Twyla Kitts was interviewed by David Burton for the VAEA Legends and Legacies project on Thursday, September 2, 2022, at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.
David Burton (DB): Thank you for agreeing to this interview for the VAEA Legends and Legacies project. My first question is a bit about yourself. Tell me about your childhood and early experiences, especially with art. How did your family, teachers, and other experiences influence you? Your education from school to university and beyond . . .
Twyla Kitts (TK): Because my career as a museum educator differed from most other art educators, the answer to Dr. Burton’s second question is intermingled with the first one.]
2. How did you come to art education? Was it your first choice, or was your path roundabout?
TK: I was born in Roanoke (Virginia) in 1953, but my parents were living in an apartment house in Abingdon (VA) at the time. I don’t really remember Abingdon, but family stories have brought those years to life—including my first encounter with an artist. My mother befriended the Kulkovs, an Estonian couple who had to leave money and possessions behind as they escaped the German occupation of their country. One day, they asked to borrow a couple of potatoes, but only, they said, if the baby would still have enough to eat. My parents were relatively poor by U.S. standards, but they had never had to worry about hunger. . .
Mama made curtains out of flour sacks for their apartment—and to repay her generous gesture, Mr. Kulkov painted my portrait (oil on canvas board). Looking at how he handled the paint (thinly applied since paint was expensive, but with great facility) has always made me wonder about his life. His skill as an artist was something that he could bring with him to his new life in America. Artmaking was not a part of the communities from which my parents came; I am very probably the first person in my family to have their portrait painted. This story about a man who earned his living as an artist made a great impression on me as a child.
When I was about three, we moved to Roanoke (VA) and a couple of years later to Staunton (VA), where my own memories of childhood begin. I loved drawing and spent hours quietly making pictures or coloring whenever I had paper and pencil or crayons. Paper was scarce, and I always ran out of paper before I ran out of drawings I wanted to make.
I loved to color—while making my own drawings or in coloring books. There is something magical about putting color on the page. Color brought life to the horses, fairy tale characters, and scuba divers I loved to draw. (Sea Hunt, the television show, had just begun—and scuba diving and underwater photography were both new and fascinating.) One of my best memories of this time is finally getting a large Crayola Crayon box—with a crayon sharpener in the back!
In second grade, I won a city-wide art contest (the only art prize I’ve ever won). My mother, not wanting me to be disappointed, had told me that I would probably not win, so I was very excited with the prize—an oil paint-by-number set. This memory brings home to me how helpful it would have been to have had a professional art teacher, not just a regular classroom teacher who let us do art projects. I didn’t follow the instructions for the paint-by-number colors; I wanted to make my own color decisions, but with cheap brushes and no understanding of color relationships or color mixing, my finished not-painted-by-number work was frightful.
The first formal instruction I had in art took place at Mary Munford Elementary School after we moved to Richmond. I was in fourth grade and art class quickly became my favorite activity. I have vivid memories of sculpting with clay, painting classroom murals, and making collages.
My love of art history began when Susan Smith, my sixth-grade teacher, taught the entire year through the lens of art history. I still have the notebook I made with the old black-and-white reproductions that she had us order, along with the hand-written paragraphs about the art, which we carefully copied from the chalk board. She covered Western art from the Egyptians to Gainsborough. We made maps related to art history; math problems included references to works of art; literature assignments made connections with art and artists. We even made an illuminated book of hours. All the works we studied were shown in a frieze just beneath the classroom ceiling. She also had a large mahogany cabinet with much larger (and better) reproductions. At the end of the year, these works were exhibited in the library and selected students became docents for groups of parents. (We got to wear impressive purple sashes.)
Should we skip over middle school? I think middle school is awful for everyone. I do remember the art teacher, a man who assigned construction projects without giving us any relevant instruction. All the boys who were taking shop did quite well, but the girls, who had to take home economics instead, did not. This was all before the development of present-day standards of learning. The teacher did not cover any art history, color theory, or introduction of materials. This memory makes me appreciate the amazing teachers I know today who provide such enriching experiences.
