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"Becoming a Teaching Artist" Interview with Illustrator Nancy Douglas



Joseph Dashney,

Master of Music Performance

Memorial University

November 23, 2022

JD: Can you tell me a bit about yourself and your art practice? What sort of art do you do?


ND: I am an illustrator, fine artist and teaching artist. I graduated from Sheridan College  in 1995, from their Interpretive Illustration Program. My illustrations are cut and paste collage and are always editorial. I enjoy a good narrative. My fine art is autobiographical. I like to use collage to tell a personal or family story. I like collaborating with people. I believe this love I have for collaboration and brainstorming is why I love illustration and ultimately teaching.


JD: Was teaching always something you wanted to do, from the beginning of your career? 

ND: Yes, I always wanted to teach, but I didn’t want to be a classroom teacher. I should tell you that before going to Sheridan, I was a salesperson at a number of jobs. I sold jewelry, clothing, 3M products, and my last position was working in the sales office of a transformer manufacturer. It was very similar to The Office- I was Jim Halpern. Working in sales really helped me later when I was teaching. 


JD: What got you your first teaching job? How does someone start teaching workshops or classes?


ND: My first teaching job was for the Mississauga Valley School of Art. The director of the school had been a teacher of mine at Sheridan, and I think he could see how much I enjoyed working with and helping other students. He asked me to teach a Saturday morning class. I began with a group of young Korean children. I was teaching them how to draw, but they did not speak any English, so I learned quickly to improvise and play drawing games.


JD: Where did you go from there? What started the teaching you do in elementary schools?


ND: Well surprisingly, after finding out how much I loved to teach I stopped doing it for almost ten years! After my husband and I moved to Kingston in 2001, I continued to work as an editorial illustrator, but stopped teaching to stay home with my young children. I enjoyed being a stay at home mom, and like my sales jobs, being a mother really helped my teaching. While my children were in the younger grades I became a literacy volunteer for a student in grade 2. I started to know a number of the teachers in the school. My son’s grade 2 teacher asked me to teach a drawing workshop for her class. I felt so comfortable drawing with students! 


In 2009, I taught a series called the Grow Project-an art and gardening workshop with Catherine Styles. The Grow Project was the beginning of all of my teaching, because through Catherine I could see all that went into the workshop day: provincial funding, scheduling, and finding partners who would pay for supplies and that sort of thing. The structure of these art workshops were also good for me, because groups of students would come outside to paint a mural on the garden fence. Each group of students would be given the same instruction more or less and because of that I started to really have fun being goofy and spontaneous. It was then that I realized teaching is a lot like sales. I just had to sell the student on their ability to do the task at hand, and for some I had to work on coaxing them to take a risk.


In 2009, I started teaching Saturday morning classes for small groups of children ages 7-12 from my home studio. It was great fun and a learning experience. The kids that attended were already invested in making art, and were willing to try new ways of drawing. The classes began with a warm up object drawing, then an objective for the long drawing. We focussed on shading, scale, composition, line weight etc. We always played a drawing game, and ate popcorn and juice. There was a party atmosphere. A number of the games we played during these classes were devised in collaboration with the students. I still play these games in schools today. This teaching went on for more than five years. It was quite a workshop laboratory for me.


JD: What experience have you had with funding agencies? The Ontario Arts Council? How did you go about getting funding for your school art workshops?


ND: I think it was in 2013, when the OAC earmarked seventy five thousand dollars for the Limestone District School Board for “Issue-Based Workshops”. The OAC had restrictions and guidelines for the teaching artist to adhere to, but I found that once I understood them, it wasn’t that difficult to get funding. The grant application actually makes it easier to stay focussed on the workshop objectives. The workshops had to address socio economic issues, bullying, self esteem issues etc.  Teaching artists could apply for a one day event, a three day series or a ten day series of workshops that would be delivered over a number of weeks. I learned a lot from the Board's funding coordinator/equity consultant Meri Macleod. She was a great mentor for my teaching.


