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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Friday 07.31.20

“Tell the Whole Truth” | Unpacking Art, Race, and Disability with Keaston White

Keaston White
Voice Actor

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Keaston’s story is one of inspiration, determination, and creative joy. Keaston has always loved performing and drawing. As a child, he dreamed of becoming an on-screen actor. In particular, he had a fascination with different voices and speaking styles. Creating different characters and accents to entertain family and friends became one of his favorite pastimes. But one fateful day shattered Keaston’s dream in an instant. On September 11, 2001, what would become one of America’s darkest days, he suffered a spinal cord injury during a high school football practice that left him paralyzed. Despite this challenging setback in his life, Keaston refused to let his circumstances define him. Determined to achieve success, Keaston graduated from high school in the top of his class, earned a psychology degree at a prestigious university, graduated from law school, and passed the bar on his first attempt. These successes gave him the confidence to re-explore his artistic dreams. My interview with Keaston was one of the most poignant and powerful experiences I’ve had along my journey. I hope you’ll be as captivated by what he had to say as I was.

Matt: Hi Keason, thank you so much for making time to talk. I’d love to start out with you as an artist. Could you tell us a little about your unique journey.

Keaston: Outside of being an athlete, I’ve always been artsy - I would look at my sister’s beautiful drawings and wanted to draw like her - I drew so much that my father stopped bringing home paper because I had drawings spilling out of all my drawers. I wanted to draw realistically, I wasn’t into abstracts. After my accident, I didn’t have the type of control to be as precise as I wanted.  

Depending on how strong I’m feeling [on a given day], determines what I can do. There is no steady muscle movement to do the same kind of strokes I used to do. I’ve embraced abstract, I’ve embraced impressionist styles.

Matt: I don’t think people who don’t have experience with disabilities would understand having different strength on different days. Could you unpack that a little bit?

Picture2Keaston White

Keaston: Sure, I am a quadriplegic and considered incomplete because there are some things I can do that a complete quad couldn’t do. I am a c5/c6 - depending on which vertebrae you’re at, it unlocks certain movement - c5/c6 means I have some wrist movement and some upper body strength. I am not able to control my wrist and fingers in the same way that a fully able-bodied person would do. We [all] have specific muscles that allow us to write and move a paintbrush. I don’t have that [dexterity] so I have to rely on my entire arm & a brace to get a certain amount of control. [Still,] it’s very hard to manipulate - it’s frustrating that I can’t manipulate a brush in the same ways that other people would. While I’m glad I have embraced abstract and other styles, I don’t like that I didn’t have the choice to make [that decision] myself.

Picture3A few of Keaston’s recent paintings


Matt: You’re also a voice-over artist - tell us more about that.

Keaston: Acting was always my first love. I’ve always enjoyed doing characters. I never got to explore those things because my dad signed me up for sports but it was something that still ate at me even after my accident. It gives me a chance to get some of these crazy characters out of my head and perform in a way that I couldn’t traditionally on stage.

Matt: You mentioned “getting the crazy characters out of your head.” Is voice acting a release for you?

Keaston: I used to wonder, “Do I just want to be famous?” but I realized that acting is like breathing for me and I am not fulfilled if I don’t do it in my own way. I am thankful that even though my body isn’t what I need it to be [for stage acting], my voice can spread messages and share a different kind of art.

Matt: You mentioned voice, which I think is super important in the art studio. What would you say to an art teacher who wants to help students share their voice?

Keaston: There is so much that can be done - I would encourage teachers to help their students channel whatever energy they are feeling into their artwork. You think about poetry and paintings - all of the legends have been able to say so much that has lasted throughout time. The best thing a teacher can do is get out of the way...and support [students] when they need [support]. Art is not meant to be censored - for the most part, just let students be - educate yourself and take the time to talk about what certain paintings have meant.

Matt: I agree, now is the time for teachers to step back and learn alongside students - we have been ‘the expert’ about art and simultaneously unaware of the needs of marginalized students for too long. I hope this is a year of incredible breakthroughs and growth for our art educator community this year, myself included.

Are there any stories/memories of art/art educators from your childhood that stand out for you?

Keaston: I am the younger sibling, so when I got to school, the art teacher was already in love with my sister’s artwork and I was aware of that. At one [point, I remember] the teacher held up my work and said “this is how it needs to be done” and that was a moment of great pride for me.

