Monthly Mentor

Natalie C. Jones (February)
Each month, a different member is the guest writer for the NAEA Monthly Mentor Blog. Natalie C. Jones is an artist, small business owner, and the director of education at the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture. She has 10 years of experience working as an art teacher and teaching artist throughout the east coast and the Midwest. Click "GO" to read her full bio.

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July 27, 2020

Art, Entrepreneurship, & Race: A Conversation with Tim Samuel & Dwayne Walker

I first met Dwayne and Tim 2 years ago. We were both touring the Atlanta campus of SCAD (Savannah College of Art & Design). I was looking for talented artists who might want to partner with The Mount Vernon School—Dwayne and Tim were looking for talented artists who wanted to create online content for their teaching platform Sparketh. Their entrepreneurial spirit and inspirational thoughts about the future of art education were instantly magnetic and since then, I have enjoyed witnessing the evolution of their company. I sat down with Dwayne and Tim (virtually) to ask them about their experience as entrepreneurs, men of color, and what they’ve learned about teaching art online.

Walker  Dwayne Walker
                 Co-founder of Sparketh, online art platform                 

SamuelTim Samuel
Co-founder of Sparketh, online art platform

 

Matt: Good morning! Thank you so much for taking time to be here. Since this is a blog for art teachers, I wanted to start off asking, are there any stories/memories of art/art educators from your childhood that stand out for you?

Dwayne: I switched schools every year growing up. I was always in search of a really good art program. My 9th grade art teacher had an abundance of resources, but she lacked the personality and understanding of student talent—she showed favoritism. So when I switched to another school sophomore year, I met Miss Kettle who believed in her students heavily. Even though she had limited resources, she encouraged me and that was the year I started winning art competitions including the Governor's Honors Program. Then, my junior year, Miss Neil changed my life. She went the extra mile to show me how art related to the real world. For example, when I told her I wanted to start an ad agency she immediately organized a class tour to BBDO Atlanta.

Tim: I had an art teacher in 11th grade who was very passionate about teaching us but we would always run out of time because we had to move on to the next standard. We had so many unfinished projects/pieces of art. I remember her looking very heartbroken at the end of the year because there were so many unfinished pieces. Many art teachers have the passion, but lack the resources [time, supply budget].

Matt: Super powerful, thank you for sharing those stories. It’s amazing the things that stick with us years later - I want to shift to entrepreneurship for a few minutes. I’ve noticed that websites like Etsy, Skillshare, YouTube, and Kickstarter have made being an artist/entrepreneur not only possible, but quite accessible. Tell me a little about what you think it takes to be entrepreneurs.

Dwayne: Passion first. During trying/tough times you need to build around your passion so you will stick to it. [Tim and I] were passionate about business in general. We had so many ideas—too many ideas. We started a t-shirt line, built an app, started an online art gifting business—(which was heartbreaking because one week after launching, we had zero sales). So we sat down and had a conversation—we decided that whatever business we started next, we had to make sure it would work, it has to be something we believed in. It had to be something we could do without relying on manufacturers, app developers, etc. Often, with new business ideas, we would want to keep going but other people [we were collaborating with] would back out. So, with Sparketh we did everything. We did the videos. We figured out how to do the website. We worked for the business by ourselves until we had the money to pay people. We taught ourselves from scratch—YouTube/Skillshare would have made our lives 100x easier. [In fact,] that’s part of what made us want to build a website to make it easier for students to learn how to paint. In solving a problem that we had, we solved a need that others had.

Learning is our other passion. We want to use creative learning to make the next generation the most creative generation. [Also, being an entrepreneur means] sticking through tough times, so you also need a support system. I needed Tim because we’re able to pull each other up when we are down instead of feeling alone. 

Matt: What would you tell teachers who might be skeptical of using a platform like Sparketh vs face-to-face/traditional instruction?

