Virginia (Ginna) Cullen
The following interview was conducted on April 11, 2018 in Richmond, VA., by Art Education doctoral candidate Vivian Medina-Messner. This interview is part of the Virginia Art Education Association Distinguished Fellow’s and Legacies Project.
Ginna Cullen is a retired art teacher who worked in the field of art education for 50 years. She was named by the Virginia Art Education Association the 2016–17 Art Educator of the Year.
Vivian Medina-Messner (V. M-M): Thank you so much Ms. Cullen for taking the time to do this interview. Please tell me a little about yourself. Tell me about some of the early influences as a child and early experiences with art?
Ginna Cullen (G. C.): I was born in Fredericksburg, Va. and my father had an aunt who was a painter. I can remember as a child going to her studio. She had paintings lined up, like you would see like some of the French photographs, from the floor to ceiling on the wall. I just thought that it was the most magical thing to look at all those paintings. When I was growing up, one of my closest friend’s mother was an artist and I used to go watch her paint. That was really important to me. I’ll level with you, I was an awkward child through school. Art was something that I could do that nobody else could do. So, it gave me something to do, soI could fit in.
V. M-M.: How did you get into art education?
G. C.: It was interesting. Back in the day, I was not into art education. I was actually a math major for two years. Then I realized that I had to take physics. All of a sudden, the world was gray. So, I thought, there is no way on this earth that I want to take physics, even though, I had finished calculus at the time. I had always done art and I had taken a couple of art classes my freshman year, so I thought I’ll just switch over to art. I started taking the complete art major in two years which was a nightmare, but I did it. Back in those days, you didn’t go into art education; it was not a major. I graduated in 1967. I was at Mary Washington College (now University). I had a major in studio art. Then you took more classes that you needed to get certified. You ended up with a major in studio art and a minor in art history. You got certified and you did student teaching. Oddly enough, teaching was the job that I was going to do, until I got a real job [says Cullen smiling]. That was 50 years ago and I’m still teaching.
V. M-M.: Tell me about some of the activities you did in art studio?
G. C.: Well, I learned to draw and paint and I worked in sculpture. Basically, those were the three areas. I had a fabulous painting instructor, whose name was Julian Binford. He lived in Powhatan and he worked with the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) painters during the Depression. He did a lot of the murals that you see on buildings. When you are in college, you are pretty shallow and so you don’t realize what you have until later [she says smiling]. Quite frankly, I didn’t realize how fabulous he really was until much, much later. He was a wonderful painter. And most of my [college] credits were in painting.
V. M-M.: What type of painting?
Ginna Cullen: Oil. And I did a lot of mix media later. Just to let you know how old I am, acrylics had just come out. The studio had a set of acrylics. Markers were actually filled with this awful ink that was killing everybody. [Art] supplies have come a long way. When you majored in studio art, you pretty much didn’t know anybody else (outside the studio) because you were in class all day. Everything has changed a whole lot since then. I felt like I was really prepared when I went out to teach because I knew my subjects. So that made a big difference.
V. M-M.: How did you go into your teaching career?
G. C.: When I did my student teaching, I had two pretty fabulous teachers to work with. Teachers had some really crazy situations at the time.
V. M-M.: Like what?
G. C.: Well, like [teaching art] in a basement, in a library. Certainly, it was not in an art room. An art teacher had to teach anywhere she could teach. So, it really helped me. Some of her students would teach in three schools in a week and then have an art show. So, it really prepared me. I got a job in Manassas at a high school and middle school. My planning time was the time was driving across the town, which was about six miles from the high school to the middle school. I had to move during the day.
V. M-M.: What year was this?
Ginna Cullen: 1967. It was actually fifty years ago. This year, I went back to the school where I first taught. It was a fabulous time because the schools had just been integrated and consequently they had merge the faculty at the middle school where I was teaching. What was wonderful about it is that everybody was working together to make it work. I was a little white girl from the south. I could ask stupid questions and I wasn’t considered racist. You could really go to the table and talk so that you could fix the problem. I had a faculty meeting and everybody was mixed. I noticed toward the end of my career that had changed--black teachers sat at one table and white teachers were at another table. I’ve noticed that things got polarized over time. Fifty years ago, Martin Luther King Jr. got shot and there was a lot of going on in the world. While I was in college, the world kind of flipped because we were in a safe, little cocoon, but when we graduated, there were riots about the Vietnam war, Flower Children, drugs, and all that business, It was sort of a slam in the face because we had been so protected.
V. M-M.: Can you talk about the daily atmosphere in the classroom when dealing with these historical moments as an art teacher?