When I was in high school I really wanted to paint. After my accident, [the teacher] saw when I couldn’t make strokes that were exact so she introduced me to different types of painting like impressionistic. She taught me that I can show movement, I can create something where you step back and see what it is meant to portray. She taught me that it was ok to draw outside of a certain boundary. It was very cathartic. Now I have tutorials on my YouTube Channel teaching others how I paint and I have realized that art is one of the most creative and positive ways of processing and channeling one’s pain and passion into purpose.

Picture4Check out a tutlorial of Keaston teaching how to paint here:

Matt: That’s great, I’m so glad you had a teacher who was able to see your needs and be responsive. I want to dive a little deeper into disabilities because it is something we don’t often talk about as a society. Even though 20% of Americans live with at least one disability, I have heard this group referred to as “the forgotten minority”. What are important things for teachers to know about working with students that might have physical limitations/disabilities?

Keaston: Make sure everyone feels seen. Educate yourself on the condition of the individual student. Look into information about that particular disability. Brainstorm creative ways to help integrate that student so they not only feel like they are part of the class but have opportunities to excel and find their voice. Even if art is not their passion, once they realize they might be good at it, it can really help them. In a respectful way, it’s good to challenge people with disabilities to come out of their comfort zones because we are often closed up tight emotionally. Be respectful if that’s not what they want to do.

Matt: That is something I never thought about, pushing and challenging students with disabilities to come out of their shell emotionally. Wow, thank you for that insight.  

I want to pivot toward the current social climate - right now, each teacher is doing their own work to understand race, equity, identity, privilege, and social justice. In this blog, we have been discussing what teachers can do to understand their own identity, build emotional health, and facilitate a safe environment for students to learn, heal, reconcile, and grow. As an artist, leader, and man of color, what do you wish more people knew about race and what should art teachers know about exploring race with students in the art studio?

Keaston: I just wish people were willing to tell the whole truth and be honest about it and sit in it. It has to begin there. Get out of your own perspective and put yourself in the shoes of the marginalized. Be honest. Once honesty and compassion is your foundation, everything else that needs to come will flow as it should but you have to start with an open mind. Listen. Read. Have uncomfortable conversations with other white people. Get comfortable being uncomfortable because there is a long history [to unpack]. The hardest thing to change is our education system because there’s been so many [incorrect/incomplete] texts [used in the classroom] that go back so far and so it’s very hard to upend all of the texts but it has to be done. The texts we have don’t tell the whole truth and we need to seek that out.

Matt: So true, and so powerful, we really need to think about the source material we are making available to our students, even in the art room. We need to understand both sides of each issue so we can help our students learn criticality as they form their own opinions.

This has been incredible and I am so thankful for your time. Before we finish, do you have a message for art teachers going into what is possibly the most trying and tumultuous year of their careers? 

Keaston: I just want to say [to teachers] thank you for all that you do, for shaping their minds - but, because you are shaping their minds, it is incumbent [upon you] to make sure you are seeing everyone and providing opportunities to excel. We [as people with disabilities] have something to offer and what’s so great about art teachers is that there is so much more freedom when it comes to art. So take advantage of that and be proud that you are in that space to make an impact on kids’ lives.


My conversation with Keaston made me ask so many new questions:

  • Do I have a solid understanding of the physical and mental limitations/disabilities/needs of my students, especially when we are virtual/home-learning?

  • How can I provide opportunities for disabled students to not only be included, but excel to and find their own voices?

  • What am I doing to understand the history of the marginalized, find inclusive source material/texts, and share the whole truth with my students?

  • How can art help students channel pain and passion into purpose?



Learn more about Keaston on his website and his YouTube Channel

Understand, connect with, support artists with disabilities at Disability Artists International

Check out: Disability Demands Justice - a set of resources curated by the Ford Foundation

*A Message from*

This past Sunday, July 26, marked the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)—an act that aimed to improve accessibility and ban discrimination against disabled folks.

Disability Pride Month is coming to a close, and we cannot forget that the Black experience, especially Black joy, must be inclusive of people with disabilities. Black folks with disabilities are experiencing police violence at unprecedented rates. Sandra Bland. Stephon Watts. Ezell Ford. Tanisha Anderson. When we say these names, we cannot erase their disabilities.

The ADA was necessary, but not sufficient. It was a starting point. We must go further. Disability justice is integral to racial justice. Our movements must be inclusive and accessible. Our wins must be for ALL of us.