Dwayne:  Face to face learning will always be here—online instruction isn’t here to replace, it’s here to supplement. There is an inherent fear of the unknown when it comes to new tools. Teachers can have confidence [in Sparketh] because it is 1-on-1 with the student. We have proven since 2015 that it works. Also, Sparketh needs teachers to thrive. Having the platform allows teachers to focus heavily on their strengths. It allows teachers to be specialists, not generalists. Giving teachers a digital resource for demonstration and skill building that students can use to challenge themselves at their own pace allows a teacher to be a better talent scout and notice the talents of all students [not just favorites and problem students.] We realized that the majority of time in art class was focused on concept and not process. Home learning requires less setup and teardown [because students can leave their home art studio space set up.] Sparketh allows you to focus on assigning, collecting, critiquing, not creating content. Also, the platform lasts beyond the teacher — teachers can’t go to college with them. Going into this strange year that might have us in a variety of teaching formats, how could teachers balance self-paced instruction (online content) with group instruction (digitally or in-person)?

Matt: Wow, there is so much in there that I needed to hear as a teacher. Thank you! I want to take some time to talk about race. Each teacher is doing their own work right now to understand race, equity, identity, privilege, and social justice. As artists, leaders, and men of color, what do you wish more people knew and what should art teachers know about exploring race with students in the art studio?

Dwayne: Growing up, art wasn’t just how I expressed myself, it’s how I understood myself, it was my way of navigating the landscape of my emotions as they related to my sense of self. When lesson planning, teachers should remember that race isn’t a single concept to tackle—it is one string in a web of identity. Age, gender, sexuality, socio-economic status all go into one’s understanding of identity/self.

Tim: More self-awareness will lead to more self love so if teachers create an environment where the ideas can be shared freely and accepted empathetically then the self-love will lead to group love. Also, accepting other people’s ideas, the same we do in critique, will lead to acceptance. The beauty to art is seeing someone else’s perspective—we are at a time when we have a heightened need to see other people’s perspectives. Everyone is feeling right now, but everyone might not know how to express it.

Matt: What would you say to teachers who are afraid to engage in these types of conversations for fear of accidentally saying something wrong or offensive?

Dwayne: The potential outcome should outweigh the fear. The potential to reconcile differences, express themselves, work through their identity...that should outweigh the fear of saying the wrong thing. As long as the intentions are pure, that will shine through.

Tim: A lot of art and history was cultural & traditional. Just by allowing students to express themselves, you might just be giving them that spark of motivation to continue—a lot of kids have an interest [in social justice] but they don’t know what to do. [A student of color might be like] “I have 10 years of crushing systemic racism that I want to let out through this mural on this wall.” Teachers should respect that right now there is no right and there is no wrong [when it comes to student expression/art].

Matt: Thank you both. Finally, do you have a message for art teachers going into possibly the most trying and tumultuous year of their career?

Dwayne: I have so much respect for teachers—their job requires a huge level of sacrifice. They often use their own salary to purchase resources for the classroom, and they have to put aside their own emotions to take on the weight of the emotions of their students. Hopefully going into this year, teachers have a renewed sense of purpose. As a teacher, I’m now here to improve, motivate, enhance people holistically on an individual level.

Tim: Art is going to be one of the most powerful subjects. Think about the art that will be made for decades because of what we experienced this year. Teachers are crafting those artists now.

  

Many thanks to Dwayne & Tim for sharing their wisdom and insight. As entrepreneurs, men of color, artists, and lifelong learners, their ideas really made me think about my own practice.

  • When have my actions been interpreted as favoritism without my realizing it?

  • What passions/aptitudes could I be activating/cultivating in my students by creating specific opportunities?

  • How can I leverage digital tools/platforms so I can be a better talent scout, give better feedback, and personalize students’ experiences?

  • Do I realize that the possibilities for what my students could express/explore through art is more important than my fear of talking about race, politics, social justice, or any other topic that might create tension or controversy?

  • Am I providing the outlet for my students to unpack/release their emotions and cultivate self-love by exploring their intersectional identities?


These aren’t questions I can answer today—but I will keep asking. I will keep stretching myself to do better each day, and even though I won’t always get it right, this year, more than ever, the potential outweighs my fear.

-MN

Comments

Omar

This is an amazing article with a lot of insight. These guys have a great thing going and will be extremely successful with this outlook on life and commitment to their craft.

.

Using online art education as a means for establishing equity and inclusion in schools is extremely innovative. This is particularly powerful during a global pandemic when schools have had to dramatically pivot from traditional forms of teaching. Great job!

Anisha

Great interview! Always insightful to learn how entrepreneurs transform their passion into viable business opportunities. Also, knowing some of the perceived obstacles students don’t always voice is a great starting point at transforming & fostering inclusivity in the instruction of students.

Nazli

Interview

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