G. C.: My students were adolescents, so they were going through what all adolescents go through. I remember I had a beautiful black student in middle school and I wanted to paint her. I asked her, “Do you mind if I paint you?” She said, “You can paint me anyway you want, just don’t paint me white.” And I said, “Well, if you were white, I wouldn’t want to paint you.” I just dealt with those kinds of things, just right out. Sometimes we would talk about things. Kids don’t pay that much attention to things when they are around that age. They do pick up on some of the anger, like now when I work in the classroom. You can kind of neutralize that with the art when you get to work. Specially, when you get into the work and they forget about it. Of course, I was not in the inner city, so it was different.
V. M-M.: What do you mean when you say that kids pick up on the anger?
G. C.: Well, I just sense that they hear a lot of negative feelings on TV. I think that our world is a lot angrier now but the anger back in the ‘60s was more focused. I think that there’s a different atmosphere now. I also think that now teachers are required to do so much more to raise these children.
V. M-M.: Can you talk about some job positions you’ve had and your roles as an art educator and what have you learned?
G. C.: Well, I’ve taught in 8 different schools. I had all the elementary schools in Louisa County. Honestly, it was one of the best learning experiences that I’ve ever had.
V. M-M.: Why is that?
G. C.: Well, I had to learn to deal with all the school principals and I had to learn with many teachers. I had to look at those youngsters I was going to have in my class and how to reasonably expect them to work in that period of time. I had to think about what I wanted them to go away with from the art class during the entire whole year. It really gave me a focus to learn to plan. I was, of course, pregnant at the time, too, so that was interesting. They gave me $300 to teach all these kids. I learned to know the secretaries very well. I taught middle school for many years. I think that the best teachers ought to be in middle school. If you want to really have a strong high school program, you really need to hook them in middle school and give them the tools to empower them to know that this is something that they can learn from and do.
V. M-M.: What tips would you give future art educators who are planning to go into the classroom?
G. C.: I think that they should quit thinking about the individual lessons and start thinking about the big picture. If you do make-and-take, or one shot lessons, I don’t think the kids learn anything. You have to give students the tools first. In other words, if you want them to do some drawing, you have to teach them to draw. You have to plan for the entire year. What is it that you want them to have learned by the end of the year. Once you figure that out, then you have to figure out how are you going to get there. My thinking is done in units (of instruction), rather than in (individual) lesson plans. Even if the lesson plan fails, the units ought to work. What do you want them to learn? I used to think about it. If they never took another art lesson their whole life, what are some things that they should learn. Each place where you teach is different. Some [students] come with a lot of knowledge; some come with not much knowledge. What works for one place, might not work for another.
V. M-M.: How was that transition going from art educator to the Central Virginia coordinator for the M.I.S. in Interdisciplinary Art Program with the VCU Office of Continuing and Professional Education?
G. C.: I retired. In getting my master’s degree, my advisor and mentor, Michael Drought, became a really good friend. I’ve kept in touch with him over the years. I remember emailing him, saying I think that I’m going to retire. I had done 30 years, so he got me an interview in the Art Education Department at VCU. He got me an interview with Charles Bleick, who was the chairman of the department at the time. I taught Practicum for seven years in Art Education. I really liked teaching that class. It was a great time. Michael Drought is responsible for my connection with VCU. I taught in the M.I.S. (Masters of Interdisciplinary Studies) program for about 17 years. It was a fabulous program. It was designed to give art studio classes to art teachers who were getting a master’s degree. I taught in Norfolk, Fairfax County, Loudon County, Louisa County, and in Richmond.
V. M-M.: Can you also describe what you do with book art?
G. C.: I taught book art in the M.I.S. program. It involves taking the concept of a book and reinventing it sculpturally as a piece of art book. It is not an altered book. Basically, what can you do with the concept of “book” to make it a piece of art.
V. M-M.: Please tell me about your current role and how are you working as an art educator with the VCU Office of Continuing and Professional Education (OCPE)?
G. C.: The legislature decided that teachers did not need to get college credit [classes] to receive recertification. I’m teaching the same credit class that I had taught in the M.I.S. program but I’m teaching it as a non-credit class for recertification. The students get the points for professional development. It is called Book Art.
V.M-M.: So, it is open to the public?
G. C.: Anybody could take that course.
V. M-M.: It’s not possible to summarize 50 years of teaching experience in one interview, but can you talk about some of your career highlights.
G. C.: I’m grateful that I had this opportunity to teach in the M.I.S. program because I was able to be part of something that built a community of art educators across many school districts. There are people who had not known each other had they not been part of the M.I.S. program. The current president of the VAEA is a graduate, and the former president of the NAEA is a graduate. Many of the board members of the VAEA are graduates of the program. I can name five art supervisors who are graduates of the M.I.S. program, so I feel like being a part of that was a great gift to me and to the teachers. Whatever little influence I may have had with that I’m proud of. I was part of the planning group that started the Louisa County Arts Festival.