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The 2020 Black National Convention will strive to uphold the tenets of disability justice and meet the demands of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which creates the conditions for more visibility, considerations, and respect for all people with disabilities. Register for the 2020 Black National Convention at

Wednesday 07.29.20

Love, Belonging & Children's Games | A Conversation with Mariana Depetris

Mariana Depetris
High School/University Art Instructor
Latin-American Artist


When I met Mariana 5 years ago, I was inspired by the way she used language and media to help students adopt an artist’s mindset. Having worked with students of all backgrounds and ages, Mariana brings a wealth of knowledge in bookmaking, printmaking, fashion, jewelry, painting, drawing, photography and mixed-media to all that she does. At The Mount Vernon School Mariana works primarily with students in Grades 8-12 and teaches everything from foundations courses to senior-level portfolio. A founding member of the Atlanta Printmaker’s Studio, Mariana has a deep passion and expertise in printmaking, which she weaves into foundation classes and interdisciplinary courses such as Creative Expressions, which teaches visual storytelling through various mediums. I’ve been blessed to work with Mariana as a colleague for several years, but was blown away by the things I learned during our conversation about teaching, identity, and making meaningful art.

Matt: Thank you so much for taking the time to share your stories with me. I know you’ve had so many experiences but let’s start with the memories you have of specific visual art teachers and the impression they left on you.

Mariana: I had an art teacher in preschool who was very regimented - this was in the early 70s... I [often] compared myself to another friend in the class. I was doing things expressively, while [my friend] would do things perfectly and the teacher would always praise that person. I ended up going to high school with the same friend and she ended up having a mind for business and I went into the Visual Arts.

When I was 11, we were living in Santa Fe, Argentina and my father (who is a scientist for the Argentinian National Research Council (CONICET) worked at a scientific institute that had an Art and Science foundation. For a term, he was the president of this foundation called ARCIEN. It was great because we constantly went to chamber music concerts, exhibitions...and one of the exhibitions was a printmaking exhibition and it was stunning. The prints were magical and I remember telling my mom “this is what I want to do when I grow up” - she explained how hard it was, but I said “yes, I want to - it seems magical, like alchemy”. I never looked back after that.

In high school,  - I had a teacher who helped me realize “you know what, I want to do this” - one thing that bothered me is that many kids didn’t take the art class seriously, but the teacher was really nurturing and when I left, she gifted me a really large drawing [that showed] how we were all connected.

In graduate school, Bernie Solomon was my printmaking father. He passed away shortly after I finished my masters - I just think of all the things I want to share with him still. Jessica Hines was my graduate school photography professor and we have a friendship to this day, to the point where we call each other ‘sister’ - she is family.

Picture2Reach for the Stars, wood print, photography, screen printing and encaustic on paper, 22" x 15", 2008

 Matt: Wow, that’s incredible that your Preschool Art Teacher made such an impression and you remember it to this day. Several artists I’ve talked to could point to a teacher that they felt showed favoritism at a very young age. It’s remarkable how much those verbal and non-verbal cues sink in when we are young.

I want to learn more about your teaching journey - you’ve taught in so many settings - from Summer camps to teaching high school and at the university level - what’s different? What is the same?

Mariana: When I began I was so inexperienced, I made so many mistakes. Many times when you start, you are just thrown into it. People say things like “don’t worry about it, you’ll always know more than the kids do” and I think that is so wrong!

Picture3London Bridge, Printmaking, photography and hand paper sttching, 30" x 40", 2001

I started with summer camps and community arts centers where I had really good growth for nearly 10 years (1996-2004). I got a lot of experience with teenagers and little kids. I started in New England at a camp where the parents were either on Broadway or in Hollywood. It taught me that the extremes often connect. Over the years, I have also taught kids who were affected by hurricane Katrina, and in low-income areas. Earlier, I had applied for an open call for a show proposal and was chosen to have an exhibit at Harvard’s David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies that featured my work on children’s games. During my stay there, I worked with immigrant students that were having a sense of disconnection. This happened shortly after September 11, 2001. I’ve learned that all children need love and opportunities and health and education, it doesn’t matter what background you come from, if those students are not being loved and having a sense of connection, none of that other stuff matters. At the camp in New Milford, Connecticut, I was sad to see that many of the students at bedtime were longing for their parents. Even if they had the opportunity to make all the creative stuff in the world, they just wanted quality time with their parents. At the same time, some of the students I worked with affected by Katrina had lost family members and possessions and homes. They had PTSD, but there was something still there, the ability to connect. I think that we all need love, education and health….what we’re asking for, is for everyone to begin the race of life with the same opportunities, with love.

