Friday, May 7, 2010
Shaker art teacher shares his craft with students
When Dan Whitely was 23, his father told him he would make a great teacher. Whitely wasn't interested. He had just finished a five-year bachelor's program at Cleveland Institute of Art and was freelancing as an illustrator and graphic designer. He was just starting on his path as an artist, and he didn't think he should take on the responsibility of guiding younger artists on theirs.
"Dad," he remembers saying, "I can't even figure out my own palette, let alone anybody else's."
Flash forward 27 years. Whitely, his salt-and-pepper hair the only sign that he's closing in on 50, has definitely figured out his palette. He works in a studio behind his Bainbridge house, built for him by a patron (whose identity he has never revealed). He has sold paintings to individuals and done work on commission for the Cleveland Clinic, Nestle and KeyCorp, among others.
He's also helped fill the palettes of hundreds of students at Shaker Heights High School, where he is in his ninth year as a teacher. That's right: It turns out that this time, father did know best. It just took a few years for Whitely to feel comfortable with the idea of working with fledgling artists.
"There's a certain vulnerability that you have to protect and nurture in the classroom," he said last week, while waiting for students to arrive for portfolio class.
That nurturing begins with the classroom, which is actually a studio, filled with easels and art supplies and lit by special bulbs Whitely installed to make the light consistent all day. Student work fills shelves and space; along one wall, tender self-portraits gaze out in silent accord with Whitely's notion of vulnerability.
From this studio, dozens of students have gone on to study at prestigious art schools, winning places with portfolios they put together during Whitely's demanding senior-year seminar. One of his students was named a Presidential Scholar in 2008 and chose Whitely as the teacher who had the greatest influence on her. He went with her to the ceremonies in Washington, D.C.
In his four years as head of the art department, Whitely has reorganized things. "When I came here, the art classes looked more like filler play time," he said. "The whole curriculum wasn't done in a sequential way."
He added classes and restructured them into levels, so that beginners were no longer taking advanced classes. During school breaks, he has taken art students to Greece, Italy, Spain, France and Japan. "We kind of set this up as a mini college of art and design," he said.
It's all to prepare them for what they will find when they do get to a college of art and design. "I'm teaching them the way I wish I would have been taught," he said. "It's more artist to artist than teacher to student." In that spirit, he brings his own work in for them to critique and has let them work in his studio at home. Last summer, he taught a painting class there that many of his Shaker students took.
"I could live in that studio," said Arielle Wen, a senior headed to Columbus College of Art & Design. "It's like a house."
Whitely laughed. "Have you ever seen one of those movies about a serial killer, where they go into the basement, and all of a sudden you see all this stuff covering the walls, to show how obsessed they are?" he said. "That's the corner of my studio. That's my sketchbook. I just pin everything up and work from that."
His students, however, have to keep a real sketchbook, and in the portfolio class they produce 16 to 20 pieces through the year.
"I've worked so hard in this class," said Anna Oberfeld, who is going to Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore next year.
"He's very demanding," Wen said. "He's always saying, 'You can do better,' or 'You need to tweak it some more.' If I didn't have him pushing, I probably would have stopped by the wayside."
"I'm tough on them," Whitely said. "I know they have nicknames for me. Some I know. Some I don't want to know."
But they also have fun. Every year, Whitely dresses as a different artist for his faculty yearbook photo, with his students helping with makeup. This year, he was Andy Warhol, and the gallery on his wall includes Whitely as Frida Kahlo -- complete with uni-brow -- and Sister Wendy.
This week, Whitely is taking his students to yet another level, with the Shaker art department's first public group show. Students will curate and mount the show, "Art Exposed," opening Friday at Shaker Heights Public Library. Whitely expects to have more than 200 students participating, in jewelry, ceramics, painting and drawing, sculpture and mixed media. The opening, from 7 to 9 p.m., includes refreshments and music by a Shaker string quartet. The show will continue through Friday, May 28, at the main library, 16500 Van Aken Blvd., in Shaker Heights.