V. M-M.: Tell me about how you collaborated with other art educators to start that festival?
G. C.: This has been going on for thirty years. At the time we had a lot of new art teachers. A lot of the teachers wanted to do a classic art show opening. This is a rural county. I knew that would really nice, and we could do it at a small level, but it wouldn’t pull in the whole county. I talked them into doing something different. The county still hires me to work with the festival. They develop a concept for each festival. One year they did native American art; another year it was Asian art. This year they are doing nature art. They create an environment in the gym and hang up artwork from all schools. However, the teacher’s name doesn’t go on the art. They color code the name tags. My thinking is that you mix up all the work. They [parents] need to look at all the work. Part of it is trying to work with everybody and trying to get everybody on the same page. You can do this in a small county. You create a community. I think that’s the same thing that you do in a classroom. You create a community of people who are focused on something in particular. And that’s still kind of what I’m still doing.
V. M-M.: What about dealing with the budget constraints and budget cuts as an art teacher?
G. C.: Well, one of the projects that I would give my practicum students at VCU was to go out and see what they could get free. My theory has always been that using you own money for school supplies should be the last resort. I lead my program in the last five years and I didn’t have to buy paper, but that means that you have to care enough that you have to go out searching for the resources you need. At the time, print shops would just have overload. If you write them a thank you note, you’ll be surprise how much free stuff you can get. What you do, is you say to your principal, “This is what I’m doing to fund my program. Now, what are you going to do?” They always think that they don’t have to give you a lot of money. I always tell them, “You have a fine school here. I just can’t imagine you would have a program here that you wouldn’t support.” It works a lot. You can’t just say. “Gimme, gimme.” You have to be part of that process. Some schools provide more than others. Last summer, I taught a class in West Virginia for the Department of Education and it was pitiful what they have there. We’re talking $100 to run a program a year. I always tell my student teachers, “Do not ever lay out your own money for your program because that takes the school system off the hook. I don’t think that it should be off the hook ever.” I remember once someone in Louisa County asked me when I would have a bake sale and I said, “When pigs fly [said Cullen laughing]. It is hard to be in a profession when you have to justify why you are there at least once a week. That has not changed in 50 years, just so you know. I think that our culture doesn’t value art.
V. M-M.: How do you think that we should advocate for the profession?
G. C.: I had a superintendent who called me up one day and told me that the school board was planning to get rid of the elementary school art program, and that I needed to talk to the school board that night. I said, “Wonderful!” This gets to advocacy. I told the school board, “Here you are in this room. I want you to mentally erase everything in the room that has nothing to do with art.” And they thought about it for a while. Then I said, “If you are having trouble, you are sitting outside with bad hair and no clothes.” When people don’t understand something, they reject it. And for years, people thought that if their kids went into art, they were either going to do drugs or be weird. I think, as advocates, we need to be part of the power system. If the principal wants an advisory board, we need to raise our hands and get on it. It worked for me. Everybody expects the art teacher to look a certain way. I didn’t do that. I felt that if the kids were going to wear their best clothes, I was going to wear my good clothes, too. I dressed fine. I felt like that’s going to change the image by making art teachers better. I had some students in my class who did not know how to draw perspective. I had students in my practicum that did not know the difference between graphite and charcoal. We have to know our subjects. We need to know our art history and we need to know how to write well.
V. M-M.: So the foundations need to be there?
G. C.: I find that if you don’t know the subject too well, you are not well armed.
V. M-M.: What about the impact of technology and the use of photography in your work?
G. C.: Art educators need to remember that they are the resident artists in their school. I don’t care how many artists they bring to their school. When kids think of an artist, they are going to think of you. Consequently, I think that you have the obligation to be an artist as well as art educator. You need to continue to practice what you preach.
V. M-M.: How do you create that spark and make students life-long learners?
G. C.: I think that they have to see you make art yourself. You are the role model. They have to know that you don’t know it all. There’s always something to learn. I know a 70-year-old teacher and she takes classes all the time. She had taken my class five times. Each time there’s something different. She is probably one of the best artists that I know. I think that being a lifelong learner, we need to be curious. We need to think, “What’s next?”
V. M-M.: How do you think that technology has influenced the field?
G. C.: I wish that I had what everybody has now. I used to have to send students to the library. The access to information is so much better now. You can show them something really quickly now. Visually, it is fabulous. There are so many things you can do with technology. My students taught me the computer. We are always learning from kids. It makes you a better teacher if they can teach you. Not thinking that you are done.
V. M-M.: Thank you for this wonderful interview.