted to be a teacher. I guess that I came about it in somewhat of a selfish way in that, during my freshman year at VCU [Virginia Commonwealth University], as an Art Foundation student, I had to declare a major at the end of the year. So I went through the catalogue and looked at the various offerings. In the painting department, it was basically painting and drawing and printmaking. It left out some stuff. What about clay? What about sculpture? When I looked at the other departments, I kept reading and reading, and I got down to art education and they had little bit of everything in the curriculum. There was painting, there was sculpture, ceramics, there was crafts, and that appealed to me. I didn’t think that I was that strong in any one medium. I enjoyed it all—all forms of art. Maybe that suited my attention deficit tendencies. That was the first reason why I went into art education. During that first year, there was an Introduction to Art Education course that I took and towards the end of the year, where they put us in front of the kids. [It was] a live teaching situation and I taught the class that I was assigned. Nobody was hurt. Nobody was crying and it was relatively successful. But the big thing that I noticed, there were lots of smiles. I think that from there on, I was hooked, so I went into art education.
V. M-M: And what year was it when you studied at VCU? How was your experience as you grew into the major?
T. A.: My freshman year that 1971; that’s when I started. I went to VCU from ‘71 to ‘75, and of course, graduated with a BFA in Art Education.
V. M-M: What made it a rich experience when you were a student there at VCU?
T. A.: I was just struck by the instructors there and what they had accomplished. I truly enjoyed what they had to say. I enjoyed their work. And it was great working with them.
V. M-M: Tell us about your teaching career? Where did you teach? And what positions did you hold? And what did you learn from them? How did it change from where you are now?
T. A.: I taught art in Henrico County for 40 years. I taught grades K-12. There were 11 different schools that I was assigned to over all those years. Part of that was based on art history. Every other week, so sometimes you would have 2 to 3 different schools to teach in a week. Some people look at that and think: 11 schools! That’s incredible, but sometimes there were 2 or 3 at a time there. I also taught summer school classes and I taught adult education classes through the adult education system in Henrico. One of my most interesting experiences is that I taught at the Math Science Center. That was kind of interesting. It grew out of a partners arts grant that I did as a teacher where we were using Leonardo da Vinci’s drawings of flying machines as inspiration. We were building flying machines and the people at the Math Science Center at the time were exploring that relationship between math, science and art. They approached me about doing my flying machine’s workshop.
V. M-M: Can also tell us about you experience at Ruby Carver Elementary? How many years did you work there? How was that experience?
T. A.: The bulk of my career was at [Ruby] Carver Elementary School. I was there 29 years. Sometimes during the early years, it was in conjunction with other schools that were paired with it. But in the final years, it was interesting and enjoyable. That school fit the assignment perfectly. I was just at Carver. That was just really nice, just to be in one place.
V. M-M: What years were those?
T. A.: I think 1986 to 2015.
V. M-M: You mentioned that you also taught in adult education. Please tell us how different is it to teach art to adults?
T. A.: Most of the classes that I did for adults in adult education were Intro to Ceramics classes. It was not much different. Some of the things that adults did were very similar to what a child would do in learning the fundamentals of handling the clay.
V. M-M: Is there a specific or favorite medium that you have? What do you enjoy the most?
T. A.: I always have a hard time with that question because, to this day, I’m still scattered. I enjoy it all. I enjoy clay just as much as I enjoy mixing the colors and the process of painting. I like switching around. I think that’s why I like teaching so much because you didn’t do the same thing day in and day out. It was always different. It was always a challenge. That was interesting to me.
V. M-M: How has teaching art education changed throughout your career? How did teaching art education change with the introduction of technology?
T. A.: Technology was probably the biggest change that I have seen. I enjoyed that change and I embraced that. I remember doing some workshops in the Virginia Art Education Association, dealing with digital art and learning to master that medium. Some of what I didn’t enjoy was how the length of classes changed over the years. When I first started we had 4 one-hour classes a day, then it went to 5 fifty-minute classes a day, then it went to 6 forty-minute classes a day and then there was even a push to go into 8 thirty-minute periods a day, which I found it to be not appropriate at all for art. It became very rushed and very hectic. I didn’t enjoy that change and that emphasis in trying to go that direction.