Picture4Collage of earlier teaching experiences

Matt: Tell me more about your work in children’s games that was exhibited at Harvard…

Picture5Harvard's David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies, September 2001

 Mariana: My work in children’s games was inspired by and influenced by the way I saw their need for love. In playing traditional games, I observed that children were able to exercise power structures, to be rejected or accepted. They were able to deal with insecurities and exercise their own power if they were the winner of the game or included a friend that had been left behind. Those games looked like rehearsals for adulthood. I started researching games of different cultures, nursery rhymes and fairy tales, etc…

Picture6Hide and Seek, printmaking, photography and paper stitching, 30" x 22", 2001

Matt: You’ve talked about artists as philosophers communicating through images, tell us more about that.

Mariana: It’s not that we’re just thinking through images, it’s a teaching philosophy that we’re trying to bring into the classroom. The arts are the most unbiased version of someone. You’re not trying to present someone or something as anything else other than what you truly believe in. In that way, artists are witnesses to society and are able to denounce people/ideas by being philosophers where we take people on a journey that unveils things for them which they’re not seeing.

Matt: That’s beautiful, a completely different way to look at how the arts influence society. You also have an incredible and unique Visiting Artists Program at Mount Vernon. What process do you go through to identify artists and then schedule their time with different teachers during their visit?

Mariana: We are trying to unite art and life. So when we bring artists in, we really want to make those connections between what is being taught in all classrooms and use the arts to cross over into science and math, etc. This is the way we work in life. Approaching life from only discipline is useless, short-sighted, and it doesn’t lead anywhere. What we’re trying to do at our school is look at a problem from many different angles and go from there. When students interact with artists and they can see the artist’s thought process, they discover other methods and answers to explore their own questions.

Jerushia Graham is a good example: we brought her in to connect with a class that had been to Harlem and studied the Harlem Renaissance with Ms. Meg Brooks, which prepared them to be receptive to her history and her work.

Matt: Yes! I was a part of the trip, students not only read texts from authors like Ralph Ellison & Langston Hughes, but they were able to go to Harlem NYC, walk the same streets, visit the Apollo Theatre, listen to recordings of sermons by Bishop Desmond Tutu & Dr Martin Luther King Jr in Riverside Church where they were originally delivered. They ate a Sylvias Restaurant, attended a jazz performance with local musicians at a brownstone and learned about music at The National Jazz Museum. By the time they left, they really felt like a part of the neighborhood and the history. That teed them up really well for Jerushia to come in and create art with them.

Mariana: Yes. There is work that leads up to the artist visiting and then continues afterward and extends into other projects. Concepts morph, but knowledge and learning are still there, the spirit of that artist is still there. 

Matt: It sounds like you’re choosing artists based on their unique history/perspective/work so that they could show students a new way of thinking and help students solve problems that are emerging. This work seems to be unique to the student and the artist - you’re not just choosing artists because of their background, artistic medium, or racial identity, you’re matching artists based on what’s going on in the school and the art studio, which makes the work they do on campus feel so much more authentic and less “pre-packaged”. That’s so refreshing!

You’ve shared many stories about your journey as an artist  - emigrating from Argentina, traveling/working around the world. How did that come to be?

Mariana: I did not come here initially to stay or establish myself in the US. I came here with a scholarship from The Georgia Rotary Student Program for graduate school. I thought after two years I would go back. But, after that experience I got a scholarship in Belgium at the Frans Masereel Center in Kasterlee and later at the Valparaíso Foundation in Almería, Spain. When I returned to the States, I worked with two other professors at Georgia Southern (I was an alumna then) - we organized an international exchange exhibition between American and Argentinian printmakers. The exhibition was called Multiple Hemispheres with the idea of bringing together people with different backgrounds and views and showcase the world. With aides in Argentina and here, we toured the exhibition in 12 venues total (Argentina & the US). I learned a lot of logistics: transporting artwork internationally, insurance for artwork. It’s about connecting people and creating this larger family where you find your ‘kin’...nothing makes me prouder than when a student surpasses me. I gush like a parent.