In high school, I only took one art class, although I did extensive drawing on my own. I liked the art teacher; she was kind and allowed us a lot of choice in the projects we undertook. I think most of the students took the class to get an “easy” credit and, again, I don’t remember any instruction in color theory, materials, or art history. I didn’t miss it then, but looking back, I would have benefitted from a more rigorous curriculum. Most of what I learned came through drawing on my own and through a friend whose father was a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU). She took me to an art supply store; I had no idea there were so many possibilities!
I was able to enter the University of Virginia (UVA) in the fall of 1971 with many Advanced Placement credits, which meant I had many more course options than most first-year students. At first, I wanted to major in everything (except math or classes that involved math). Two professors stand out as major influences on my future: Professor Robert Barbee, who taught life drawing, painting, and advanced art seminars; and Dr. Walter Sablinsky, who taught Russian history and was one of three professors who taught a special seminar in historiography.
Mr. Barbee emphasized traditional drawing skills. He also made clear the importance of understanding one’s materials. The differences between hard and soft pencils and kneaded rubber erasers were a revelation for me. The first class I had with him was life drawing. I loved it and took a class with him every semester from then on. Not only was he a stellar teacher in the classroom, but he also assigned literary readings, which we would discuss at evening soirées at his house. He built an art community for his students in which ideas were as important as skill-building. The draftsmanship skills acquired in his classes led to my first job as a graphic illustrator.
I planned to double major in history and art, but I was invited to be a part of a two-year special scholar seminar in the history department beginning in my third year. There were 10 students and three professors in a rigorous program of study. Even though this added to my course load, I still hoped to double major, but then the university added to the requirements for art majors, and I couldn’t fit the extra classes into the schedule. I ended up lacking one class for the second major. I did get some grounding in art history through the history seminar by doing my major history papers on August Rodin and the Ballets Russes.
After graduating from college in 1975, I had no idea what I wanted to do. My “job” for so many years had been to “do well in school.” I had done that, but what next? I always thought I’d go to graduate school, but I couldn’t choose among so many areas of study: History? Library Science? World Literature? Art?
I found a job at Waldenbooks and really liked selling books. I made water-color signs for all the tables in the children’s book section (for which I received an unexpected bonus) and gained design experience by doing window displays. Eventually promoted to store manager, I also developed skills in management, budgeting, ordering, and staff development, for which I was grateful in my later museum career.
I continued to make drawings and paintings during this time and in 1980 decided to try to finish my art major at VCU. I thought I would be able to pick up a class or two to complete the requirement, but VCU would not accept a single art credit from UVA. I was invited into a special program in which participants completed the two-semester Foundation program for potential art majors in one summer. It was very challenging; I weighed about 80 pounds by the end of the summer. I learned a lot—including (finally!) color theory. I took a few more courses as a part-time student the next year, but I soon realized how much debt I would accrue if I finished the degree. Although I greatly enjoyed the art history classes I took with Sue Ann (Sam) Messmer and Denis Halloran (both inspiring professors), I ultimately decided that visual arts instruction at VCU was not a good fit for me as I had little interest in working abstractly (which seemed de rigueur at the time). I was already earning money through freelance illustration work, so I decided not to pursue a second undergraduate degree.
Later, while working at Christie’s Café and Bakery (1986-1990) on Cary Street, I provided artwork for menu covers, t-shirts, and a series of rather outrageous ads. It was this portfolio of work that led to a job in the graphics production department at the Science Museum of Virginia (SMV) in 1990. Ironically, I only applied for the job (for which I wasn’t really qualified) to practice presenting my portfolio in a professional setting. I was astounded when I was offered the job. They explained that they needed someone with actual drawing skills (which I had) and promised to teach me the missing skills (using a stat camera, doing paste-ups, cutting rubylith for screen-printing, etc.)
