The Gift

by Heather Wagner

I never had an art lesson growing up. In fact, I took my first art class as a Journalism School sophomore at the University of Missouri. I didn't have any desire to take the class except for the fact my advisor said I could probably get an "easy A" and since my grades were crashing with my pathetic attempt to rise above a D- in Russian Civilization 102, I figured it was a good idea. So on a chilly October morning I chugged over to class in the "artsy kid" building, opened my giant pad of newsprint, grabbed an HB sketch pencil and prepared for the overwhelming task at hand; tin cans stacked in a pyramid, in the dark, with a bright light shining on their left side, casting ridiculously dramatic shadows and highlights.  

I really had no idea where to begin. Do I draw the shadows first or the shape? Maybe I draw the whole thing at once. I tried, and I have to say I truly believed it was awful. However, my teacher, Mrs. Jean Forrester, disagreed. She helped me break down the composition and focused on my strengths. She complimented me saying I had a good eye and great vision, She casually told me I could really have a nice art career. Then she told me something incredible, something that actually changed my life. She told me I had a gift. Shocked, yet completely honored, I really didn't know what to think.  Nobody had ever told me I had a gift about anything. I knew I was a good writer and a decent basketball player, but a gift? These were new words to me. Yet, here this woman just said how excited she was that I could see highlights and shadows so easily, and that most people spent hours trying to capture the kind of effect I simply did in 30 minutes. This was a gift? I was intrigued.  

Unsure about how seeing reflections on a tin can could be some kind of gift from the universe, I casually continued this class, with a bit of hesitancy, eventually moving into a more challenging level, again taught by Mrs. Forrester. This time she worked with me closer, teaching me about negative spaces, cross-hatching and shading, working on the human form. She continued to give me positive encouragement and constructive analysis of my drawings. Her enthusiasm was contagious and I couldn't wait to be in her class day after day. She taught me many lessons in art, but the most important lesson she taught me was the courage to believe in myself. 

Eventually, I felt so confident in my abilities that I made the decision to transfer from Missouri to Iowa State University College of Design. I immersed myself in printmaking, calligraphy, bookmaking, painting and sculpture. My grade point soared and I changed my major to a visual studies program, guiding the way for me to attain my Bachelor's of Fine Arts two years later. 

Just hearing positive praise from a teacher made my world open to amazing possibilities. I continued in art my entire life working as an art director in Houston, a graphic designer in Kansas and now as a teacher, painter and Director for the Music and Arts Studios at the Eastern Iowa Arts Academy in Iowa. I still think of Mrs. Forrester every single time I work one-on-one with a student. I know how fragile a student can be and I know that what I say may mean all the difference in their life story. Conscious of this, I try to bring in the very best local artists to work with our students at the Arts Academy, geared to feed their self-esteem and confidence while giving them a quality education. My goal is for our staff to encourage every single child and adult to embrace the world around them and become the very best artist they can be. 

The funny thing about Mrs. Forrester is that while she may have told me I had a gift, in reality, she was my actual gift. I can't imagine the direction my life would have gone without her. I truly believe that every teacher we have at the Eastern Iowa Arts Academy is a gift to their students, changing lives for the better every day. Being great at art isn't always something a person is born with. Sometimes the art seed simply has to be nurtured, fed and sifted by a teacher who sees the forest for the trees.  

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