Picture7Multiple Hemispheres’ moments, artwork by Julia Varela and Sandra Balegno, two of the participating artists

Matt: We are all navigating a crazy world and trying to figure out how express the things we’re feeling/experiencing. As an artist, what’s coming next? what is exciting for you right now?

Mariana: I’m trying to gather myself back. I’m strong, but I’m not built for continuous stress. Have you noticed that whenever you read fairy tales that there is a quest that lasts 7 years far away from home and eventually the characters return changed forever? It feels like I’ve been through that and now I’m returning home. Printmaking will always be my love but I’m rediscovering jewelry. Fashion has always been a passion too but I’m scared of it. I’m hoping to re-embrace “making art”. When I talk about “making art” I’m talking about being a philosopher with my thoughts and ideas. We regurgitate ideas all day long and we can become good at it, but creating a body of work that is meaningful takes so much of you. You have to be in tune with your most authentic self in order to do that kind of “making art” -- when you’re surviving, you don’t have the strength to allocate to making art. The times I tried, it made me very emotional, but I’m finally returning to that place where I feel safe making art.

Picture8Pull Through, wood print, photography, screen printing and encaustic on paper, 15" x 22", 2008

Matt: In some of our conversations I have heard you express this duality when it comes to identity - you have a sense of privilege as a white woman, but a sense of marginalization as Argentinian emigrant. Do you have any advice for teachers that want to be sensitive about race/gender, etc in the art studio?

Mariana: I think that, when it comes to art making, most students are very shy, especially students of color. Working with a diverse group of students requires a great deal of tact. I feel that it’s important to reach out to the personal stories of students without making assumptions. I know that I’ve made mistakes, but I’ve always tried to make a student feel safe expressing their ideas. We tend to consume more film and art from the west. I try my best to expose students to non-western works and points of view. I’ve always tried to watch cinema from different countries -- learning and reading are some of the things that will save us.

Also, just because you’re in a position of being a teacher/leader/facilitator, you don’t hold the truth. You’re having an exchange with the student and the student has as much to offer as you. The minute you think you hold the truth you think there is an absolute value and there is no absolute value because everyone will filter it through their own experience.

Speaking with Mariana reminded me that…

  • Each of us has so much lived experience to bring to the table.

  • There is no absolute value when it comes to art because our lived experience is the filter through which we experience art.

  • As an artist, creating a body of art that is meaningful takes so much of you. You have to be in tune with your most authentic self in order to do that kind of “making art”.

  • Children, no matter their race or socio-economic background need love, opportunities, health, education in order to thrive.


Be well + stay creative,

- MN 

Monday 07.27.20

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.


Thursday 07.16.20

How are you? No, really, how are you? | Prioritizing Emotional Health

By Matthew Neylon 

Last week, I was working on a state-wide survey with a group of peers and I proposed this question:

Prioitize the following order from 1 (most urgent) to 5 (least urgent):

❏    Preparing/learning to teach in various formats this year (online, hybrid, in-person with social distancing/CDC restrictions).

❏    Understanding COVID-19 and learning how to teach in a way that is healthy for you and your students amidst an ongoing global pandemic.

❏    Learning about systemic racism and how to navigate/facilitate conversations around race in the classroom while building a more equitable curriculum and environment.

❏    Focusing on how to keep your role/position from being cut and understanding how your schedule, space/classroom, courseload, and curriculum will be affected.

❏    Considering how to navigate current events, social topics, and political issues that are important to students and will surface in conversations/discussions during a presidential election year.

For a number of reasons, we didn’t include the question in the survey, but that only magnifies that point. How upsetting and unfortunate is it that we have to prioritize which things receive our time and energy because are so many heavy and extraordinary things happening in our world?

Some people feel very strongly about what is most important and have already begun moving swiftly in one (or several) directions. Others are exhausted, overwhelmed, and have lost hope. Many want to be moving in a direction, but life circumstances and employers are sending mixed signals and prioritizing multiple things at once, making it difficult to make any progress in one direction.

Here’s what I propose: start with you.

Do a quick scan, an internal audit, and determine (on any scale of your choosing) the following things:

- How is my physical health in this moment?

(What hurts, what aches, what parts of my body are doing better or worse than they were before MarchHow is my mental health in this moment?