In those years, I learned a great deal from Frank Heller, the lead artist in the exhibition production department. An accomplished artist in many media, he was both kind and thoughtful. He often looked at my assignments, and without any hint that he was providing much needed advice, he would say, “I remember how I did that one time. . .” He would tell me exactly how best to proceed without ever making me feel inadequate.
Several of the early assignments I was given involved illustrating teacher manuals. Some of them needed some editing help, especially with subject/verb agreement and punctuation use. I was soon “adopted” by the Education department and eventually became their science editor and illustrator. (I first encountered actual computers in this job and had a steep learning curve, especially in keying in text.)
One of the aspects of working at a science museum that had a big impact on my future career was the emphasis on a constructivist approach to learning. I learned through experimentation, reflection, and discussion. (It took art museums about 15 more years to move toward this approach.) Along the way, I kept discovering fascinating connections among the disciplines of science, math, art, visual perception, history, and literature. I began to have many ideas about how teachers could present science and art in inter-disciplinary ways. One can write about science, draw representations of ideas and observations, and even describe the physical world through math and diagrams. It’s even possible to write science poetry—and dance the science standards of learning.
I helped make science-dancing a reality in partnership with the Richmond Ballet’s Minds In Motion program for fourth grade classes. Each year, Minds In Motion leaders choose a theme and develop a dance program built around 4th grade SOLs. In one of the years when they partnered with SMV, we introduced each dance with a poem about science. (I thought I would find many in the common domain, but I ended up having to write all but one, which led to several future workshops.)
The various projects and programs I worked on at the SMV gave me experience in many areas—and included a lot of problem-solving. I painted wall murals for Wonderplace and made soft sculptures (stuffed whales and cloth globes that showed their migration routes). I illustrated, edited, and designed an SMV Physics SOL guide in partnership with the DOE and provided illustrations for numerous exhibitions, fliers, and newsletters. I also developed an educator’s guide to light and vision, which gave me ideas and knowledge that I used for later STEAM workshops.
In 1996 in a pilot program, SMV’s Education Department began to offer AT&T Institutes, week-long, intensive courses in hands-on science for elementary level classroom teachers. In addition to coordinating, illustrating, and editing the AT&T curriculum documents, I also wrote lesson plans and led sessions on interdisciplinary approaches to teaching.
This was my first opportunity to work directly with teachers. I found them to be incredibly kind, supportive, and interesting. They kept journals throughout the week—reflecting on their experiences and offering feedback. I read every word of all the journals and listened to their comments, questions, and contributions to discussions. This experience inspired my decision to find a career in which I could work with teachers. If I have given back to the teaching community, it comes from these kinds of interchanges, sharing knowledge and discovering ways of understanding together.
My last position at the Science Museum was Director of Multimedia Services. I oversaw television commercial production, the AV team, Planetarium shows, the Carpenter Science Theatre Company (as associate producer and dramaturge). This job included creating various installations (window and cabinet displays) to support productions. I also made quite a few props for the plays, which again added to my artmaking and construction background. Every experience at the Science Museum (and in other jobs) gave me skills and attitudes that proved essential to my career at VMFA.
3. Your teaching career. What positions have you held, and what did you learn from them? How has where you started changed from where you are now? Have you been involved with art education outside of teaching, such as VAEA or NAEA?
In 2004, I accepted a position at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. At first, I worked in Statewide Outreach, but within a year or two, I became the Teacher Programs Educator—and found the perfect job! The first years were spent learning museum protocols; exploring and appreciating the museum’s collection; and learning from colleagues, classroom teachers, art supervisors /curriculum specialists, and other museum educators. As I planned the first few years of workshops and conference sessions, I emphasized making connections among disciplines and encouraging holistic thinking, rather than considering only a single, siloed subject.