V. M-M: Which experiences stand out in your mind?
T. A.: What I remember the most are the smiles. The accomplishment of the kids. Their realization that at the end of a project that they did it. When we have exhibits, their parents were invited in and got to see it. I would photograph them standing with their mom and dad and they were all smiles. Parents were proud and the kids were proud. I think that’s what it is all about.
V. M-M: Looking back on your career, what do you consider your goals and accomplishments as an art educator, as an advocate for art education and as an artist?
T. A.: Well, the first goal is to survive with kids in the classroom all day [laughing]. It can be very hectic and very challenging. But all the smiles, all the successes that we had with their projects, even to this day, when kids see me, they say we had a good time, that we enjoyed art. They are not artists today necessarily, but they remember what we did and they remember the fun we had. That was my goal: to enjoy what I was doing and hopefully to share that with children.
V. M-M: What changes or contributions have you made to art education either with individuals or in the larger picture?
T. A.: I’m especially proud of some of the children that I was able to reach. There were some who were troubled, some who were poor students who I think that gained a new insight into education and enjoyed their art. I had some students that won awards, whether it was for AAA traffic posters or work selected to go onto other national exhibits. We had 3 Partners in the Arts grants that I was able to develop with the teachers and the students that were very successful.
V. M-M: What tips would you give to future art educators who want to find those grants and create projects with the community?
T. A.: Just look at the basics. Look what the SOLs or whatever the objectives are and find the connection between them and some form of art. I think that usually you don’t have to get too crazy or aggressive about it. Just keep it down to the basics. Bring it down to the children creating and keeping them involved in it as much as possible. Make it their work and not the grant work or the teacher’s work. Make it student-oriented as much as possible.
V. M-M: Is there anything else that you would like to share with future art educators?
T. A.: Just keep in mind that all children are creative. Let them be. As long as you foster that and have a lot of fun with the kids, they will have a lot of fun with you and the art, and it will be a very successful program.
V. M-M: Tell us about this book that inspired you.
T. A.: [Mr. Adams holds a book called “All Children Are Creative.”] This book was published by Henrico County Elementary Art Teachers, when the elementary program was first begun. I think that it was sometime around 1968 or 1969. It was given to me as a high school student participating in the Art Guild program in Henrico County. It has always been in the back of my mind. I think that it had to do with my choice of going into art education and being a teacher. It was their philosophical statement: “All children are creative. Let them be.”
V. M-M: And how did you apply that in the classroom?
T. A.: That was my way: Let the children be the decision makers. Let them do it their way within parameters, but not using templates, or patterns or coloring books. Just let them do it on their own. I think that we foster that naturally in an elementary school child. There’s often a lot said about how we lose that quality as we grow up. My interest is in maintaining that imagination, that creativity and that freedom, and to foster and encourage that as much as possible.
V. M-M: Do you hear from former students who are adults or students who moved to middle school or high school?
T. A.: I can’t seem to go anywhere without being recognized or remembered [smiles]. My wife laughs about it. We were in Disney World two years ago and getting off the elevator. We heard from the other side of the atrium, “Hey, Mr. Adams…” It was one of the kids from Carver. And we had an interesting conversation with the parents. They said, “I can’t see my child greeting any other teacher like that, yelling across Disney World for a greeting.” That was kind of unique. A lot of kids have looked me up in places like Facebook. It’s interesting to see where they are now and what they are doing and how they are successful. Some of them are artists and others are in art-related jobs. One particular student is a lawyer, and she went into copyright law. She said “Well, I can’t create the art, but I can help the artist with protecting their copyrights.” So, it is interesting that she put her art and her law together and made a career out of it. Every retired teacher probably has a folder like this [shows a folder] with accolades and neat letters. Some of these are from administrators over the years. Of course, many of those are handwritten notes from kids. Many of these letters are from when they were in high school. I keep a folder like this handy. I enjoy it and look back over it and remember the wonderful times we had. I remember thinking, “Well, maybe thinking I did made some connections and made a difference in their lives—something that they remember to this day.”
V. M-M: What are your plans, now that you are retired?
T. A.: Well, the highlight of my life now is being a grandparent. Being with my two grandchildren is just the joy of my life right now. Now that I’m not so involved in school and teaching daily, maybe I can spend more time with them and my three daughters as they get started their adult lives. I’m just taking time for me and taking care of myself better now than I did before. That’s also important. I strongly recommend retirement [says Mr. Adams smiling]. My wife and I have rekindled since we are both retired now and thoroughly enjoying that.