- How is my mental health in this moment?

(How is my anxiety, stress, depression compared to how I was before COVID)

- How is my emotional health in this moment?

(What has been triggering me lately? Which social media posts are triggering an emotional reaction? What currently brings me joy?)

- How is my spiritual health in this moment?

(If spirituality is important to you, how grounded/connected do you currently feel to that spiritual being/practice currently?)


*Disclaimer* Please know, I am not a doctor, therapist, counselor, or medical professional. I am not here to give any type of health advice, other than to share what has worked for me. We are all capable of checking in with ourselves to a certain extent, after which, there are professionals in all of these areas to help us dive deeper, seek answers, and pursue healing.

Here’s what we know. The patterns and routines that fueled us before COVID-19 have been disrupted. Some of us have found other ways to fuel and nourish ourselves in certain areas, but many of us have not. Furthermore, you might have experienced some type of trauma, whether it was an isolated acute trauma like losing a loved one and not being able to be with them in the hospital or have a funeral, or a complex trauma over time, such as being in isolation with someone who is abusive. All of us are navigating the collective trauma of a global pandemic as well as the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and many more precious Black lives. I have so much to learn about trauma and how to engage in trauma-responsive teaching, but I have learned that trauma not only has immediate reactions such as confusion, sadness, anxiety, agitation, numbness, and dissociation (1), but can be defined as a harmful interruption of safety, agency, dignity, and belonging (2). I believe that the combination of art + neuroplasticity (3) provide a beautiful way to rebuild connections, trust, and safety, but we first need to understand that we have been through trauma, and that trauma has an effect on our limbic system, our emotions, our body, and our mind.

Many of us have realized at some point that we need help to process what we’ve been through and professional help can come in a myriad of ways. For some people, it looks like therapy or counseling, for others, it’s a life coach or mentor, many people look to a pastor, spiritual leader, partner, spouse, or friend. Regardless of whom you turn to for help, I think it is essential that we take stock of our personal health and figure out how to create an ecosystem that allows us to flourish as we take on all of the priorities we continue to be presented with.

While I am not a medical professional, I am an artist, teacher, and learner who has spent several years educating myself and others on how they can achieve mental/physical wellness through the arts. Over the past several months, I have had teachers, administrators, and friends ask me what I’m doing to navigate this difficult time and if I had to boil it down, I’m doing 3 things:

  1. Staying present by developing a daily practice of mindfulness/creativity.

  2. Regulating my emotions by identifying triggers and working through them in the moment.

  3. Building a support system of individuals that I can go to for specific needs.

Screen Shot 2020-07-15 at 12.52.23 PM

Develop a daily practice of mindfulness/creativity. Just like physical health, mental/emotional health is something you need to work on daily and real results reveal themselves when you make small deposits of time and effort consistently. I use the Headspace App each morning in addition to a devotional, time of meditation/prayer, and about 10 minutes to journal/doodle/write song lyrics/list things I’m grateful for/write down things that inspire me. I know what you’re thinking, “Matt, I don’t have time to journal!” Yea, neither did I, but I had time to be stressed, anxious, and frustrated. When you spend enough time being stressed, anxious, and frustrated, you reach a point where you’re fed up and somehow, you find the energy to pull yourself out of that paralyzed state to do something about it. Some people sign up for a race (the old adage “move a muscle, change your mood” has quite a bit of truth to it) and other people learn to bake bread or cross stitch but I would argue that artists need to create. For me, that is songwriting and drawing. For you, I have no idea what it is, but set a timer, do it for 7 minutes today, and 8 minutes the next time (could be tomorrow but I’m not holding you to it) and 9 minutes the next time, and pretty soon, you have found the time and you have a daily practice of mindfulness/creativity. I use mindfulness and creativity interchangeably here because to be creative you almost always have to be present.

Emotion wheel

Regulate your emotions. This year is (and will continue to be) a roller coaster of emotions. I know, it’s cliché, but it’s true. We can either be a victim of our emotions, and continue to be triggered by things people say, post, do, and don’t do, or we can take 25 seconds when we’re triggered and identify the emotion and what triggered that response. This is not new or groundbreaking information, in fact, if I had to reference where I learned this, it would be from watching Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood in the 90s. For 912 episodes, Fred Rogers taught me about emotions and even to this day, when I feel myself getting upset, I have to look at the emotion wheel on my refrigerator, breathe, and consciously remember to ask myself:

“What is the emotion am I feeling?”

