Teaching Art Lessons, Life Lessons
It’s amazing how many memories two local art professionals—Abril (Borrego) Warner and Jerry Walters—can recall over a cup of coffee! Recently, the two MAC art instructors sat down to talk art, their teaching careers, their students, and their student-mentor relationship.
As an art major, Abril was a regular in Jerry’s classes in 1996-98. Today, she is MAC’s full-time Art Instructor. In addition to her AA with a Fine Arts emphasis, her educational background includes a BFA in Painting with an Art History emphasis and MFA in Painting with an emphasis in Abstraction. Why teaching? “It called me,” Abril says. “Any time I have been offered a job; it has been in teaching. At MAC, it was in Fine Arts, and I found I enjoyed it and was effective, so here I am.”
In some ways, Abril followed in Jerry’s footsteps. She credits Jerry for “making art real” for her. “I always was creative whether it was making art such as collages or paintings or writing poetry. My maternal grandfather and both my parents encouraged intellectual pursuits, including the arts. So, I had support from them,” explains Abril, a recipient of the Outstanding Student in Art while a MAC student. “Art History class is where everything seemed to come together for me. Jerry made art bigger than life for me and made me believe I could make art. The art space itself where we had classes contributed to that ‘can do’ feeling. It felt like a real artist’s studio—a place where you created and painted with others who shared your art interests. Jerry roamed the studio and shared honest, concise explanations of our work—where it was and how it might evolve—and challenged us to expand our ideas and concepts. He had a few mantras. One was “Do not quit” which, with some added discussion, made us realize that most often there was more to our art than we realized. Another was ‘You have to make it, not just think it.’ In addition to helping us understand concepts and principles, this notion and his critiques encouraged us. Jerry made art accessible for me. He was an instructor and a mentor to me. I admired his way of organizing things to make art understandable and his passion for storytelling to convey lessons. Jerry has greatly influenced not only my own views of art but also my foundations for teaching art to my own students. I endeavor to open my students’ eyes to the art world and to make art accessible to them just as Jerry did for me. It’s mostly the same audience, just a different time.”
Abril Warner in the Art Studio
When asked what art trends have emerged since she was a MAC student, Abril says, “One trend is technology. For several years, I have advocated for Graphic Design to be a sector of our Fine Arts program. Student interest is the primary motivation for my advocacy, and it assists with recruitment for our Art Department. Last year, the department was granted some drawing tablets and a computer lab in the Fine Arts building, so there is now a starting step in this direction.”
While Abril sees the value and contributions of technology, she incorporates some ‘old-school’ lessons, too. She says, “Handwriting is a valuable human skill set. My current students are required to hand-write notes in my lecture classes. There are no screens blocking our eyes from each other. Our active class discussions are valuable. In the studio, technology has broadened our design language, but it is not the only method for creating or developing ideas. Students who have experience with drawing software can utilize and apply their knowledge in several classes, including 2D Design and Color Theory.”
When technology, art, and education are combined, new possibilities exist. Abril shares her personal experience, “Technology made it possible for me to earn my master’s while working, running a business, and remaining local. Since I completed all my undergraduate work in traditional settings, I had a sincere, disciplined, and practical foundation for my studio practices. If I had not, the online studio classes would have been terribly disorienting. The benefit for me was having international classmates and instructors giving me feedback.”
After dedicating 36 years to MAC art students, Jerry retired from full-time work in 2005. He reflects on his decision to accept the MAC teaching position, “I was teaching in Kansas and really had no idea where Flat River was. After conversations with Dean Leet and Dr. Castor, I decided to at least visit Flat River. The idea of a new college and the opportunity to have a hand in designing the new art spaces were enticing, so I accepted the offer. One funny memory is before we moved here, I brought my wife, Linda, her mother, and my mother to ‘see’ where I was going to teach. When we arrived, I was shocked to see the college building had burned to the ground and nobody told me! So, here I was showing my wife, my mother, and mother-in-law the remains of a charred building. In 1969, I never guessed MAC would be where I would spend the rest of my teaching career.”
Jerry Walters Enjoys Retirement with His Dog, Lucy
In addition to his primary role as Art Instructor, he also served as night school dean for several years. During his career, his colleagues honored him with two Outstanding Faculty Awards, and he was recognized by the Alumni Association. He’s a little nostalgic as he recalls, “Time passes quickly. It just doesn’t seem that long ago when I enjoyed the camaraderie of my colleagues like Ralph Dickenson, the Rosenstengels, Mary Helen Bloom, George Hampton, John Kekec, Don Barton, Barb Bockenkamp, Frank Leet, Steve Castle, Terry Hovis, Bob Sechrest, Hal Loughary, and so many more. We enjoyed being together in the community, on the golf course, or at a ballgame. We were a great bunch.”
As for his career highlights, he says, “Boy, that’s really difficult, but here are three. The first is being able to design a totally unique art space—which simulated a real professional art space—when the North College Center was built. As a result, it definitely increased an interest in art in our area and our enrollment in art classes reached new highs. Next, our Student Art Shows proved to be even more rewarding than I expected for the kids. When their art projects were set up as a professional art show and viewed by community members, students, and faculty, it was mind-blowing for them. Some even sold their art. Their confidence grew and it showed in their future artwork. And, outside-the-classroom activities like art trips and travel abroad were so gratifying. Whether it was a museum trip to St. Louis, Kansas City, Chicago, or to Europe, I was overjoyed to see the amazement in my students as they were able to see world-famous art masterpieces and enjoy cultural experiences that reached beyond the Lead Belt.”
Jerry Walters' Art Exhibit Show Poster
Jerry’s former students and community members remember him as someone who touched their lives as a teacher, travel guide, and mentor for his trips abroad. “In 1981, I organized our first trip abroad to Italy. Over about 20 years, our groups of students and community members traveled to many European countries such as Ireland, France, Switzerland, England, and Germany. Though art was the primary focus of these trips, many friendships were formed. The inter-generational dynamics of the community members and students were a learning experience in itself. Years later, many have told me I am responsible for their love for travel.” In retirement, Jerry regularly hears from former students—some from the 1970s. He is a regular at MAC basketball games, continues to travel, and is “pet parent” to Lucy, a rescue dog from the Farmington Pet Adoption Center.
Though Abril and Jerry have taught many classroom art lessons, they are equally as proud of the ‘life’s lessons’ in which they had a hand. They agree that art is a vehicle to teach and explore little ‘life lessons.’ Abril says, “On a trip, I recall asking the students where they wanted to have dinner. I was not surprised when they mentioned fast food restaurants. We selected a nice sit-down restaurant and had a wonderful experience ordering from a menu, trying new kinds of foods, and having engaging conversations while putting down our phones during our meal. These are all indeed life lessons!” Jerry adds, “That’s 100% correct. In addition, art connects us with history and teaches us other life lessons like taking risks, solving problems, and communicating with others.”
Abril Warner and Jerry Walters MAC Instructors
As educators, Abril and Jerry derived satisfaction from their work with their students. Building relationships is one of the most gratifying rewards, and it is evident they have positively impacted their students. Often, these esteemed MAC art instructors are stopped in town and praised by former students with comments such as “I can’t look at art without thinking of my art classes and you” or “I’ll never forget the trip we took to Chicago or the St. Louis Art Museum.” Teaching art at MAC has created unforgettable memories for Abril and Jerry as well as their students.