Local art teacher takes her job outside the classroom

Friday, March 31, 2006
Ann Swanson of Jackson concentrated as she wove using a basic tabby stitch during weaving class at The Artist Studio in Cape Girardeau Wednesday. Swanson plans to use her weaving for a throw pillow. (Don Frazier)

A year ago, Cape Girardeau Central High School art teacher Judy Barks-Westrich had a vision of opening up the world of art to adults who usually shy away from the artistic pursuits.

Westrich wanted to take the skills she developed teaching teenagers inside the classroom and use them to school hesitant adults. Her approach -- there are no boundaries, experimentation brings out the inner artist.

At open houses and art shows, proud parents would ponder their children's artistic skill, and wonder how they might create something artistic, said Westrich.

"I always wanted to do a high school class, so to speak, for my parents, or just people in the community," said Westrich.

So the teacher of 34 years struck out on a business venture to start her own studio, where she would give classes in everything from weaving to basketry to paper-making to painting. One year later, the studio is still there, and Westrich still loves teaching her adult pupils.

Her basic approach is simple -- there are no limitations. She encourages her pupils to try out things, to make their creations their own -- and most of all, to enjoy creating.

"I'm not trying to teach people to become professionals," said Westrich Wednesday night as she looked over her pupils and their off-the-loom weaving projects. "All they have to do is please themselves."

Westrich stresses the requirements to take her classes are none. Pupils need no art experience or raw artistic talent to learn the various art forms, she said. They only need the desire to learn and an open mind.

The lack of prerequisite artistic skill is exactly what attracted Deb Ebaugh to classes at The Artist Studio. Ebaugh had an interest in art, but was timid about taking workshops because of her self-perceived lack of skill.

Ebaugh works alongside Westrich as a teacher at Central -- not in the arts, of course. She heard about the classes, took one and never looked back. Now she's an art junkie, having taken all of Westrich's offerings.

"And I need to take them again," jokes Ebaugh as she puts the finishing touches on her weaving project.

The appeal for Ebaugh is Westrich's gentle, encouraging style. She doesn't praise all the work -- if it's bad Westrich will say so. But she does it in a constructive way.

"It was really scary when I first came in," said Ebaugh. "I didn't want to screw up. Not it's so much fun and so relaxing."

Trial and error and going with the flow are big factors in Westrich's approach.

"You just have to let it evolve, and sometimes it evolves in a totally different direction than you originally conceived," said Westrich.

Westrich also encourages her pupils to learn from each other, taking pieces of others' style and incorporating that into their own unique blend of art.

For Anne Swanson, the skills she's learning in the weaving class have a very practical application. She'll use her new skills to make Christmas gifts for the hard-to-shop-for members of her family.

"It's been an awful lot of fun, and it's inspired me to do other things on my own," Swanson said.

Westrich plans to keep teaching outside the classroom for an indefinite period. Her next workshops coming up are on basketry and acrylic painting, with one on paper-making coming up this summer.


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