“What caused this emotional reaction?”

“Do I want to choose this emotion, or can/should I choose another emotion right now?”

“Do I need to respond right now?” (probably not)

“How do I want to respond?” (write it down but DON’T talk, text, or send a message)

“Will a piece of chocolate help me in this moment?”

Ok, so the last question isn’t necessary, in fact, all the questions might not be necessary for you, they’re just my way of walking down my emotional ladder, and giving myself the space/time to process before reacting. It’s putting me back in the driver’s seat of my emotions and putting words to feelings. As artists, we feel. In fact, we feel deeper than most, but as teachers and leaders, our words and actions hold weight, so we can’t react out of emotion. We must learn how to manage our emotions and model that for students so they can learn the same. Honor your emotions, create space for them, but don’t let them drive you somewhere you don’t want to go. With time to think/process, we can use our emotion as fuel to create and drive strategic, impactful, artful change.

Build a support system for specific needs. Maybe you have a great support system, maybe you don’t. Pre-COVID, I thought I had a good support system. There were lots of people in my life who cared about me, but I was often run to the wrong person for the wrong thing, or depending too deeply on one person to the point that it was burning him or her out. During COVID, I started to identify who I could turn to when I needed specific things. Who were the specific people that I could dialogue openly and honestly with about race? Who could I depend on to talk to about my fears/anxieties around my job in a safe/productive way? Who were the right people to talk with about my health? The list continued, and I realized that when I had a specific person for a specific need, I spent less time scared, angry, and frustrated, because I just needed to pick up the phone and call the right person; the person who was mental and emotionally healthy enough to help me work toward solutions.

Obviously, each relationship is a 2-way street, and we shouldn’t burn out any one individual in our life. Too many times, we rely on one person for all of our mental/emotional needs and it begins to strain the relationship or put unrealistic expectations on that person. I hope you’ll take a few minutes to think about those people you have in your phone contacts who are healthy and could be a great support to you, but you haven’t reached out to in a while. Instead of a fantasy football team this year, build your roster of support and give them roles in your mind, so you’re ready to process various issues as they arise. When you say something racially problematic, or have to deal with microaggressions, whom can you turn to who will help you productively process that situation? When a student or class doesn’t go as expected, who will encourage you and not let you slide down a path of self-hate? When you are scared about work, who can you talk to who will be safe space? People in our support system can be the the best medicine; in fact, they can often be the quick-release gel tablet to help us manage emotional triggers and stressors quickly and efficiently.

I don’t have all the answers, but about a year ago, I was in a dark place--frustrated, stressed, and at the end of my rope. These three things not only pulled me out of that place of exhausting and paralyzing fear, anger, and anxiety, but they helped me understand myself in a way that has made leading, managing crisis, and dealing with the stressors of 2020 much more manageable.

You are an artist. Feel. Feel deeply. But don’t forget to give those feelings a name, a place, and an expiration date. Hand them an eviction notice if they’re holding you hostage and give them a paintbrush or a pencil if they can drive you creatively. Let them reveal a true and authentic perspective through the art you create, but do not let them hijack your joy, your classroom, or your relationships this year.

Once we understand ourselves and our emotions, we can begin to do the work of understanding others. We can begin to widen our lens from self, to the context of our community, and eventually, to understanding our place in the world. We can start to balance the important work of learning to teach online/hybrid, navigate complex conversations with our students around race, identity, politics, and social topics, figure out how to navigate a new space, schedule, curriculum, or role, and still have the capacity to care for those around us.

In my next post, I sit down with 2 entrepreneurs of color who built one of the most impressive and vast libraries of online art content. Their story of creativity, passion, and the memories (good and bad) of their childhood art teachers.

Be well,

- MN



Wednesday 07. 8.20

Where do we start? My Journey of Whiteness in Art Education

By Matthew Neylon

Hey there - my name is Matt and I am so glad you’re here. As an artist and teacher, you bring so much to this space and I hope that this month’s blog posts will encourage, empower, and equip you for what’s ahead.