I think because I am an illustrator, I approach each workshop series by thinking about the end goal, or the end exhibition. I imagine an artwork that illustrates the issue I'm addressing. What would it look like? It's very similar to illustrating a story or an advertising brief. I then devise a series of workshops that could build to that end ‘product’. For example, for students to be more positive about their environment and each other, I did a series called, “My Magical Neighbourhood”. Students worked in groups to make giant canvas maps of their neighbourhood reimagined. I invited them to imagine that neighbourhood was magical, it was whatever they wanted it to be. It was a long series of workshops.

JD: Do you prefer longer series projects?

I always apply for the longest workshop series possible. So much content from the individual workshops could go into the end exhibition. Games and treasure hunts, art techniques, and connecting art learning to curriculum.

JD: Did you find it difficult working on Issue-Based workshops? Did it seem like a lot of responsibility?


ND: I remember finding it difficult to think about the kids in my neighbourhood as having issues. I knew many of the children, but I wasn’t really aware of the problems they were having at home, or the challenges their parents were facing. The OAC was trying to address issues within homes and schools. The focus was on improving underserved schools in the Board. Not only would the students learn art and have fun but classroom teachers would also learn new ways of integrating art into the curriculum. The Limestone District School Board paid for a certain amount of supplies that would stay in the classroom as well.


JD: Do you mostly teach in elementary schools?


ND: Usually yes, grade 4-8. I do also teach at the secondary school level though, and now at university level, but predominantly elementary schools. My favourite classroom to teach is grade 4/5. I find this age group the least self conscious and the most ready for art techniques.

JD: How do you advertise to find work?


I never actually have to advertise. It’s really important to stay on top of things, answer emails, be punctual, and polite. I really like meeting people, and it’s good to have a sales background. In conversation, people will tell you what’s happening in the school, and if you do a good job, they remember you.


JD: You must have made a cold call though, is that difficult to do? Do people like getting a "cold call"?


ND: I did make some ‘cold calls’ every once in a while. Sometimes I would have an idea that would fit a new artwork and I would want to try it out at a new school. I would phone the Principal, introduce myself, and tell them about the OAC funding, my idea, and ask if they had a teacher at that grade level that might be interested in collaborating further. It usually went well! 

JD: Do you have any advice for how to reach students with these kinds of workshops?


ND: I think my advice for reaching students is to be genuinely interested in them. When I’m introducing myself, describing what I do for a living, and what we’re about to do in the workshop I am happy. I think happiness, and showing your joy for something is contagious. I enjoy connecting with students and speaking with them about their artwork. Being interested comes before showing interest. So, that I would say is the important thing, being genuine, and being in the moment. 


JD: Did you ever have serious interactions with students?


ND: Issue based workshops connected to artmaking can be a very powerful vehicle for positive change. There have been a number of times in a classroom setting where I spoke to a student who was dealing with some very big issues. During artmaking, students will confide in you. Listening and assisting is so important. In one class, a student who was having identity issues was being bullied. They had questions about drawing the self portrait we were making in class. We had a lovely conversation and they asked if we could learn how to draw the human figure. Because it was a long series of art workshops, I was able to change the content to include skeleton drawing classes. I think it helped.

JD: What keeps you teaching?

ND: I gain so much through my interaction with students! It is quite a privilege to meet and work with young artists. Talking about their work and understanding how they perceive the world around them informs my own art practice. 

Teaching art and sharing techniques is gratifying and so much fun.

The workshops I teach at Queen's for the Faculty of Education are a great way for me to share my experience and express my teaching philosophy to future teachers. I love brainstorming new ideas to suit the focus of an individual program. Finding new ways to connect Art to Geography, Math, History, and Drama is invigorating. Sharing my methods of creating lessons that connect curriculum to artmaking is gratifying.

I can't imagine not teaching!


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