CEDARBURG — Mary Stephan’s art room at St. Francis Borgia School is a whirlwind of activity. Although technically it’s the students’ lunch period, many cram into the brightly lit and colorfully decorated room to work on projects, either because of assignment or by their own creative choice.
Two eighth grade girls are busy wrapping plastic tape around their arms as they try to create a “body cast” model, much like those already sitting outside the door. Meanwhile, two boys are working on a project in the rustic greenhouse attached to the art room, while many others are busy working on their eighth grade graduation projects, colorful glass mosaic frames.
“Dominican High School has been wonderful to give us their old scrap glass from their stained glass class,” Stephan explained about the unique grade project, taken on by her 42 eighth graders. “So now the students are doing a glass mosaic picture frame, and this frame then gets their graduation picture inside. We use it as a decoration for graduation, and then it’s a gift presented to their parents (on) graduation evening.”
In addition, students also learn how to cut glass, solder and grout to create a unique photo frame.
“I wanted to coordinate with my outfit,” student Taylor Janasik said about the colors in her mosaic picture frame. “I had blue and green in my shirt, so I wanted it to kind of go with it, and then I added different mirror pieces because I just thought it added a different color and I really liked the mirror.”
In addition to the glass donated by Dominican High School, money was raised to help with a stained glass project at St. Francis Borgia Parish, which then led to other donations and networking.
Stephan, an art teacher for the Catholic school for the past eight years, works with grades five through eight, and team-teaches with another art teacher for grades 5K through four. Wearing a pale blue smock splattered with the evidence of past art projects, she wears an easy smile as she talks about the career she clearly loves.
Stephan attended the University of Wisconsin – Stevens Point, where she majored in fine art, art education and graphic design. She taught high school in Kewaskum for 10 years, before coming to St. Francis Borgia School, with an enrollment of 410 students.
“With the upper school, we do a lot of inter-disciplinary units, so it’s real easy for art – with its creative problem solving – we combine with every class, from math or Spanish,” Stephan explained about the art department.
“One thing that I think our program is really strong at is making that connection,” Stephan said about the strength of the art department. “Of creative problem solving and visual skills; I think those are really necessary skills in every subject. I think just that special design, I think that ability to just think outside the box, that whole creative problem solving.
“If I could make one wish for our art program it would be that (students) could see themselves to incorporate at least those two skills, which are everywhere,” she added. “I think when kids see that connection, it’s not like art only happens in one room in a building, science in another, Spanish in another; I think the unique thing that our kids see is that connection of all the classes, that tie-in.”
For example, when the students studied the Renaissance, they also learned what it was like to hold Michelangelo’s brush as he painted the Sistine Chapel.
“I talked about Michelangelo and the conditions of not only the Sistine Chapel, but the conditions of painting the Sistine Chapel,” Stephan said. “So then the students in social studies had their art work and they taped it to the bottom of their desk – that three and a half feet from their art work – similar to the conditions that he worked in. We had the lights down, just with lanterns in the room.
“We had some soft music playing in the room and they did their art work in the style of Michelangelo, kind of learning the hardships of how he had to work,” she smiled, remembering the sixth grade students. “We try to incorporate (art) a lot that way.”
Other projects are art exchanges, in which they’ve partnered with grade schools in other countries to learn the similarities and differences of one another’s life.
“Students in sixth grade learned about India in social studies,” she explained, describing a partnership with an Indian Jesuit school, Good Shepherd.
“The country, the culture, the geographic conditions. In religion they learned about the difference between religions, comparing the Catholic religion and they learned a little bit about Hinduism, and they learned just a little bit about that whole lifestyle, Indian lifestyle — how that would differ and how you treat each other, respect, that sort of thing.” Sue Brandley, St. Francis Borgia co-principal for the past 33 years, described the art program as fantastic. “They have the ability to really pull out the talent the children have, and I firmly believe that you can have talent, but you need somebody to inspire you. And the thing I really like is the fact that (Stephan) takes an inter-disciplinary approach, and so does Mrs. (Mary) Moore, the teacher who (teaches) the younger children. So that the kids see the connection with science, music, social studies and literature, and I’ve always just been a proponent of that and I think it’s really important.”
Stephan said many of her project ideas come when she lets her imagination run. For example, she thinks during idle time in the car. She said she also meets regularly with the middle school teachers to discuss curriculum.
“I think it’s just that rapport back and forth, you know. ‘Hey, what are you doing in (social studies) this week, this month? What direction are you going?’ And as they talk about that, it just seems to trigger ideas between us that opens doors to doing it.”
Stephan described art as a way of doing things, rather than a talent.
“I think everybody has skills either developed or not developed yet, between creativity and problem solving and special design,” she said.
“You see the light bulb turn on, and it’s fabulous,” she said about her students. “The kids are so verbal about it, when all of a sudden that connection hits. It’s really cool to see.”