The Hippo


Jan 19, 2020








Mary Ann Lessard and her art club at Iber Holmes Gove Middle School. Kelly Sennott photo.

Building creativity and confidence
NH Art Educator of the year on art and teaching

By Kelly Sennott

 Mary Ann Lessard’s classroom at Iber Holmes Gove Middle School in Raymond was bustling with activity one recent Tuesday afternoon — members of her after-school art club were working on oil paintings, some with brushes and palette knives, others with their fingers.

“They’re all experimenting right now. It’s much different from watercolor and acrylic painting. We wanted them to get a feel for it,” Lessard explained as she took attendance. 
A Taylor Swift song played on one student’s phone, softened by the buzz of chatter and laughter. The room had a relaxed, easygoing air, and the kids slapped paint on their canvases freely. 
It’s the kind of atmosphere Lessard, named the 2016 Art Educator of the Year by the New Hampshire Art Educators’ Association, tries to create in her classroom all the time. For many middle schoolers, the idea of expressing themselves creatively is a huge risk, and it’s not one they’re going to take unless they feel comfortable. Her goal is to get them to take that risk. 
“I think art makes kids more confident,” Lessard said. “It’s why some kids get up and go to school in the morning. … I give students a lot of choice. I think choice is really important. The more choice, the more variety, the more interesting all the pieces are, too. … When I was growing up, all the kids’ artwork looked the same. And it drove me nuts. Here, you never see two that are the same.”
That day, 13-year-old Amber Arpin was painting a horse, and Thomas Saluto was working on a landscape. Stasja Sytek, 12, was painting with her fingers, which she found was easier than using a brush. 
“I love art class. I like that I can express myself through art, and there aren’t any limits to what I can do,” Sytek said.
For Lessard, creating her award submission offered an opportunity to look back. When she first began teaching 31 years ago, she “naively” thought her goal was to turn her students into professional artists.
“I thought everybody loved art that first year. Then I realized, no — not everybody loves art! You have to learn how to adjust and make projects for all kids,” she said.
She put a lot of effort into her submission booklet, which she pulled out that afternoon. It was packed with information, including one essay on her philosophy of art in education (“STEM is all about project-based learning now, but art has always been project-based,” she said) and one on her cancer battle. 
“It’s been a struggle. But art helped me get through it. The worst part was when I was too sick to do anything,” Lessard said, flipping through the book. “With art and creating, you can escape the pressure of being sick or whatever — you can create and be at peace.”
Between the text are photos, student art images and newspaper clippings from when 170 of her kids were showcased at the Deerfield Fair. 
“I guess I did a lot more work [with the submission] than I had to. But as I was doing it, I was thinking I wanted something nice. I’m getting closer and closer to retirement, and part of me was thinking, you know, I want something I can keep, look back and reflect on. Because this has been my life, teaching,” she said.
Some of her students have gone on to become professional artists or study art, like Tiffany Nye, who had Lessard about 15 years ago and majored in art at UNH. Today Nye is a family consumer science teacher at the middle school and helps out with art club whenever she can.
Outside of school, Lessard has explored art independently; she has painted and restored local church statues and, most recently, she designed the pen and ink drawings that would be plastered on T-shirts for her son’s band. 
But that day, she was more interested in showing off her students’ work. She pulled out shoe sketches, paintings on slabs of wood and animal- and fantasy tree-themed projects. For her kids, the sky’s the limit, as far as she’s concerned.
“I think it’s about where you set your standards. I’m a believer that, if you set your standards high, kids will reach up to it,” she said. 

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