My practice was also enriched by joining and working with educational and cultural organizations. While at SMV, I was a member of VAST (Virginia Association of Science Teachers). I served on the board of the Virginia Art Education Association Board and have been a member of VAEA and NAEA for 16 years. I was also a member of VATE (Virginia Association of Teachers of English), FLAVA (Foreign Language Association of Virginia), the VCSS (Virginia Council for the Social Studies), NCSS (National Council for the Social Studies), VAM (Virginia Association of Museums), and AAM (American Alliance of Museums). I also served as VMFA’s FRAME (French American Museum Exchange) educator, which gave me opportunities to learn about art education in France, Canada, and in many major museums across the United States. Through these experiences, I learned to appreciate best practices designed to support and connect diverse disciplines, from English and history to math and science. I also learned a great deal about pedagogy by serving on SOL revision committees for both Visual Arts and Social Studies.
4. Over the course of your career, what memories or experiences stand out in your mind?
Co-presenting the workshop Jasper Johns and Edvard Munch: Reading Between the Lines with Jen Stackpole! She made an ingenious folding map that echoed the layout of the galleries. The exhibition seamlessly integrated art, literature and music connections, and historical context. We all made scratchboard “surrogate self-portraits,” inspired by John’s Savarin Coffee can. Jen’s self-portrait looked somewhat like a Swiss army knife, but the tools that unfolded included a paintbrush, pencil, key, pliers and other art tools.
STEAM workshops, especially one that included Mike Gettings, Janine Russo, and Tarnishia Evans. Participants investigated light and color, perspective—and patterns. We discussed the evolution of mathematics as a language, and they were asked to create a way to represent a pattern in a new “language.” They danced the pattern!
I also enjoyed getting to know teachers throughout Virginia through VMFA Summer Institutes at VMFA in Richmond, William King Museum of Art in Abingdon, Rawls Museum Arts in Courtland, Staunton Augusta Art Center, and through workshop sessions for the Lynchburg Academy of Fine Arts, the Orange County Art Center, and in various other locations around the state.
As I look back on the last 18 years, it’s hard to limit the cherished memories to just a few examples—even if I only include visual art teachers! I greatly valued learning from and presenting workshops and tours with Sara Wilson-McKay, Pam Taylor, Pat Franklin, and Cindy McNamara. Stand-out memories also include Vicki Kolar’s Strega Nona marshmallow puppet, Sandy Darden’s whimsical drawings (and 3-D dragon), making boxes with Ginna Cullen, 21 amazing interns, and so many, many more.
5. Looking back on your career, what do you consider to have been your goals and accomplishments as an art educator, as an advocate for art education, and as an artist? What changes and contributions have you made to art education, either with individuals or to the larger picture? How did you do it? How have you changed?
I’m not sure that I really thought about goals as I began working in art education. Of course, I had specific goals as outlined by the job description, but those related mostly to statistics, attendance numbers, and formal evaluations. As I look back, however, I realize that I have always wanted to help people find meaning and fulfillment (as I have) through the creative experiences provided by art, literature, language, history, science—and even math (which never came easily to me). I also strongly advocated for the inclusion of contributions from many cultures and times in all curricula, a practice that I believe can broaden our perspectives and strengthen our capacity for compassion.
In addition, I tried to promote the belief that success should be measured by our appreciation of the wonders of the world and the energy we give to solving our shared challenges—rather than by titles, money, or status. (This belief underscores my oft-repeated opinion that teachers are the best people on the planet!)
When I retired in September 2022, I had delivered 1091 teacher programs on a wide variety of topics and had shared learning and discovery experiences with 34,417 teachers and students. (VMFA loves numbers, so I had to keep extensive records.)
I hope that through these programs I have furthered the goals outlined above. I am encouraged to believe that I did make a difference by the positive feedback I have received through conversations, emails, and evaluations over the years.
My final aspiration is related to artmaking. Over the course of my career, I have had opportunities to create many drawings, paintings, sculptures, diagrams, and constructions, but almost all were made for a job, a commission, or as a workshop sample. Going forward, I want to create visual art works and writing projects for personal discovery and illumination. I also hope to continue to remember what it was like to be 7 years old—and I want to remain connected with the teaching community!