It was exactly one year ago that I was on a roadtrip with a person of color, when he began playing a podcast featuring Robin DiAngelo. Having taught in a school that was nearly all-black on the south side of Chicago, I thought I was acutely aware of racial issues and leagues ahead of my white colleagues. In her book White Fragility (a must-read for white educators) Diangelo explains that it is often most difficult to expose privilege and our part in the system of racial inequality to white liberals. After about 30 minutes of listening, this white liberal began to get emotional as the podcast exposed my privlidge and whiteness. I immediately countered with statements about “my immigrant great-grandparents” and “my modest upbringing” and “my unique urban teaching experiences”. I soon learned how much work I had to do and the last year has been a frustrating, emotional, and necessary journey.

As art teachers, many of us have celebrated BIPOC artists, we have shown their work in our classrooms, and invited artists of color to speak with our students. We have taken students to museums and engaged in multiculutral experiences in our schools. We want to believe we are not part of the problem, we are part of the solution. After reading, listening, and learning I have had to humble myself and identify the scope of the real problems around race. While I have had a passion for children of color and social justice as an idea, I have said and done things that are racially problematic, I avoided difficult conversations around race, I have failed to learn the systemic ways racism has deeply permeated the arts, and I have centered whiteness in many ways that I didn’t even realize.

We are artists. And as artists, we need to see color. If we can see color on the palette and understand the nuance and importance of each specific shade, we have to be able to see it in the artists and students with whom we interact. The time has come to see the color of pain, the color of privilege, and the lack of color/representation in the arts. From our most prestigious US opera and orchestra companies, to the boards, curators, and executives of art museums, to those of us who have been teaching art for many years and the pre-service art educators about to enter the workforce, there is an extreme lack of representation and we need to see that. Once we begin to understand our whiteness, to realize our privilege, and to reveal the ways the art community has centered whiteness for years, only then will we be able to zoom out and begin to understand the context of our field as we work toward change.

I am ashamed to admit that, although I had grown up being exposed to BIPOC artists, teaching in a predominantly black school, and celebrating artists of color, it took a white person (Robin DiAngelo) writing a book called White Fragility for me to truly begin unpacking and understanding my whiteness. Why is that? How had I centered my experience and compartmentalized the black experience so much that it took Robin DiAngelo shaking me out of my confort to realize the breadth of the problem of race? When we believe that we are part of the solution without fully understanding the problem, the only problem we’ve solved is the problem of our own discomfort. I still mess up and I will undoubtedly say problematic things over the next several posts. But much like an artist has to to be willing to hear and apply critique, I have to be humble and willing to learn. The more skilled the artist, the more nuanced critique they can digest and understand, so no matter where you are on your journey, if you are a white educator, I hope you will be open to critique and eager to receive more nuanced critique as you learn more.

We find ourselves in such an important and historic time with artists and teachers fighting for their mental, emotional, and physical health every day. Simultaneously, we are wrestling with the emotional and complex work of understanding race. A renewed national awareness of racial injustice and systems of oppresssion has led me to accelerate my own understanding of privlidge, race, racial inequality, and social justice over the past two months and I am realizing how much work I have yet to do. As an administrator and teacher, my days are filled with learning, responding and supporting my community, while making plans for the multiple teaching scenarios we may encounter in this unprecedented school year.

As I wrestled with what our NAEA community needs and deserves right now, I realized we need to understand whiteness, unpack intersectional identity, and amplify the voices of artists and educators of color. I reached out to colleagues from a wide variety of racial/professional backgrounds and asked if they would be willing to discuss their thoughts and resources on intersectionality, identity, education, and art. I was overhwelmed and humbled by the rich responses and engaging conversations that they offered. I hope you will join me in learning from and honoring their stories by reading and accelerating your own journey with humility and urgnecy as we all work to build a new type studio that is responsive, healing, and seeks justice for all.

This is not a monologue, this is a dialogue and it is only the beginning. Please comment, respond, reach out, and most importantly, help to respectfully educate eachother. There is no better time to be an educator than at a time where we all have so much to share and so much to learn.

In my next post, I will tackle what makes a mentally and emotionally healthy art teacher, how we can unpack white privilege in a way that is honest, authentic, and humble, and how the understanding of self can lead to an understanding of others.

Great resources are never far out of reach, here are a few to get started:

White Fragility (book)

Whiteness in Art Education by Dr. Joni Boyd Acuff, Ph.D. (editorial article)

Are these diverse and women artists a part of your curriculum? (list)

White Lies: Unraveling Whiteness in the Elementary Art Curriculum (article)

Stamped from the Beginning (book)

- MN