Student art gallery unifies district, showcases talent

De Soto school district facilities employee Doyle Baker and administrative receptionist Dena Wilkerson collaborate to hang the newest works of art in the district's permanent gallery of student art on Tuesday, Nov. 15. "This is the gravy of my job, the best part of the year," said Baker. "For two or three hours once a year I get to hang these great examples of talent and I love it."

De Soto school district facilities employee Doyle Baker and administrative receptionist Dena Wilkerson collaborate to hang the newest works of art in the district's permanent gallery of student art on Tuesday, Nov. 15. "This is the gravy of my job, the best part of the year," said Baker. "For two or three hours once a year I get to hang these great examples of talent and I love it." by Laura Herring

Those entering the De Soto USD 232 administrative building for the first time might think they've gone to the wrong address and instead entered an art museum. Lining the walls, and in one case even hanging from the ceiling, are more than a decade's worth of student artwork from every school in the district.

"People always love coming into this building and seeing all the great artwork," said building receptionist Dena Wilkerson. "I'm lucky I get to see it all day every day, I have the coolest office in the building."

The gallery, which started with artwork from Lexington Trails Middle School in 1999 and went district-wide in 2000, is the brainchild of LTMS art teacher Nancy Roberts.

"My high school has a similar gallery and as a student one of my pieces was selected," said Roberts. "I can still go back to Wisconsin and see my work hanging in that gallery and show my kids and I love it. I wanted to do something like that for our students here."

Once Roberts planted the seed for the gallery, it caught on quickly and made it's way through the district, she said.

"My principal at the time was very supportive of the idea and I think everyone could agree that the [administrative] building had these big, blank walls that needed something," she said.

That "something" has grown and filled the walls of the main lobby of the building. Wilkerson, who hangs the artwork each year with the help of facilities employee Doyle Baker, expects to be moving pieces down hallways soon.

"It's always kind of a puzzle, getting everything to fit year after year," Wilkerson said.

From the classroom to the wall

The pieces added to the collection each year are selected by the art teacher or teachers in every building in the district and each has his or her own method for selecting a work. Pieces from the elementary and middle schools hang until the student graduates and then the work is gifted back to him or her. Works from the high schools are always the work of seniors and they remain on permanent collection, these students also receive $100 from the Board of Education for their piece.

"I can't say how wonderful the gallery is to these students, it really shows that we value art in this district," said De Soto High School art teacher Tim Mispagel. "There comes a point when artists have to realize that their work has value and [the gallery] shows them that yes, their work is worth something."

Mispagel selects the DHS piece each year from his AP art class, which usually has five-10 students enrolled. While he does keep in mind other recognitions the students may have received in an effort to balance out scholarship funds, Mispagel says that for him the decision is "fairly spontaneous."

"There are guidelines that come into play, for example the work must be of an appropriate theme and show talent but usually something always jumps out," he said. "I tend to gravitate more towards portraits, especially self-portraits, just to add to the student presence the piece is showing."

For Roberts, at the middle school level selecting the art is more about recognizing creativity and problem-solving skills.

"Some pieces just stand out in some years but other times it's more about what the student has put into the piece and how hard he or she worked to create it," she said.

The teacher with perhaps the biggest challenge in selecting a piece of art each year is Chris Cappel at Starside Elementary.

"It was difficult when the gallery was first started to select a piece and essentially take it from the student because at the elementary level we just don't get to complete as many projects," he said. "Now it's easy to see the importance of the gallery and how awesome it is for our district but it can still be hard to ask a student to give up something he or she worked so hard on."

Cappel's students spend one hour a week in art class, making for a grand total of 36 hours of art each year.

"Our limited time makes our projects more precious but seeing those walls fill year to year sends a clear and important message: we are one district and we value art," he said.

For Cappel, the unification of the district is the best outcome of the gallery. He selects Starside's contribution each year based on how well it represents the school as a whole and not just the individual student.

"The gallery shows that we are a creative district at all levels. It shows that we are all unique and unusual and that's amazing."

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