Art in the Beaverton School District

Vicky Siah

Art can be exuberant, raging, tranquil: the way we express ourselves through media belies our deepest loves, desires, and fears. In this sense, the fine arts are an escape from the monotony of everyday life, allowing us to find ourselves and examine the world as we feel it. 

Amidst a global pandemic, self-expression—art—becomes necessary for the wellbeing of students. Yet art classes are reliant on equipment, supplies, and synchronous education, all of which are components of in-person education. These requirements became obstacles to overcome in the shift to remote learning, and to preserve the normalcy of art education, visual arts teachers from the Beaverton School District worked to adapt their classes for online and hybrid models. The effort and sacrifices they made to ensure student success defined education during COVID-19 and injected positivity through turbulent times.

Vicky Siah and her favorite art teacher, Maureen Merritt. Photo credit to Ian Siah.

At Sunset, art teacher Aubrey Park assembled art kits and distributed them to students in her classes. These kits included basic and specialized art materials (such as Micron pens, colored pencils, paint, brushes, a sketchbook) for students in comprehensive distance learning (CDL). Ceramics classes districtwide provided clay and clay supplies—recognizing that students could not access traditional apparatus, teachers brainstormed household alternatives. Throughout Maureen Merritt’s ceramics sessions, Westview CDL students used fishing line and wire in lieu of clay cutters; spoons were substitutes for loop and ribbon tools. Merritt hosted daily Zoom meetings to teach students techniques, guide their work, and provide constructive feedback.

They also set traditions to bridge the divide that accompanies online learning: Mountainside High School’s Tamara Ottum made slideshows of student projects to cultivate a spirit of togetherness. “The work would be anonymous, and every student was asked to type an appreciation into the chat. We would have ‘waterfalls’ of compliments. It helped create community, celebrated work in an online format, and was by far the best part of my year,” writes Ottum. 

Outside of regular class periods, these teachers found other ways to encourage student success. Park and Ottum recorded video tutorials covering projects and technical instruction. At Westview, Merritt dedicated her after-school hours to parent-student check-ins, opened her classroom for student work time, and stayed until late afternoons firing students’ ceramic pieces. 

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Tamara Ottum, Tom Herzog, and Kristine Baggett (Executive Director of the BEF) at the Herzog-Meier Senior Art Scholarship Show. Photo credit to Ian Siah.

Such changes helped BSD’s art students explore their creativity in an unprecedented year. By the end of each quarter, they had produced artwork ranging from teapots and rattles to paintings and sculptures.

When conversing with Park, Ottum, and Merritt, their passion for fine arts is immediately obvious. “Art is about human expression and what it means to be a person,” Merritt says. “‘Who are you?’ is a difficult question to answer, but through art, we can find ourselves.” While assignments and art styles vary, self-discovery is a common theme in BSD’s high school art classes. For Merritt, art is a lens to interpret her environment—her personal work combines lithography, photography, painting, and ceramics—and giving students the freedom to explore is key. “Each piece is a reflection of the person who makes it,” she notes, “and if they love what they’re doing, you can see it in their art.”

Park’s classes also emphasize creative freedom, and she views art as “a tool that allows young people to speak up to what matters to them.” Through teaching, she seeks to magnify voices and students’ individuality.

The level of care that Beaverton art teachers put into their jobs does not go unnoticed—many students comment that their classes with Park, Ottum, and Merritt were “the best they have ever had.” These teachers leave a lasting impact on their students’ high school experiences, and for the BSD class of 2021, their kindness lives in graduates’ memories as they embark on their post-high school plans.

Every school year ends with the annual Herzog-Meier Senior Art Scholarship Show, which serves as the final milestone for the art department’s graduating BSD seniors. Here, BSD teachers work with Beaverton partners to display student art to the community, and in 2020-2021, the art show was once again held in-person. “Creativity and innovation utilized in the artistic process, and demonstrated by our Beaverton students, will continue to be valued by employers like us,” remarked Tom Herzog of Herzog-Meier Auto Center, and this year, Beaverton residents celebrated the resiliency of the BSD’s art departments. Examining Herzog-Meier’s student art gallery, families, teachers, and other community members united to appreciate a beauty that grew despite a global crisis. 

No matter what challenges the coming year brings, the Beaverton School District is very fortunate to have excellent teachers to educate the next generation of artistically-minded individuals. These teachers have done the near-impossible: they changed the trajectory of an uncertain year, bringing a beacon of light into their students’ lives.